Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Crime Data

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

36. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the ongoing work of the Central Statistics Office on crime statistics; the actions taken by him to ensure trends in crime are identified and that appropriate policy responses are formulated; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26868/19]

We spend a lot of time in this House talking about criminal justice responses to crime. The Minister will agree with me that in order to come forward with proper responses to criminal activity, we need to have accurate information and evidence. To a large extent, we are dependent on the Central Statistics Office to provide crime statistics. It recently produced details of criminal activity and crimes reported in the last quarter. Do the Department and the Minister have proposals to improve the method by which information on crime statistics is accumulated? What is the level of the Minister's engagement with the Central Statistics Office on that important feature?

On Monday the CSO published the crime statistics for quarter one of 2019. There were some welcome decreases in a number of crime categories, including homicide, the level of which was down by 14% compared to the level in quarter one of 2018, and burglary, the level of which showed a 10% decrease. There was also a significant increase in the reporting of fraud and related offences, with 1,500 additional incidents reported when compared to quarter one of 2018. I welcome the increased reporting of crime and the fraud figures, in particular, which reflect the significant step-up in policing activity with respect to these offences. While I also welcome the increase in the reporting of sexual offences, the continued upward trend of these offences is a concern. As the Deputy will be aware, the Government has adopted a number of measures to combat sexual offences and support the victims of these crimes. They include legislative steps, the roll-out of the Garda divisional protective services units and public information campaigns. This is an area that is kept under review.

As outlined to the Deputy last week, the CSO's official crime figures remain “under reservation”. This is by no means unique to An Garda Síochána and similar issues have been reported in other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, Australia, the United State of America and Denmark. However, it is clear that progress is being made through the joint efforts of An Garda Síochána and the CSO to improve the quality of the crime statistics. In December last the CSO published a third review of the quality of recorded crime statistics based on data recorded on the PULSE database system for crimes reported to the Garda in 2017. The review concluded, inter alia, that clear improvements had been made in the manner in which criminal incidents were being recorded on the PULSE system. While this is encouraging, it is also clear that there is more work to be done in this area. My Department, in conjunction with the Policing Authority, will continue to monitor the progress of An Garda Síochána to ensure the national crime statistics are returned to the highest standard.

The Minister will agree it is essential that we get accurate information in respect of reported crime and the recording of crime. Without it, we cannot formulate proper policy responses.

The Minister mentioned the crime statistics for the first quarter of 2019. In many respects, they reveal the point I wish to make. For example, the increase of 10% in sexual offences is a matter about which I am extremely concerned. Each recent CSO quarterly crime statistics publication has shown an increase in sexual offences. That is either due to the fact that people are becoming more confident about reporting sexual offences or, alternatively, it could be due to the fact that there has been an increase in sexual offences. The latter would not surprise me because the prevalence of pornography on the Internet, which we discussed earlier, must be having some impact on young men. We need to try to engage more with the CSO to ensure it can try to identify more accurately the cause of these trends in reported crime. I do not know whether the Minister has any proposals in that regard on a higher level.

The Deputy made two points. I share his concern regarding sexual offences. He also referred to the steps being taken to improve the quality of crime data. On the latter point, I wish to assure the Deputy that I and officials in my Department, in conjunction with the Policing Authority, will continue to monitor the progress of An Garda Síochána in ensuring that the information published and our national statistics are returned to the highest standards.

On sexual offences, I wish to advise the Deputy that An Garda Síochána continues to improve its specialist services in this regard. I acknowledge the importance of the roll-out of the divisional protective services units, nine of which have been established. The plan and target is that there will be a divisional protective services unit in all divisions by the end of the year.

The State is improving in terms of how it deals with people who report sexual offences. Many people who report them are very satisfied with the response they get from An Garda Síochána. However, the point I was making was slightly different. For instance, on knife crime, we know that some 2,000 knives were seized in 2018, compared with 1,600 in 2017, but we do not know the extent to which knives are used in crimes or criminal activity. We need to try to identify how we want to expand the role of the CSO and formulate our statistical procurement process in order that we can get more useful information. We will again find ourselves in a situation where there will be another increase, possibly in sexual offences. At some stage, we will have to identify the reason for this. Unfortunately, we are operating in a vacuum at present as we do not know whether more people are becoming confident about reporting or there is a serious rise in the number of incidents.

