I thank the Deputies for allowing me to report back to the House at an early stage on the amendments introduced to the Bill on Committee Stage in the Seanad. Before detailing the changes, I wish briefly to reiterate the reasons we are introducing the Bill.
The Government's objective in bringing the Bill to the House is to streamline management procedures and provide for the efficient operation of the new criminal courts of justice complex when it comes into operation later this month and the Circuit Criminal Court commences hearing cases. Given the scale of the new complex, it is essential that a proper custody management system is put in place. In the interest of all court users, this is best managed by one agency, the Irish Prison Service. It also avoids duplication of effort by An Garda Síochána and frees up its members for operational functions.
The Bill, by providing a unified staff structure, builds on the modernisation and streamlined management structures introduced over the past decade by the Courts Service. This measure is extremely timely in light of the current financial situation and the need to ensure maximum efficiency in the deployment of limited resources, including staff. The provisions in the Bill, while in the first instance applying to the new complex, can, in the future, apply to other court venues, as appropriate.
On Committee Stage in the Seanad I introduced three related amendments to the Bill. Two of these amendments were to section 5, which deals with definitions. An amendment to section 11 deals with the functions of the holding area officer. The first amendment expands the definition of a holding area officer to include a member in charge in a Garda station. The second defines, for the sake of clarity, who a member in charge is in the context of the Bill. The final amendment expands the functions of the holding area officer in section 11 of the Bill.
These changes are included to take account of the fact that from time to time prisoners may be brought to a local Garda station and held in custody there, pending their court appearance. This tends to happen, particularly in rural locations, where no holding cells may be available in a small courthouse. This circumstance is given a legal basis in section 1 of the Prisons Act 1956. Once the prisoner is in the Garda station, as Deputies will be aware, there is a designated member in charge. This is true for every Garda station. Under the 1987 Garda custody regulations, the member in charge has certain obligations and responsibilities for any person in custody in the station.
In order to distinguish between the existing role of a member in charge and that of a holding area officer, I have introduced an amendment to section 11 of the Bill. When a prisoner, for the purposes outlined in section 7 of the Bill — namely, for temporary custody purposes facilitating attendance at court — is placed in a Garda station, the amendment confers on the designated member in charge the powers and functions of a holding area officer. The effect of this change ensures that within a Garda station the member in charge will always have the duties and responsibilities of a holding area officer. It is important to inform Deputies that this refers to "within a station only" and not outside a station.
When a member in charge is handing over his or her duties to another member in charge, for example, at the end of a shift, all his or her duties and responsibilities automatically transfer to the new member in charge. The amendment provides that his or her holding area officer responsibilities also transfer automatically, and this will facilitate the smooth day-to-day management of custody within Garda stations.
The amendment will also allow a member in charge to delegate or transfer holding area officer duties and responsibilities to another Garda station. The reason this amendment has been introduced is twofold.
In the first place, the member in charge, while having all the duties and responsibilities of a holding area officer, may not be the garda physically looking after the detention area. This would be the case, for example, in stations in which several gardaí were on duty. In such circumstances, it is important that the garda in the custody area be authorised to be a holding area officer and be responsible for the functions and responsibilities attached to that role. Allowing the transfer of holding area officer powers from the member in charge to another garda is important for the management and smooth operations of the provisions of the Bill within a Garda station. A good example of this is when the member in charge is a male garda and the prisoner in temporary custody is female. In such circumstances, it would be appropriate to transfer holding area officer functions to a female garda for the purposes of a search. It should be noted that transferring holding area officer duties and responsibilities does not relieve the member in charge of those duties and responsibilities. The member in charge will always automatically have those duties and responsibilities when a prisoner is in his or her custody.
To sum up, within a station a number of gardaí may have holding area officer duties and responsibilities. Such responsibilities always will apply to the member in charge and may also apply to the garda who originally is handed the prisoner under section 6 of the Bill, plus any garda to whom the member in charge may transfer or may delegate functions. This only applies where the temporary custody provided for under a section of the Bill is taking place within a Garda station. It is worth stating that when the temporary transfer of custody of a prisoner for the purposes of a court appearance takes place outside of a Garda station, the garda taking temporary custody of a prisoner is the holding area officer. Under the Bill's current provisions, that garda cannot transfer his or her holding area officer duties and responsibilities to another garda unless authorised to so do by a superior officer. I consider this to be an important provision to retain because the circumstances in which a garda would take temporary custody of a prisoner outside a Garda station for the purposes of the Bill should be limited, given that I consider it appropriate that the transfer of holding area officer functions should only be permissible when authorised by a more senior officer. I hope the House will agree that the amendments introduced will strengthen the provisions of the Bill in respect of its operation within a Garda station and I commend the Bill to the House.