Vote 24 - Justice (Further Revised)

This meeting has been convened to consider the Supplementary Estimates for Vote 20 - An Garda Síochána, Vote 21 - Prisons, Vote 22 - Courts Service, and the Further Revised Estimate for Vote 24 - Justice. I thank the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and her officials for attending and assisting our consideration of the Estimates. I thank the Department for the provision of briefing information on the Estimates.

In accordance with Standing Orders, the discussion should be confined to the items constituting the Estimates, so keep within the subheads, within the ditches, as they say.

I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. The usual provisions apply.

I ask the Minister to begin and then we will drill into different Votes and take questions on subheads.

I thank the committee for making time available to me to consider the Supplementary Estimates for the Garda Síochána, Prisons and Courts Service Votes, and the Further Revised Estimates for the Justice Vote. I am joined by my officials from the Department of Justice, Seamus Clifford, principal officer, and Martina Colville, assistant secretary.

A net Supplementary Estimate requirement of €44.325 million arises in respect of the Garda Vote this year. This comprises a gross expenditure requirement of €63.9 million, which is offset by a projected surplus in appropriations-in-aid receipts of €19.75 million, giving a net additional requirement of €44.325 million for the Garda Vote. There are two main components giving rise to this requirement. The first is the impact of Garda Covid expenditure, which is €33.32 million, and the adjustment to take account of the Government's July stimulus economic package, which totalled €11 million for the Garda Vote.

The Garda has maintained a front-line, high-visibility presence since the outset of the pandemic and on behalf of the Government, I sincerely thank the Commissioner, his senior team and all members and staff of the Garda Síochána for their exemplary service to communities across the length and breadth of the country in response to this pandemic. An Garda Síochána has conducted a range of operations and activities to keep people safe in support of public health measures to reduce the spread of Covid-19. This has included a large number of static and rolling checkpoints, high-visibility community engagement patrols, visits to retail premises and ongoing support for the most vulnerable and isolated in our society.

I am glad to say that a further phase of Operation Faoiseamh is in place, which prioritises people who are vulnerable to and victims of domestic abuse. An Garda Síochána proactively makes contact with previous victims to provide reassurance and support, and to offer the assistance of local and specialised resources. It has worked proactively to intervene with previous offenders. There is also renewed focus across the criminal justice system, with the courts prioritising the hearing of applications for court orders and the prosecution of breaches. Notwithstanding these significant preventative efforts, there has been a marked increase in the incidence of domestic abuse, and the entire system continues to work with the voluntary sector to try to keep people safe.

The impact of the pandemic is expected to result in additional costs for the Garda Vote in the region of €53.1 million by the end of this year. While certain offset costs are available, such as from scaled down activities, redeployment of resources from the Garda College and the surplus receipts from pension contributions, the extent of the additional cost is such that a Supplementary Estimate is required. The additional cost directly related to Covid comprises approximately €25.2 million in payroll costs, which mainly relates to the implementation of emergency Covid rosters since last April. This has been extended to the end of the year, taking account of some revisions following the first month of operation. In addition, the earlier attestation of trained gardaí to respond to the Covid crisis increased payroll costs beyond what was originally budgeted for in 2020. Expenditure on PPE has become a significant cost factor for all front-line services in the State and the Garda is no different. The additional cost in 2020 is estimated to be in the region of €16 million, with most of the expenditure having been incurred already.

The community focus of policing has been central to the success of the Garda Síochána's response to Covid and this has been supported with additional investment of €6.1 million in the transport fleet, bringing the total expenditure on the Garda fleet to €15.1 million for 2020. The original budget of €9 million provided 296 patrol vehicles but, significantly, the additional spend of €6.1 million supports the purchase of a further 228 vehicles, mainly for community policing. It is important to say that those vehicles will be there long after Covid. Other additional costs directly related to Covid include the temporary hire of vehicles, which cost €2 million, and ICT, telecommunications and overheads such as additional cleaning and sanitisation, which comes to €3.8 million.

The additional element of the Supplementary Estimate relates to the provision of €11 million in the Government's July economic stimulus package for a range of projects in the Garda Vote. This includes the building and refurbishment of stations to support the establishment of business service hubs and the new operating model of An Garda Síochána, which is being rolled out at the moment; custody management facilities in stations, and prisoner processing areas and custody CCTV; immigration facilities at sea ports and airports; public office facilities for meeting members of the community, including universal access; at Garda headquarters to meet the requirements of the new units being established; at Garda stations to support the establishment of protective service units in a number of divisions, which is directly linked with the O'Malley recommendations, all of which have been implemented since the end of September; as well as the provision of special victim interview suites.