I will take a short supplementary question from Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I agree with the points made by Deputy O'Callaghan. The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and the Garda Inspectorate identified that the Garda has not always been entirely up to the mark in terms of the quality of data. Data are very important in ensuring a proper response to crime.

There are two issues which I wish to specifically flag. One of the main issues that led to the statistics being published under reservation was the review into homicides in the period from 2003 to 2016. What is the status of that review?

There is an issue that may have come to the attention of the Minister and which follows on from a previous question I asked. The Minister stated that 10,024 arrests were made under Operation Thor between November 2015 and 7 May of this year. That represents an average of eight arrests every day over the past three and a half years or one every three hours. Operation Thor is important, but that figure seems a bit high.

I previously heard Deputy Ó Laoghaire speak publicly on this issue. I have no reason to question the accuracy of the figures from the Garda Síochána at this time. Neither I nor my Department have any role in the compilation of the figures, but I have no reason to question them. If the Deputy has any further evidence in that regard, I would be happy to hear it.

Deputy O'Callaghan made two points. On knife crime, last November, the Garda Síochána Analysis Service conducted analysis on PULSE data which disclosed no significant statistical increase in crimes involving the use of a knife. However, I acknowledge this is a serious issue. The working group will continue to monitor the prevalence and frequency of individuals carrying knives or knife-like instruments on their person, in addition to devising a strategy to tackle assaults involving the use of knives.

On sexual offences, I broadly share the views of the Deputy. He will be aware that I recently launched a major national awareness campaign on sexual harassment and sexual violence under the theme "No excuses". I agree that there is a considerable amount of work to be done - and I acknowledge the work that is under way - to address what is a societal attitude towards sexual abuse. We need to ensure that there also is a criminal justice response in terms of clamping down on offending and reoffending.

Crime Levels

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

37. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if his attention has been drawn to the recent incidents of burglaries and thefts in Cork city over recent months; his plans to address same; if his attention has been further drawn to the fact that recent Garda resources promised to the district will now not be provided; and if additional resources, both personnel and equipment will be provided to the Togher and Anglesea Street districts to address same. [26879/19]

The Minister may be aware that, contrary to the national trend, there has been a significant spike in burglaries and thefts in the Cork city division. It is an ongoing trend which is having a big impact on people and their property and it requires an additional response. Unfortunately, that is not what it is getting. Rather, resources are being diverted away from it.

As the Deputy will be aware and appreciate, decisions in regard to the provision and allocation of Garda resources are a matter for the Garda Commissioner. I am informed by the Commissioner that Togher and Anglesea Street districts are part of the Cork city division, with a Garda strength totalling 703 as of 31 May 2019. In addition, there are 35 Garda Reserve members and 91 Garda staff attached to the division.

Since the reopening of the Garda College in September 2014, almost 2,800 recruits have attested as members of An Garda Síochána and have been assigned to mainstream duties nationwide, of whom 69 were assigned to the Cork city division, with 26 and 15 assigned to Anglesea Street and Togher districts, respectively.

The crime statistics for the first quarter of 2019 were published last Monday by the CSO. To be of assistance to the Deputy, I will ask the CSO to make available up-to-date crime statistics for the Cork region. However, I can inform the Deputy that the statistics on theft and burglary offences are more encouraging, with a welcome fall in rates of 2.6% and 10.3%, respectively.

As the Deputy will be aware, last year the number of gardaí reached more than 14,000 for the first time since 2011. The Government has further increased the budget for An Garda Síochána to €1.76 billion this year and the Commissioner plans to recruit a total of 600 trainee gardaí and 600 Garda staff this year. As we reach the end of the first half of 2019, I understand this is on target to be achieved. This will facilitate the redeployment of a further 500 fully-trained gardaí from administrative duties to front-line policing, which is the principal role and function of a member of An Garda Síochána. Ongoing recruitment is providing the resources needed to deliver a visible and effective policing service to communities in the Cork city region.

