Adjournment Debate

Passport Applications

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter. This is the third year in a row that there are thousands of people waiting for passports at this time of the year. They are unsure whether they will be able to travel. These are people who applied in time and were thorough and organised in making their application but they either get their passports at the last minute or cannot contact the Passport Office. If they try to contact the Passport Office by telephone they are left hanging on for hours or, in some cases, cut off. They have no method of following up their applications.

I do not speak on behalf of people who are disorganised or apply for a passport a few hours before they are due to travel. Until three years ago, Members of the Oireachtas could make applications on behalf of their constituents and have their passports in a few days. I am not asking to have that facility restored. It would not be needed if the service was as efficient as it should be. This is not the case.

Citizens travel for business and family reasons, for holidays and, all too often, for work. They travel at all times of the year but particularly at this time. In the last few hours two queries came to my office. Two young people have got jobs abroad and applied for their passports at the beginning of June. One expects to fly to Singapore this weekend to take up a job there. Although he applied for his passport at the beginning of June he is unable to get in contact with the Passport Office or to find out if his passport will be available in time. They are both in trepidation. They fear they may have to cancel their flights and lose their job opportunities.

There are two passport offices in the country, one in Dublin and one in Cork. The people of the western seaboard are especially disadvantaged in this regard. They apply in plenty of time but then do not hear from the Passport Office, cannot contact anyone and are left wondering if they will have their passport in time. They have to come to Dublin, join a queue in the Passport Office and often even wait overnight because they are told to collect the passport the following day. This is not good enough. Could there not be a facility somewhere in the west?

I wrote to the Tánaiste on this issue a number of weeks ago. He replied that the current demand for passports is unprecedented and that the commentary on some of the delays is inaccurate or overstated. Like every Deputy in the House, I know the accounts of delays are neither overstated nor inaccurate. I plead with the Minister to address this issue urgently.

On behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I thank Deputy O'Mahony for raising this important issue. I know he has a sustained interest in the issue. He has raised it a number of times. The matter is of interest to many rural Deputies.

There are currently 52,712 passport applications in the system being processed across the passport offices in Molesworth Street, Balbriggan, Cork and London. This figure has been reduced by approximately 4,000 over the past week. The number of applications received so far this year shows an increase in demand of 10% in comparison to this time in 2009. The figures for 2010 are not a reliable comparison due to the impact of last year's industrial action. Whereas the exact reason for this increase in demand is unclear, it is noticeable that passport applications for children and passports for the over 65s are running at higher than the same period in the last few years. Discussions with customers have also suggested that much of the demand relates to last minute travel plans made for holiday reasons.

The Passport Service received an average of 3,600 explications per day last week which is down from the recent previous average of over 4,000 applications per day. This reduction provides some evidence that passport demand is beginning to level off, in which case it is expected that the number of applications in the system will decrease over the coming weeks. However, this reduction is still not reflected in the unprecedented demand for passports at short notice.

The Passport Service is currently receiving 350 people per day on average coming to the public office seeking passports within a period of less than ten days. On 27 June, over 400 people submitted applications for a short notice service at the public office in Molesworth Street alone. In the context of these very large numbers of customers using the public counter service, it is not always possible, despite the best efforts of the Passport Office staff to be of assistance and to accommodate all requests for a short notice service. Citizens are advised that the public counter services should only be used in cases of genuine emergency. Priority at the public counters will be given to those who have a necessity to travel for reasons of family emergency, that is, necessitated by the death, illness or welfare of a family member.

It should also be stressed that to protect the integrity of the system and the quality of the passport, the Passport Service cannot provide standard passports within a single day. The shortest turnaround time available is three working days for applications received over the public counter, accompanied by proof of travel, other than in cases of genuine emergency.

There has been some media commentary on the scale of the delays and some of this has been inaccurate, notwithstanding what Deputy O'Mahony says. Whereas it is very much regretted that it is currently taking up to 15 working days to process applications submitted through Passport Express, this represents a delay of five working days and not the many weeks suggested by some media commentators. Equally, over 70% of applications submitted on the island come through the express services and, accordingly, the number of citizens experiencing weeks of delay has also been overstated in places. On the basis of current processing I am confident that this turnaround time will be reduced over the coming weeks and will return to normal levels.