The Prisons Vote requires a net Supplementary Estimate of €14 million in the current year. This is largely accounted for by three main areas in expenditure. Additional expenditure arises from Covid, which is expected to be in the region of €6 million by the year's end. There is the Government stimulus package of €8 million. There is an additional requirement for compensation payments of approximately €4.6 million. The additional requirement is reduced in part by underspends in other areas of the Vote, including building capital due to Covid-related delays in the redevelopment of Limerick Prison. A proportion of this underspend will be carried forward to 2021 under capital carryover provisions. The main impact of Covid-related expenditure is the cost of PPE, medical deep cleaning and the ICT for remote working, including the provision of services such as video link facilities for prisoners' families.

The Irish Prison Service management and staff, and indeed prisoners themselves, are to be commended on the manner in which the challenge of Covid-19 has been managed in the high-risk, closed environment of our prisons.

A very significant amount of work has been carried out by the Irish Prison Service to address the challenge of Covid-19. The measures taken have been informed and guided by the advice received from National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, and consistent with the prison-specific guidance for the management of Covid-19 issued by the World Health Organization, WHO, in March 2020 and human rights guidance issued by the Council of Europe.

I acknowledge that this has been a difficult and worrying time for prison staff, offenders and their families, as it has been in other areas of Irish society. Great efforts have been made to limit and curtail the spread of the virus in the prisons. These measures include close co-operation with the health services on outbreak control and the establishment of a robust contact tracing model, which has been acknowledged by the WHO as best practice for prisons worldwide.

I was very pleased to support this work with additional capital funding of €8 million for the prisons Vote as part of the Government’s July stimulus package. The Irish Prison Service has continuous demands for minor and mid-scale refurbishments. These involve security-related works in addition to a nationwide carbon-related programme of replacing lighting with LED fixtures both internally and externally and the upgrading and replacement of fire alarms. There are also, unfortunately, issues with leaking roofs in some locations because of severe weather events as well as requirements for window replacement and the upgrading of laundry and other equipment.

A net supplementary estimate of €23 million is required in 2020 in respect of the courts Vote. There are two components to this: a significant shortfall of €18 million in court fee income due to the impact of Covid-19 on the business of the courts and €5 million in respect of the Government’s July stimulus package. The Courts Service expects that the shortfall in court fee income will be in the region of €18 million as a direct result of the impact of Covid-19. This shortfall amounts to 43% of total fee income, which is significant. A sum in the region of €9 million is accounted for in the reduction in special exemption order applications from the licensing trade and hospitality sector. This relates to the announcement made at the end of the summer. There is also a €1 million reduction from the waiver of liquor licence fees as part of the Government’s support package to publicans. To date, the Courts Service has also lost the equivalent of three months’ fee income, or circa €8 million, due to the impact of Covid-19.

The July stimulus package provided for additional capital funding of €5 million for the courts Vote in 2020, a significant proportion of which is being utilised to cover the additional costs of leasing, fitting out and basic ICT installation to ensure that criminal jury trials can be held while observing social distancing and national Covid guidelines at a number of new locations in Dublin and nationwide. A number of other projects were also included in the stimulus package. These relate to urgent refurbishment works and various sustainable energy initiatives in courthouses throughout the country.

The Courts Service has been working with members of the Judiciary and other partners across the justice sector to continue to provide court hearings in as safe a manner as possible during this public health emergency. It is important to acknowledge the leadership of the Courts Service and the Judiciary across all the courts in ensuring continuity of service during this period and the ongoing work by all concerned to ensure the safety of court users, jury members, practitioners, staff and judges, and the public. I am particularly pleased to note the steps taken to use video links and other technologies to the greatest extent possible. These developments represent welcome progress in the modernisation of services. I have provided substantial additional funding in budget 2021 for the courts modernisation programme and I look forward to the positive outcome of this investment for the service in the future.

The further Revised Estimate for my Department’s Vote is required to reflect the transfer of certain functions both to and from the new Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth under the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. The functions transferring from my Department mainly relate to equality, disability, migrant integration, international protection accommodation services and the Irish refugee protection programme, whereas the functions transferring to my Department relate to a small number of projects in the area of youth justice. The net budgetary impact on the justice Vote from the original Revised Estimate voted on by the Dáil in July is a reduction of €114 million, which represents an adjustment of €115.5 million in respect of functions transferring out less a figure of €1.5 million in respect of the functions transferring in.