The Minister instanced national statistics and said that I could look up the Cork statistics. I have looked them up. For the first 165 days of this year, there have been 210 burglaries, not to mind attempted burglaries or thefts from cars. That amounts to one per day. The Minister has instanced the number of gardaí who have passed out. Cork got 69 of these, which is 2.4%. The population covered by the Cork city division must be approximately 8% to 12% of the national population but 2.4% is the figure Cork has got in recent years. That clearly does not match up to what is going on. This area has been neglected in recent years in terms of Garda resources. This issue has been going on for a long time. Places including Carrigaline, Ballincollig, Lehenaghmore, Glanmire and Carrigtwohill have been hit hard by this. The livelihoods of people are being threatened and people are having valuable property stolen. People are having their own sense of security in their homes undermined by this. Yet, the response is only 2.4% of the gardaí who have passed out in recent years.

I wish to assure the House, and the Deputy in particular, that the ongoing recruitment campaign is providing the resources needed to deliver a visible available Garda service in Cork city. The local Garda management in the Cork region keep all new and emerging crime trends under constant review.

I refer the Deputy to the impact of Operation Thor. Since November 2015 I am informed there have been in excess of 200,000 targeted checkpoints and over 350,000 crime prevention patrols throughout the country. Theft offences are down, as are burglary offences, with almost 3,752 fewer incidents of theft and burglary offences for the year ending March 2019. We should continue to assess the impact of Operation Thor, which is assisting communities throughout the country including those in the Cork area.

If it is on the decrease nationally, then obviously that is welcome, but it is not in Cork - that is a fact. It is up 10% with one burglary every day and more besides.

The Minister may or may not be aware of it, but the Tánaiste came out with a statement some weeks ago and said that the southern divisions would get 50 extra gardaí. It turns out not only are we not getting the extra allocation but we are not getting the ten that were promised either. They have now been diverted elsewhere. We have got 2.4% of the gardaí who have come out of Templemore in recent years. Cork is being neglected. There is no question about that. Given the size and growth of the population it is simply not good enough. The Garda locally does not have the resources to properly patrol its areas or tackle emerging crimes. That is simply a fact.

In Britain there are often issues following thefts and burglaries in cases where valuable property is stolen. Most of the time the property cannot be returned. Has the Minister examined the national mobile property register in Britain to see if a similar facility can be put in place here? That would enable people to be reunited with their property.

I would be happy to share the tabular information that I have in respect of Cork city Anglesea Street and Togher districts. I have data in respect of resources not only in terms of numbers but also in terms of vehicles and other equipment. I wish to assure the Deputy that the Garda Commissioner keeps the situation under review on a constant basis in Cork. Indeed, according to the Garda, Togher and Anglesea Street districts have benefitted from assignments since the Garda College reopened in September 2014. The ongoing recruitment of An Garda Síochána will continue to provide additional policing hours in Cork city and throughout the country.

Direct Provision System

Fiona O'Loughlin

Question:

38. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if a hotel (details supplied) in County Laois is being used for persons in direct provision; if not; if there are plans to make the hotel a direct provision centre; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26828/19]

Portarlington is a town familiar to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, as it is within his constituency. It is a fine town with a fine community, although lacking in industry since the Avon Arlington factory closed down. The concern here relates to the East End Hotel. It is the only hotel in Portarlington. Recently, there have been rumours - nothing has been verified - that it has been turned into a direct provision centre. The people from Portarlington are not against that but there are concerns that there has been no consultation and they need clarity on the situation.

Since September 2018, the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, has arranged for the provision of emergency beds where mainstream accommodation centres are at capacity. As of 16 June 2019, a total of 817 applicants were staying in 25 emergency centres.

The locations being used for the provision of emergency accommodation have been selected by means of a call for expressions of interest from hotels and guest houses advertised in the national press.