Priority will continue to be given to applications made through the Passport Express service and Irish-based customers are strongly encouraged to use that service. It is regrettable that, due to the overwhelming number of applications, those submitted through other channels, that is, through the ordinary post system or from Ireland's overseas missions, etc., are currently taking over six weeks to be processed. During the peak summer period, application processing times for these services can lengthen.

Notice of the current extended turnaround time and its likely duration has been published on the Passport Service website, www.passport.ie. The Passport Office has also informed An Post so that customers can be advised of the situation at the point of application.

In January, a series of changes to passport application procedures for first time adult applicants and those reporting passports lost or stolen was introduced. The changes, which were introduced to combat increasing number of fraudulently obtained passports, required that applicants in these categories submit additional documentary evidence to establish identity and entitlement to an Irish passport. The additional documents sought include forms of photo-identification, proof of use of the name of the applicant and proof of residence at the applicant's address. Particularly in the light of recent high profile international incidents relating to passport fraud, the measures were introduced to protect the integrity and international reputation of the Irish passport. Whereas these new measures have had some impact on the time to process applications, the impact primarily relates to only a small subset of the overall application demand. Additionally, I should stress that they have been implemented with a degree of common sense balanced with the overall need to protect against identity theft and passport fraud.

From the beginning of April the Department took on additional temporary staff to work in the Passport Service. There are now 85 additional temporary staff in place, and they have been trained in passport processing. In conjunction with seasonal overtime, I expect the Passport Service to be in a position to bring return times back to normal levels over the coming weeks.

I again express my regret at the delays being experienced by customers of the Passport Service and would strongly appeal to the public to assist the Passport Service by checking the validity of their passports before making bookings to travel abroad. A valid passport should be the first item on any check-list when considering foreign travel

Notwithstanding that, I will bring the points raised and suggestions made by Deputy O'Mahony to the attention of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Electoral Reform

I am disappointed that the Minister is not present to clarify the situation, which I raised this morning on the Order of Business. I pointed out that the figures he had outlined in the Bill published this morning were unconstitutional. The figure of 152 Deputies, which the legislation would allow, would be unconstitutional in light of the preliminary census figures published by the Central Statistics Office. The Minister has since admitted his error and is now talking about a minimum number of 153 Deputies. I am surprised the Minister did not wait and publish the Bill when the CSO figures had been published. He would then have got his figures right.

According to the preliminary census figures, the current ratio of TDs to population is 1:27,598. The Constitution provides for a ratio of between 1:20,000 and 1:30,000. The ratio for the 2007 election following the 2006 census was 1:25,541. We are representing more people than we did following the 2007 election. The total number of Members has been 166 since the 1981 election when 1,213,052 fewer people lived in the State. Following that election there was one TD for every 20,290 people in the country. Our representative duties have increased significantly.

The Electoral Acts 2007 and 2009 provided that the constituency commission would set the number of TDs within a range of 164 to 168. This time the Minister proposes in his Bill to give the new commission a range of 152 to 160. That gives the commission massive leeway. The limit on the number of TDs is supposed to be set by law, not by an external body to whom the function is delegated. I have my doubts about that aspect of the legislation. We do not know that the commission will opt for the upper end of the range. The Minister is giving the commission a great deal of leeway and he is coming close to the line because if the number of Members is set at 153, he will come close to breaching the constitutional ratio of 1:30,000. The census website highlights that between 2009 and 2010 the population increased by 20,000. Our population is increasing annually and if the Minister presses ahead with this legislation and the number of TDs is set at 153 for the next election, it could quickly become unconstitutional.

He needs to think this through because he is doing this for the wrong reasons. He is talking about political reform but reducing the number of TDs will mean fewer Members to hold the Government accountable or to represent the people, which will diminish our democracy. At the same time, he proposes to get rid of the Seanad, the safety net we have under our bicameral system. He will cut the Seanad and the number of TDs, which will mean less accountability and less democracy. That is not political reform. He has not thought this through and he is diminishing our democracy. He needs to go back to the drawing board. What is the updated position?