As part of the process, I am taking the opportunity to increase the allocation for the cash-limited subhead B11 which provides for the criminal injuries compensation tribunal, which is being increased by €4 million through relocation of funding from elsewhere in the Vote. This will facilitate additional payments of compensation to victims of crime before the end of this year. An increased net allocation of €4 million is also being provided as part of the Revised Estimate to offset a potential shortfall in immigration and visa income mainly due to the impact of Covid travel restrictions. I recommend the Supplementary Estimates and the further Revised Estimate to the committee. I am very happy to address any questions members may have.

I thank the Minister for that overview of the Estimates. We will take these matters in Vote order. The first Vote is Vote 20 - An Garda Síochána, which includes a number of subheads. I invite members to submit any queries they wish but I ask them to refer to the subhead they are querying as they make their statements.

I just have one question on that section. An extra €15 million was allocated for the additional checkpoints that are operating. Is that sum included in this €25.2 million or is it separate?

I am not aware of the specific figure of €15 million for checkpoints.

It was to cover all of the additional checkpoints.

There are a number of additional operations and Operation Navigation, Operation Faoiseamh and Operation Fanacht are continuing. The cost of these operations is included in the overall figures. I am not sure the €15 million relates to the travel restrictions specifically.

Perhaps the Minister could come back to the committee with an update in writing on those operations and how they fit under the subheads.

I can provide an update on the overall situation if that is what the Chairman would like.

I do not necessarily mean now. Providing a note afterwards might be of benefit and useful to the committee.

I was recently asked in the Dáil to come before the committee and to give updates as to how these operations are proceeding, the numbers involved and the types of engagement the public is having with An Garda Síochána. I am very happy to do that.

I thank the Minister. That would be useful.

On the matter of policing and An Garda Síochána, I would like to pick up on the rise in domestic violence which has accompanied Covid. I understand that work is still in progress with regard to the transfer of responsibility for domestic violence between the Minister and her colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. Will the Minister give us an update on what is happening in that regard and on how that transfer is going?

I will also pick up on another issue. An Garda Síochána has been rolling out district protection units, which is a very positive development. Something I have said to both the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the previous Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is that it is imperative that Tusla has staff seconded to these units to help them work. One thing I said to the Minister for Justice's predecessor is that sometimes people have to be asked to dance. Will the Minister link in with the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and encourage him to have some sweet words with Tusla to ensure that the duty social workers who work on cases of domestic violence and other such difficult issues will be in the units working cheek by jowl with An Garda Síochána? That would result in the best outcomes for the children and families involved. Will the Minister give us an update on where things stand with regard to the transfer of responsibility for domestic violence?

It is important to say, as I mentioned in my initial speech, that while the number of sexual offences seems to have reduced, the number of domestic violence cases and breaches of orders has increased significantly. The number of cases brought to the Director of Public Prosecutions has increased frighteningly since the beginning of March. I believe the increase has been more than 86%. A number of things have been happening in response to that. We obviously work closely with An Garda Síochána. Operation Faoiseamh, which was launched earlier this year, has been in operation throughout the pandemic. It was relaunched only a few weeks ago. Through this operation, gardaí are out in the community, proactively engaging with previous victims of domestic abuse to try to ensure that they have information on the supports An Garda and community and voluntary organisations provide.

Various NGOs and my own Department have been working on a very significant campaign. The Deputy will have seen the No Excuses campaign, which was relaunched last year, and the Still Here campaign, which is visible on our television screens, on social media and in newspapers. A very significant amount of work is happening in that regard. We are very lucky in that this is an area the Garda Commissioner has prioritised. It was also a priority of his in his previous role in the PSNI and he has carried that over. There is a great focus on the issue but it is a massive problem at the moment. We need to use people's heightened awareness of the problem as an opportunity to address it and to make these issues much more visible and to make people much more aware of them. That is why these campaigns are so important. They highlight the signs so that people can identify them in themselves or in people they know.

The roll-out of the divisional service protective units had begun but, as a result of the Tom O'Malley report which made more than 57 recommendations to support victims of domestic and sexual violence, An Garda committed to having all of those units up and running by the end of September.