I wish to confirm that the hotel in question is being used for emergency accommodation and is not a direct provision centre. My Department is working to identify additional capacity within its accommodation portfolio in order that the use of emergency accommodation will be reduced and ended, if possible, by the end of this year.

As part of the regional procurement process that RIA is rolling out in 2019, a competition for the mid-east region, which covers counties Kildare, Louth, Meath and Wicklow, will be advertised in the third quarter of this year seeking the provision of accommodation and ancillary services for persons seeking international protection. It would be premature to speculate at this stage what properties will be offered to the Department under this process.

I thank the Minister of State for the clarification. That is appreciated. The issue remains about the lack of consultation, including consultation with local general practitioners, GPs, and local schools on the extra supports and resources that may be needed. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could give me the date from which the emergency accommodation started operating. How long the contract is for? How long does the Minister of State expect the hotel to be used by the Department?

I accept what the Minister of State has said about a competition for plans for a new direct provision centre in the mid-east area. However, the mid-east does not include County Laois. It covers Kildare, Wicklow and Meath, as the Minister of State is aware. Will there be another competition within the midlands region? I would appreciate if the Minister of State could come back to me on that point.

To meet the demand for accommodation by protection applicants, in January 2019 the Department published a call for expressions of interest from short-term accommodation providers, including commercial hotels, guest houses and bed and breakfast accommodation facilities, to obtain such accommodation on the open market. Emergency accommodation is sourced on an ongoing emergency basis, meaning it is not possible to offer prior engagement with communities, unfortunately. Four regions are currently under assessment by the Department in conjunction with the Office of Government Procurement. These regions include the south east, the midlands, the mid-west and the south west. Once completed, four more competitions are due to be advertised this year in the west, mid-east, Dublin and Border regions. I can get further information to the Deputy in more detail later by written correspondence, if she requires more.

I am keen for that because I asked for the date on which people came into the East End Hotel and I asked for the duration of the contract. I have not received that information from the Minister of State. I would like to have that. I would appreciate it. I accept that it is emergency accommodation but obviously it does not simply happen overnight. There is a period or a gap when consultation could be carried out with local GPs and schools to discuss supports that may be needed. As I said, people from Portarlington are not against supporting people in their absolute hour of need but it is the apparent secrecy with which this was carried out that has been the greatest source of problems. Certainly, I would appreciate if the Minister of State would contact me with information on those specific dates.

I wish to point out that the State has a legal obligation to provide reception conditions to applicants for international protection, including, where requested, bed and board. The use of emergency accommodation is an interim measure while the Reception and Integration Agency seeks to assist those with status - we have over 700 with status - in assessing mainstream housing in partnership with NGOs such as Depaul and the Peter McVerry Trust on a pilot basis.

We are endeavouring to end emergency accommodation. We are working hard to assist the more than 700 people who have status to move out of the accommodation centres, which will free up those beds. I do not have the date on which this started but it is done on an emergency basis. The RIA contracts beds as they become necessary and as the demand arises. It is demand-led and, unfortunately, that is the position we are in.

Drugs Crime

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

39. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the actions which will be taken to address the use of social media and technology in the cocaine trade, and the increase in cocaine use; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26869/19]

Earlier this month, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction published a report that was quite worrying for this country. It recorded that the use of cocaine and crack cocaine is increasing faster in Ireland than in most European countries, and that cocaine has become purer and more plentiful due to what is referred to as the "Uberisation" of the trade. What is the Government's response to dealing with this increase in use of cocaine? How does it intend to deal with the fact that social media and iPhones seem to be used for the purpose of advancing this trade?

I am aware that An Garda Síochána is reporting increased seizures of cocaine, evidence of increased circulation of the drug, which I accept is a worrying development. The expansion of drug markets to the online environment, including via social media, is proving challenging for law enforcement worldwide, as the Internet and the darknet facilitate the movement of drugs, money and information across global borders. I understand that international experience is that when a website selling illicit substances is taken down, it will almost immediately be replaced by another active site.