I thank the Deputy on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for raising the issue. She has an interest in this and she has expertise in the area, on which I compliment her.

The Minister published the Electoral (Amendment) Bill earlier and it contains three important electoral reforms. It amends the terms of reference of a constituency commission in section 6(2)(a) of the Electoral Act 1997 by providing that the number of members of the Dáil, subject to the relevant provisions of the Constitution, shall be not less than 152 and not more than 160. It provides for an amendment to be made to section 39(2) of the Electoral Act 1992 to provide that the writ for a Dáil by-election shall be issued within six months of the vacancy occurring and it provides for amendments to the Electoral Act 1997 to provide for a reduction in the spending limit at a presidential election from €1.3 million to €750,000 and for a reduction in the maximum amount that can be reimbursed to a candidate at a presidential election from €260,000 to €200,000.

While the provisions in the Bill will alter the terms of reference of a constituency commission, the overriding constitutional provisions relating to the number of Members of the Dáil and equality of representation will remain unchanged. Article 16.2.2° of the Constitution provides that Dáil representation "shall not be fixed at less than one member for each thirty thousand of the population, or at more than one member for each twenty thousand of the population." Article 16.2.3° of the Constitution provides that, "The ratio between the number of members to be elected at any time for each constituency and the population of each constituency, as ascertained at the last preceding census, shall, so far as it is practicable, be the same throughout the country."

The CSO published preliminary results from the 2011 census earlier and the results show an increase in the population to more than 4.5 million. In applying the constitutional provisions to this new population figure, the minimum number of TDs that can be recommended by a constituency commission, subject to enactment of the Bill by the Oireachtas, will be 153, while the maximum number will be 160.

A number of commitments are made in the programme for Government in the electoral reform area. These include significantly reducing the size of the Oireachtas and reducing the number of TDs following the publication of the 2011 census of population. The proposals in the Bill regarding the terms of reference of a constituency commission respond to this commitment. The Minister is required by law to establish a constituency commission to review Dáil and European Parliament constituencies upon the publication of preliminary census results by the CSO. This legal obligation on the Minister presents an opportunity to ensure the reduction in the number of Members of the Dáil can have effect as early as possible. The Minister indicated earlier that he will set in train the establishment of a constituency commission, which will report within three months of publication of the final census results, due in March 2012.

Building Regulations

I wish to share time with Deputy Seán Kenny.

Priory Hall is a residential complex of 187 units on the new main street linking Clongriffin and Belmayne in Dublin 13 in the vast new north fringe residential district in Dublin North-East. The estate originally had a mixture of private purchasers, private tenants, city council tenants and residents who moved in through the city council's rental accommodation and affordable housing schemes.

I have raised the critical fire safety and building standard problems and disasters of Priory Hall at least a dozen times in this and the previous Dáil in various ways, including on the Order of Business. Our fire chief, Hugh O'Neill, served a fire safety notice under the Fire Safety Acts on Coalport Ltd., which built Priory Hall, on 4 September 2009. In this notice, the north and south blocks of Priory Hall, which comprises the entire estate, were described as a "potentially dangerous building" and the fire chief ordered an urgent programme of fire safety remedial measures for the estate to make it safe to live in. In December 2009, Dublin City Council moved its own tenants out for their own safety.

In April last at the Dublin District Court, a director of Coalport Ltd., Mr. Tom McFeely, received a six-month suspended sentence and a maximum €3,000 fine and his former partner, Mr. Laurence O'Mahoney, received a one-month suspended sentence and a €1,000 fine for fire safety notice offences at Priory Hall. However, we do not know what conditions, if any, were attached to these suspended sentences or whether Dublin City Council and, in turn, the Minister of State's Department have monitored compliance. Coalport Ltd. and Mr. McFeely, the developer, have also been referred to the courts regarding breaches of the planning law at Priory Hall. The latest such referral occurred on 14 June. Given the serious breaches concerned, can the Minister of State provide residents with a full update on current and future planning enforcement proceedings?