I am sure the Deputy will agree that interagency and international collaboration are, therefore, critical in disrupting online markets. An Garda Síochána liaises with Revenue, the Health Products Regulatory Authority, HPRA, and its European and international counterparts to comprehensively disrupt trading activity and online markets at the earliest opportunity. However, we have to accept that prosecutions for drug-related cybercrime are by their nature difficult. An Garda Síochána has adopted a multidisciplinary approach to tackling drug-related cybercrime via improved control, risk management and profiling to detect, investigate and prosecute the persons involved. The Garda National Drugs and Organised Crime Bureau leads in tackling all forms of drug trafficking and the supply of illicit drugs in Ireland, including monitoring and tackling the sale of drugs online. Gardaí from the bureau participate in various European projects such as the European multidisciplinary platform against criminal threats, which is co-ordinated through Europol and the Council of Europe's Pompidou working group on drugs online. This working group seeks to harmonise the approach to the investigation of cyber-enabled drug trafficking and serves as a point of contact for all appropriate partners, including engagement with the private sector.

I understand the Minister has a long and detailed reply. He will have an opportunity to come back in.

It is worth reading the report produced by this European centre closely. They examined 30 European countries and recorded that more people in Ireland had used cocaine in the past 12 months than in any other country apart from the United Kingdom and Spain. That is a worrying development. The report also indicates that the trade in cocaine has changed and has become, in a way, similar to trade in other products on the Internet. It recorded that the use of social media and technology had assisted the sale of cocaine and advanced the cocaine trade. Providers of the illegal drug - drug pushers - were able to provide added service, namely that they would deliver the cocaine to where the users are. This needs to be approached this in two ways. First, the Government needs to get our messaging right. People need to be informed of the dangers of cocaine and associated with it. They also need to be informed of the link between cocaine use and the murder of people in this country.

I assure the Deputy that this matter is taken seriously by my Department and me, and by the Garda Síochána. That is why I referred to the engagement on the part of the Garda with a range of other agencies on the international stage, seeking to ensure that we adopt international best practice here and that the Garda is engaged in a way that ensures a rapid exchange of information and best practice to combat the sale and trafficking of drugs online, including the use of postal express courier services, emerging techniques and dealing with the engagement on the darknet.

As well as European engagement, An Garda Síochána also liaises with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. Ireland is also represented at the international drug enforcement conference, which is attended by more than 100 countries annually. It is important that we build these relationships from a criminal justice perspective and from a national point of view. We will continue to advise on the dangers of engaging in the use of illegal drugs, in particular cocaine, and on the fact that those who are engaged in its consumption are responsible for many of the gangland, organised crime and drug-related deaths in our communities.

I agree with the Minister. The Government and society needs to provide more information to the public about the link between cocaine use and criminal activity. We see how people respond to information when it is given to them. Many people now realise the risks associated with the use of plastic and, because of that, they are changing their practices. They recognise that there is a threat to the planet because of the use of plastic. If we can apprise people of the dangers associated with the use of cocaine and the fact that by using it, they are supporting and indirectly funding the killing of people in other parts of the city, they will respond. The problem is that nobody is putting that message forward. We do not read about campaigns on the Internet linking the usage of cocaine to criminal activity or the killing of other people. The responsibility has to rest with Government. An information campaign should be run. Ministers spend their time in government giving information to people about matters that are dangerous to them. The public should be better informed about the dangers associated with taking drugs and the link to criminal activity.

I accept that a multi-agency response is required, and that is what we have. I refer, for example, to Ireland's national drugs strategy, Reducing Harm, Supporting Recovery: A health-led response to drug and alcohol use. This advises the public in respect of the dangers of cocaine use. I refer also to the criminal justice response, which is to ensure those convicted of trafficking or promoting the sale of illicit drugs are brought to justice. Last year, for example, the Criminal Assets Bureau successfully seized assets from an individual involved in drug trafficking in a number of jurisdictions. Just yesterday, the annual report of the Criminal Assets Bureau was published and it highlighted ongoing activity to ensure the scourge of drugs within our society is stamped out.

Question No. 40 replied to with Written Answers.

Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal

John Curran

Question:

41. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the results of an assessment of the caseload of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal as requested by him; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26854/19]

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal administers a scheme of compensation for those who have received criminal injuries. I have been pursuing a number of cases for a while and have raised the matter with the Minister on a number of occasions. There is an increased number of claims and what appears to be a relatively slow and long period to come to a resolution in some of them. He previously indicated that this matter would be under review.

What is the outcome of the review, and what steps can be taken to advance the existing backlog?

The Criminal Injuries Compensation Tribunal administers the scheme of compensation for personal injuries criminally inflicted. Under the terms of the scheme, the tribunal is entirely independent in the matter of individual decisions on applications for compensation. The Deputy will be aware that because of the manner in which cases have been recorded, in particular applications which are received but not actively pursued by the applicant, it has not been possible to date to provide the number of active cases that remain unsettled by the tribunal. To address the issue, I have requested an assessment of the caseload of the tribunal, which I am informed will be submitted soon. I will be happy to provide the Deputy with a further update at that point. Nevertheless, my expectation is that the assessment will include short to medium-term recommendations designed to improve the processing time.

I invite the Deputy to accept that many of these cases are complex and will take considerable time to conclude. Notwithstanding that, I expect that steps can be taken to increase the processing time of more straightforward cases. In addition to these short-to-medium-term measures, the Law Reform Commission, LRC, has included a review of the compensation scheme as one of the projects in its forthcoming work programme, which I welcome as an opportunity to examine in some detail the long established scheme for providing compensation to people who suffer injury as a result of criminal activity.

I acknowledge that the tribunal is entirely independent but the review is important because, in the absence of the details and the knowledge of what is happening and making the payouts so slow, the Government is not in a position to know how to resource the tribunal adequately with personnel and funding. In 2015, for example, there were 217 applications, for which 159 payments were made. On the other hand, last year, only three years later, there were 174 applications but only 18 of them were resolved, while in 2017, payments were made in only 31 cases. All of a sudden a bottleneck has been hit, which is out of kilter with the previous years. Over all the years of the tribunal, significantly more applications than payments have been made. My understanding is there have been probably hundreds of cases in the system for years and years. The review needs to determine what steps can be taken but some of the cases need to be dealt with quickly because the applicants have waited a long time.

I accept there is a delay and I am keen to ensure that it will be minimised. The level of resources allocated to the tribunal, similar to any other line of the justice Vote, is determined having regard to the overall budgetary context, although I have been in a position to maintain the current funding of €4 million for a number of years. Moreover, an increased allocation of €2.4 million was provided as part of a Supplementary Estimate in 2018.

While I express concern about the delay, the tribunal is entirely independent in the making of individual decisions on applications for compensation. It would be imprudent of me to comment on any individual case but, in general, the issue of a delay is of concern to me, which is why I indicated there will be an assessment.

I again acknowledge that the tribunal is independent but it is dependent on the Minister and his Department for its funding, the level of which determines its efficiency, the rate at which it can deal with cases and the payments that are made. He correctly indicated that for most of the recent years, the allocation was €4 million, and that there was an addition of more than €2 million last year, bringing the allocation to €6.5 million. That €6.5 million, however, addressed payments to only 18 cases. I am dealing with a victim, and I will not name her although she is not from my constituency. The person who committed the crime against her has been through the courts but she must still go through the tribunal. Her testimony to me is that the process equates to reliving constantly the vicious attack she suffered. People such as her want closure. She has been in the system for several years and is pleading that the matter be addressed more quickly than it has been.

While I will not be drawn into responding to any individual case, I acknowledge what the Deputy said. In making decisions, tribunal members need to be satisfied in respect of a number of issues, such as ensuring that all supporting documentation has been provided, which will enable the tribunal to reach a decision on any application. It may well be the case from time to time that further documentation is sought. In addition, there may be circumstances where, owing to the nature of the serious injury involved, further ongoing medical issues have to be determined, reports may have to be provided, a medical condition may have to be addressed, or there may be issues the treating consultant is in a position to address with an updated medical report.

Nevertheless, I accept the Deputy's overall point, namely, that the delays require analysis. I will be happy to keep him updated on how the analysis takes shape.