Many outstanding questions relating to Priory Hall need to be addressed by the city council and the Minister of State. The excellent residents' committee led by Ms Sinéad Power and others have still not been told what works have been completed and certified on the building to ensure that it finally complies with all fire safety regulations and building standards and they still do not know if they are safe at night and living in a safe building. Concerns have also been expressed by many residents about the quality of the works being carried out.

I understand that Dublin City Council has undertaken an investigation into the alleged breaches of the Building Control Acts at Priory Hall through a company called Hayes Higgins Partnership but we still do not have a report from it. The residents of Priory Hall want to know why Dublin City Council did not insist that the developers in question put a bond in place which could now be used for all remediation and completion works at the complex. They are deeply frustrated and I hope the Minister of State will ensure Dublin City Council will get to grips with this. He knows the area well and he is welcome to visit us in Dublin North-East.

I support what my colleague said. The city council recently commissioned Hayes Higgins Partnership, consulting engineers, to carry out an investigation into defects in the construction of Priory Hall. This investigation is complete and I call on the council to publish the report by Hayes Higgins Partnership in the public interest. The case against Mr. McFeely and Mr. O'Mahoney for breaches of fire regulations was heard in the District Court on 4 April. Mr. McFeely received a €3,000 fine and a six-month suspended sentence and Mr. O'Mahoney received a €1,000 fine and a one-month suspended sentence. Since then there has been a spate of fires in the dumping area used by the building company, which is an unsecured area situated behind hoarding at the back of the development. I am advised by constituents that there were three fires in total, two of which Dublin Fire Brigade and the Garda attended and one which residents put out themselves. Two members of the residents' committee advised me that they reported the last fire incident to Coolock Garda station.

Dublin City Council's chief fire officer directed that both underground car parks in the development be taken out of use in December 2009 due to flooding. The car parks remain closed to date, with the result that there is a high volume of vehicles on the road outside the apartment blocks, many of which are parked in front of the hoarding that fronts the builder's dumping area, thus compounding the risk of any fire spreading and of explosions from the vehicles' petrol tanks. My grave concern is that if the hoarding was to catch fire again, the fire could spread to the north and south blocks of the development and the petrol could ignite the fire further. We would be faced with casualties that could be avoided.

I asked Dublin City Council whether the three fires in April constituted a breach of the developers' suspended sentences and I was advised by the council's law agent that any complaints on possible breaches should be communicated to the superintendent of the local Garda station. On 16 June, I wrote to the Garda superintendent in Coolock, asking him to investigate the position in Priory Hall with a view to bringing the matter back before the court if the fires constitute breaches of the suspended sentences, as I believe they do. It would seem to me that if the position remains the same in this development, it is only a matter of time before there is a serious incident. I ask the Minister to intervene with Dublin City Council to have this absolute nightmare for residents, which has been going on for years, brought to a conclusion.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government would like to thank Deputy Broughan and Deputy Kenny for raising this important matter. I know they have long-standing interests in this ongoing issue.

The Government is acutely aware of the difficult and distressing situations faced by many homeowners and tenants today, who through no fault of their own, are dealing with the consequences of unfinished estates, pyrite problems and other building defects. Specific responsibility for the planning and delivery of the north fringe development rests with the local authorities involved, namely, Dublin City Council and Fingal County Council.

The north fringe framework development plan, which was prepared by Dublin City Council in 2000, sets out the objectives for the area, the site context and the urban design framework. The plan emphasises the need for a quality bus service and the provision of community facilities, including schools, a library, sports facilities and public spaces, which will serve the anticipated 30,000 people who will ultimately live in the area.

Planning permissions in the north fringe have been granted in line with the framework plan. Under planning legislation, the decision on whether to grant a planning application, with or without conditions, is a matter for the relevant planning authority in the first instance, in this case Dublin City Council, and for An Bord Pleanála in the case of an appeal. I understand that planning permission for mixed use development was granted by the Council on 19 November 2003, subject to a number of conditions. It is clearly the responsibility of the developer to implement planning permission and to comply with any conditions attaching to that permission.