Inspector of Prisons

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

42. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if his attention has been drawn to the concerns expressed by the Inspector of Prisons regarding resourcing and the fact that many prisons are not being inspected regularly enough; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26878/19]

Last Tuesday, an article in the Irish Examiner by Cormac O'Keeffe revealed that only one prison inspection report had been published in the past five years and that no inspection has been conducted in five jails in the past ten years. The Inspector of Prisons, Ms Patricia Gilheaney, was explicit in saying she believed that her office is severely under-resourced and went as far as to say it is not fit for purpose. That is a serious statement and I look forward to the Minister's response.

The Office of the Inspector of Prisons, led by Ms Patricia Gilheaney, who was appointed as inspector last year, has a vital role in ensuring effective independent oversight of the prison system. I strongly support the office and recently met the inspector with my officials to discuss a range of issues relating to her office, including resources. Following her appointment in May 2018, the inspector contracted consultants to carry out a review of the functions and arrangements of the office. The report set out an optimal new enhanced structure for her office, its legal powers, the resources needed and other related and important issues.

On additional resources this year, funding has been provided by my Department to contract external expertise to enable the office to review cases of deaths in prisons, and a process is under way to appoint a new office manager. My Department also recently approved the awarding of a contract, following a tender competition, in respect of the development of an inspection framework and a strategic plan for the office. The additional resource requirements set out in the consultants' report could not be considered in the context of spending this year as the Estimates process had been completed. The inspector, however, recently submitted a request for resources, based on the report's recommendations. The request is being analysed and considered in the context of the 2020 Estimates process.

I assure the Deputy that my Department will continue to work constructively with the Inspector of Prisons to ensure the further development and enhancement of her resources and the capacity of the office.

Before I respond to that point, the Minister previously stated that he would be happy to provide me with statistics in relation to a previous question, but I have all the statistics. I have looked them up. I produced a policy paper on police in Cork and I would be happy to give the Minister a copy of it later.

This is of huge concern. The Minister is identifying that additional resources may be considered for the next budget and if that is the case it is welcome. If there has only been one prison inspection report in the last five years and none in five jails over the last ten years there must surely be some element of concern that standards in these prisons might not be up to scratch, given the lack of inspections.

I refer to the report carried out by the Inspector of Prisons on surveillance issues in prisons. Where does that report stand and when will we heard more about it?

I assure the Deputy of my interest in this issue. I represent the constituency of Laois-Offaly and I live in Portlaoise so I am very aware of the existence of two major prisons within that town. I am keen to ensure the Office of the Inspector of Prisons is adequately resourced in order to allow her to perform her duties in respect of current inspections of prisons. It must be borne in mind that the Office of the Inspector of Prisons is a statutory body, provided for under the Prisons Act 2007, which is independent of me both in the recommendations it makes and in the manner in which it organises its work within the allocated resources. The Inspector of Prisons is charged with carrying out regular inspections of prisons. In terms of resources, five staff members are currently assigned to that office and the current budget is just under €500,000. I assure the Deputy and the House that my Department continues to support the Inspector of Prisons in the performance of her functions. I have met her recently and my officials meet her on an ongoing basis. I acknowledge the receipt of a recent submission which will form the basis of my activities in the context of my relationship with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the forthcoming budget.

The Minister can say it is a statutory function, but he provides the resources. The resources are not adequate, inspections are not happening and that raises risks.

I asked when we would hear more about a particular report into surveillance in the Prison Service. I take this opportunity to emphasise the need for that report in the context of the broader issue of places of detention and failure to inspect them. I again express the need for the Minister to ratify the UN's Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture. It was signed in 2007 and has not been ratified in an acceptable timeframe either in relation to this or in a much broader sense of places of detention.

I can confirm that the Inspector of Prisons has furnished me with a copy of the report into the investigation carried out under section 31 of the Prisons Act 2007, in line with what is regarded as both accepted and standard practice. I am giving that report careful consideration in consultation with the Attorney General and I am keen to publish it in accordance with section 31 of the Act. I expect to be in a position to bring the report to the attention of the Government shortly with a view towards having it presented to both Houses of the Oireachtas, in accordance with the Act. The report will then be published on the Department's website.