Enforcement of planning control is a matter for the council which can take action, inter alia, where the terms of a permission have not been met. I understand that there are ongoing legal proceedings being taken by Dublin City Council regarding compliance with this permission. I have no role in the matter.

In addition, the national building regulations set out the legal requirements for the design and construction of new buildings, including houses, extensions and material alterations and certain changes of use of existing buildings. The related technical guidance documents provide technical guidance on how to comply with the regulations. Compliance with the regulations is the responsibility of the owner or builder of a building. Enforcement of the regulations is the responsibility of the 37 local building control authorities, which are empowered to carry out inspections and initiate enforcement proceedings, where considered necessary. Where building defects occur, their remediation is a matter for the parties concerned, namely the building owner, the relevant developer and the builder's insurers, in line with any contractual arrangements agreed between the parties. The general position regarding the use of pyrite in house construction has been set out comprehensively in replies to previous parliamentary questions, most recently on 26 May 2011.

The remediation of homes affected by pyrite is also a matter for the parties concerned, and enforcement is essentially a civil matter. I understand that following civil proceedings regarding homes affected by pyrite in north Dublin, a final settlement was reached and a trust fund established by the developer concerned. In the case of James Elliott Construction Limited v Irish Asphalt Limited, the judgment issued on 25 May 2011 found Irish Asphalt Limited liable for the supply of defective filler material which was not fit for purpose.

Since taking up office, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has clearly signalled that consumer protection in the area of quality construction of new dwellings is a priority matter. In this regard, the Minister is currently considering proposals to reform the building control system. These proposals include the introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance by builders and designers of buildings demonstrating that the statutory requirements of the building regulations have been met; more efficient pooling of building control staff and resources across the local authority sector to ensure more effective and meaningful oversight of building activity; standardised approaches and common protocols to ensure nationwide consistency in the administration of building control functions; and measures for the support and further development of the building control function nationwide.

The Minister is determined to strengthen the building control system in order to ensure that problems currently being experienced are not repeated. The Deputies raised a number of important issues this evening, and I will request the Minister to raise them with Dublin City Council and ascertain the current position.

Drug Treatment Court

Deputy Conaghan would also like a minute to talk about this——

I would be delighted to extend the time available, because we are running ahead of schedule. I will allocate ten minutes between the three Deputies.

That is excellent, thank you. We will be as brief as possible. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. The Drug Treatment Court is a very interesting project. It was established in my constituency of Dublin Central in 2001 as a pilot project. The purpose of the project was to look at people who were abusing drugs, ending up in court and receiving a conviction, and to put in place an alternative mechanism for dealing with them rather than sending them to prison. It was a restorative justice mechanism and it came under the auspices of the Courts Service. A specific judge was appointed to deal with it. It was an excellent idea and it has operated over the last ten years in one local electoral area in the north inner city.

The project has had varying degrees of effectiveness, but once the flurry of activity, enthusiasm and publicity died down following its establishment, it was left to its own devices. I do not think it achieved as much as it could. A review has been carried out over the last year and some structural proposals have been made, namely, that it would be transferred from the Courts Service directly to the clerk and deputy clerk of the District Court and Circuit Court. Instead of the Courts Service having responsibility, it would chair an advisory committee that would consist of all the relevant stakeholders, including the Garda, the HSE, the City of Dublin VEC, the Probation Service and the Courts Service itself.

While the proposals are welcome, the issue goes much further. There is a need for much greater awareness of the court in the communities affected by the drugs scourge. I believe that the local drugs task force should be involved, which has not occurred to date, even though the force was involved in the court's establishment in the first instance. Likewise, the Judiciary seems to be ignorant of the sanction and greater awareness is required here. The legal profession needs to be more aware as well, so that this can be part of the way lawyers handle cases with their clients. It seems that the north inner city is far too restrictive an area for the court to operate efficiently, and we need to extend it to a broader catchment area.

With a new Government, we should be looking at as many alternative sanctions to imprisonment as possible. The prison population has doubled since the drugs court was established. We should be going in the opposite direction, but we have been regressing. We should be examining restorative justice, community service orders and the alternative approach. The Minster should consult widely with all the relevant stakeholders, especially the public representatives who are deeply involved in their communities and are concerned with these problems. The Minister should be doing so with a view to mainstreaming the project.

I will be arguing for an extension of the area of the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to Dublin 10, Ballyfermot and Dublin 22, Clondalkin. As Deputy Costello said, the Drug Treatment Court operates only in Dublin's north inner city. I wish to quote the former Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the then Deputy Dermot Ahern who in a review published by him in 2010 stated:

Participants who engage with the drug treatment programme have reduced rates of recidivism and improved health, education and social skills, which impact positively on the participants and the community. However, the review also confirmed that the DTC, as currently operating, is not dealing with sufficient numbers of participants and programme completion rates are low.

I am therefore asking the Minister for Justice and Equality to extend the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to Dublin 10 and Dublin 22, two areas of the city close to each other and which unfortunately have serious drugs problems. From talking to both the Garda and staff of the Drug Treatment Court it is clear that the crime level of those involved in the court drops steeply.

I spoke to staff in the Drug Treatment Court a few weeks ago, I was surprised to hear that even though the programme has the capacity to take on 100 candidates, it only had 35 at that point and could easily deal with more people. Extending the operation to Dublin 10 and Dublin 22, and perhaps other areas would provide more suitable candidates because not everybody who comes before the courts on drug charges is a suitable candidate for rehabilitation. For the many who are suitable it is a much better way of dealing with them. By expanding the operation of the Drug Treatment Court to these districts the Minister would be helping to tackle a growing problem in this city.

It is very clear that resources are not currently being used efficiently due to the geographical restrictions on the Drug Treatment Court. It costs the State approximately €77,200 per prisoner per year to detain a person in prison. If one compares that cost with the cost of placing someone in the Drug Treatment Court programme at less than a fifth of that figure, there is the potential to make considerable savings to the Exchequer — which we are all being asked to do at present — while placing drug addicts in a programme that gives them the opportunity to escape the cycle of drugs and crime into which they have fallen, and which imprisonment will almost certainly not solve due to the power of the addiction they are under. This is a no-brainer.

We must move to tackle the inefficient use of resources currently occurring due to the geographical restrictions on the work of the Drug Treatment Court programme. I ask the Minister to examine the issue thoroughly and to give me a "Yes" or a "No" answer on whether he will expand the geographical area of the court, to include the areas we have suggested or indeed elsewhere. Should the Minister intend to proceed with this, will he give me a timeframe for when this will occur?

I am grateful to Deputies Costello and Dowds for sharing their time. The recent UN report on drug related deaths is a very stark warning based on evidence of the number of drug related deaths. Ireland is at twice the EU average for drug related deaths. These shocking statistics must prompt us to look again at strategies and ways of tackling the situation, to which the UN report draws attention.

I too believe, like my colleagues and many other Members, that the Drug Treatment Court programme can be a key part of such a strategy. There are short and straightforward explanations as to how the strategy works but its simplicity should not belie its vast potential. The Drug Treatment Court programme is currently under-used and under-valued. We believe that the strategy and the scheme offers real opportunities to avoid the cycle of drug addiction, crime and imprisonment and in its place, those who are selected to participate learn new strategies and new skills and are offered opportunities, perhaps leading to job opportunities and breaking the cycle and living clean. It has a great deal to commend it.

We are appealing to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, to look at the geography of where the scheme operates and to extend the scheme and work towards including a broader geographic part of the city in it. We ask him to use the scheme, with all its potential, because like the other Deputies, I believe that the proper rolling out of the scheme can save the lives of young people and help to break the cycle of drug related deaths.

I thank Deputies Joe Costello, Robert Dowds and Michael Conaghan for raising this important issue. I understand the replies are in transit. I offer my apologies for any delay.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and, Equality, I thank the Deputies for raising this important matter, in which they all have a long-term interest. The Government's approach to tackling the problem of drug misuse is through a co-ordinated and integrated approach under our National Drugs Strategy (interim) 2009-2016. Responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the NDS is under the remit of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Róisín Shortall.