Question No. 43 replied to with Written Answers.

Visa Applications

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

44. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the average length of time it takes to process an application for a visa for a person granted a work permit here by the Minister of Business, Enterprise and Innovation; his plans to streamline this process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26672/19]

It takes quite a considerable amount of time to get a work permit for this country. My question relates to how long, on average, it takes someone coming from an EEA country to get the subsequent visa they need to work here.

I am advised by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service, INIS, of my Department that decisions regarding the grant or refusal of visas are made in a number of INIS visa offices overseas, the INIS visa office in Dublin and at over 80 Irish Embassies around the world. The embassies, which are under the remit of my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, process certain visa applications under delegated sanction from my Department. The processing times for visa decisions are published on the visa pages of each visa office and embassy website. As of last week, 18 June 2019, the average time taken to process an employment visa received in either the INIS visa offices in Dublin or overseas was three weeks. The processing time in each location is determined by a number of factors, such as the volume and complexity of applications, individual circumstances, peak application periods, seasonal factors and the resources available. While every effort is made to process applications as quickly as possible, processing times will inevitably vary as a result. Notwithstanding that the visa service is currently experiencing an increase in the number of visa applications across most categories, processing times are on a par in many cases and there have been significant improvements compared to the corresponding time last year. A number of measures have been put in place to deal with what is a significantly increased demand for visas on the part of people wishing to come to Ireland, including the assignment of additional staff to process applications and the streamlining of visa processes where possible. I acknowledge that my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, also has a role and function in respect of the processing of applications for work permits.

This is part of the problem, because it takes approximately 13 weeks for someone to get a work permit and only then is he or she allowed submit a fully correct application. If it is not fully correct, it will be refused and he or she will have to start again. When the visa waiting time is added in, we are talking about quite considerable lengths of time. I cannot understand why the two processes cannot run in parallel so that when a person receives a work permit their visa application would be assessed and become available at the same time. It is ridiculous that people who have gotten their work permits have to go back and get a visa. The Minister indicated that in some cases it does run in parallel and the Minister has delegated sanction. Can he explain what percentage of work permit cases are processed on that basis?

I acknowledge that while the visa issue is primarily one for my Department, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation has an important role and function in processing applications for work permits. In the processing of visa applications through my Department, we must consider a broader range of issues dealing with immigration. I invite the Deputy to agree with me that there are a number of concerns here, the central concern being, as with all visa services worldwide, the need to strike an appropriate balance between protecting the country's vital national interests by maintaining an effective immigration regime, while at the same time endeavouring to facilitate travel for those who meet the criteria. Each visa application is therefore decided on its own merits, on a case-by-case basis, taking all factors into account.

I am not arguing with the need for a comprehensive system or the need to make a visa worth something. Nobody is arguing with that. What I am curious about is why everything has to work linearly rather than in parallel and why visa applications cannot be processed simultaneously to the applications being processed in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation so that when one is available the other is too. Visas might have to be issued subject to work permits, but so be it. It seems to me that by doing everything sequentially rather than in parallel, we are adding to the length of time though not to the thoroughness of the investigation. Would consideration be given to running the two processes as one parallel process between the two Departments, which is co-ordinated at the one time?

I wish to assure the Deputy that management is kept under review on a regular basis. Staff resources available for processing are organised in a timely way.

A number of measures recently have been put in place to deal with a significantly increased demand for visas to Ireland, including the assignment of extra staff.

I assure the Deputy that INIS, under my Department's remit, continues to work closely with colleagues in the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation to ensure the process is effective and efficient. I assure him that greater consideration will be given to streamlining the process, procedures and practices. For example, earlier this year, new arrangements were set in place to enable spouses of critical skills permit holders to gain immediate access to the workplace on arrival. Streamlined processes have also been set in place for de facto partners of permit holders.

I am happy to look at the specific issue raised by the Deputy and will communicate with him in writing following this session.