The strategy seeks to tackle the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs in a comprehensive and integrated way through a pillar-based approach of drug supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research measures. Drug treatment courts can have a role to play in both the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders and by extension can impact positively in the fight against crime.

The Government believes that the actions set out in the strategy continue to facilitate a planned and monitored approach to achieving the overall strategic objective and aims of our drug policy. The current drugs strategy is an interim one as work, which is being overseen under the remit of the Department of Health, is well under way in the development of a new combined policy framework which will address both the issues of alcohol and illicit drugs in a new combined policy framework.

The Drug Treatment Court, which originally operated on a pilot basis in the north inner city of Dublin, operates in Dublin 1, 7 and parts of Dublin 3. The court uses a multidisciplinary approach involving staff from a range of agencies charged with dealing with various aspects of the problem of drug misuse. The court's mission is to provide supervised treatment, education and rehabilitation for offenders with drug problems, as an alternative to prison.

The programme lasts for a minimum of 12 months. It is aimed at people with drug addiction problems who come before the District Court on minor criminal charges linked to their drug addiction and who plead guilty or have been convicted of the charges. To be successful the participant needs to demonstrate a willingness to become free of non-prescribed drugs and to make a permanent change in lifestyle. Assessments carried out to establish suitability for inclusion on the programme take an average of 10 weeks. The main incentive for participants is the knowledge that outstanding charges will be struck out if the participant successfully completes the programme and does not re-offend in the 12 months following graduation.

The programme operates on a points system designed to encourage the participants towards successful completion of the programme. Follow-up support includes 12 months post-graduation supervision. There is no formal procedure in place to monitor offences beyond that period, however, indications are that participation in the programme is linked to a decrease in criminal activity. The court operates with the assistance of an inter-agency team which includes the judge, a probation officer, an addiction nurse, a Garda liaison officer and education-training representative and counsellors.

The Department of Justice and Equality completed a review of the operation of the Drug Treatment Court in 2010 which provided evidence that the court can have encouraging outcomes. Participants who engaged with the programme had reduced rates of recidivism and improved health, education and social skills which impacted positively on themselves, their families and the community.

However, the review also expressed serious concerns relating to the throughput and graduation levels from the court which have not come close to achieving the volume originally expected. It should be noted that on the establishment of the court in 2001, the planning committee had envisaged a potential enrolment of 100 participants in the first year. From establishment to date, 236 persons have participated in the programme with only 36 graduates. A further 209 persons were referred but found to be unsuitable to participate in the programme.

The Drug Treatment Court programme is a restorative justice initiative and the success of such programmes should not and cannot be assessed simply in terms of throughput. Nonetheless, it was clear from the review and the data that some adjustment of its operations was essential. The review identified particular issues to be addressed in terms of the management and operation of the court to fulfil its potential by both increasing the numbers participating in the programme and the numbers who successfully complete it.

Since the report was published a good deal of work has been done to implement its recommendations. An advisory committee chaired by the Courts Service and comprising senior staff members of An Garda Síochána, the HSE, the Probation Service and the City of Dublin VEC was established to monitor and report on implementation. Significant effort has gone into promoting the court and to developing the programme itself to achieve improved outcomes within the existing catchment area. The committee is exploring the further expansion of the court. However, this can only be done in line with the availability of the necessary services, particularly the essential drug treatment services to be agreed and provided by the HSE.

The Drug Treatment Court programme has also been redesigned. The new programme contains a set timeframe and deadline for participants progressing through the four steps. The participants should complete the programme in a maximum of three years with a view to remaining drug free.

I appreciate that the Deputies realise the value the court can bring to the clients who come before it. The supervision is intensive and successive district judges and the court team have done an excellent, painstaking job in helping these people along the road to recovery. The team's commitment is very genuine and wholehearted. The positive outcomes that can be achieved must be taken into account. The Minister for Justice and Equality has indicated that all of these factors will be borne in mind in determining what happens in relation to the court. The Department of Justice and Equality report completed last year recommended that the programme continue for a further two years subject to implementation of the recommendations. The Minister informs me that this will be subject to review in 2012 to ensure that the necessary adjustments are delivering results.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 5 July 2011.