That target was met. I will discuss and will undertake to have conversations with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O’Gorman, and the Commissioner on how the resources are put in and whether this is something that they have discussed before. Obviously, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, will continue to have an element of responsibility. We are both working in the area of domestic violence. I will outline what we are doing at the moment. I have begun a process of auditing across all Departments how we best drive and ensure the implementation of supports and services for victims of domestic and sexual violence. I am keen to ensure this happens in the best way possible. The Department of Justice, the Department with responsibility for equality matters, the Department of Education, the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage all have a remit in tackling and supporting victims of domestic violence. This audit will look at all of these Departments and agencies and work with them in that regard.

This may not be specific to the Garda role but additional funding was allocated with €280,000 plus provided as part of the Supplementary Estimate. The additional funding this year is specifically to work with the community and voluntary organisations that are linking in with the Garda. That was important funding at the height of the pandemic.

Deputy Martin Kenny has not been in yet. I will bring him in at this stage.

My thanks to the Minister for her opening statement. One thing I mentioned to the Minister privately was the issue of administrative pay for gardaí, especially of those out from Templemore at the moment. They would have been expected to go through their training programme over a certain period and then go to Garda stations throughout the country. They were all out early last spring as it happened.

Several people from different parts of the country have contacted me. They have been a long time out but are only getting the training support payment. This is a small payment they get as if they were in Templemore. They are basically unable to survive on that. I wrote to the Commissioner with regard to this issue but I have not received a reply yet. This issue needs to be dealt with. These trainee gardaí provide a vital service. It would be most unfortunate if their experience was that they were undervalued in any way. I do not believe that is the intention of the Minister or the Commissioner or anyone involved, but there seems to be a loophole whereby they are not being properly remunerated for the hands-on work they are doing. That needs to be dealt with as a matter of urgency. If possible, payment should be backdated to an appropriate time when they would have been starting that kind of work.

I will comment on the Garda Vote in general. The provision of additional vehicles has been one of the benefits we have seen flow from Covid-19 - although there have been few of these. Anyway, certainly from speaking to gardaí near me I have learned one of the big issues they had was the problem with vehicles and that there were never enough of them. Often calls would come into Garda stations and they could not physically go out to answer the calls because no vehicle was available. The additional vehicles will be welcome. This is one of the things that should have happened a long time ago. I will leave it at that. I have some other issues I will talk to the Minister about when it comes to the courts and the other services.

I will respond to that. I will raise the first issue with the Commissioner. I mentioned in the initial comments that there was an increase in payments for those who are out and not in Templemore and who should technically be still in Templemore. I understand Deputy Kenny as saying that what they are being paid is not the same amount as others on duty. I will raise that with the Garda Commissioner.

Deputy Kenny is right about the Garda cars. Some 524 new vehicles have come into use this year. I have looked at the individual divisions and counties. Every division or county has seen an increase in Garda numbers and vehicles in recent years. This is welcome for the reasons Deputy Kenny has outlined.

I thank the Minister. I have a few questions before we move on from Vote 20. Under A3, which relates to clothing and accessories, the figures are given as €263 million and €274 million. How does the clothing and accessories procurement process work? Is there a tender? I imagine there is. How often is that issued or renewed? What is the due diligence around that?

Perhaps the Minister will take my second question at the same time for the sake of efficiency and reply to both. Subhead A10 relates to compensation. There is a reasonably significant figure under this as well. How does that compensation figure break down? What sort of claims or payments are contained under that subhead? I see the figure is down this year, but what exactly does it cover?

I will come back to you on the first question, Chairman. The figures mainly relate to personal protective equipment. It is broken down as outlined in my statement. We have looked at clothing as well. There is a process under way for new Garda uniforms. Most likely this will come at the end of next year. That is taken into account in the figures. What was the second question?

It related to subhead A10 on compensation. What is in that subhead? What does it consist of?

There is an additional €4 million. Is this under the Department of Justice Vote?

It is under Vote 20 and Vote 21. I am asking about Vote 20 at the moment. It is under subhead A10 relating to compensation. The figure is down this year by €4 million but the total figure is normally €16.6 million.

There are two aspects to that. There are injuries on duty - the figure for that is down. The second relates to the actions against the Garda. Both figures are down but I will get more detail on that.

Thank you, Minister. That concludes our consideration of Vote 20. We will now move to Vote 21.

I have a final question. I am unsure whether the Minister will have the detail. It relates to the hiring of non-sworn civilian staff. Extra provision was made in the budget for this. Does the Minister have any idea how many front-line gardaí will be released to other duties as a result?

Let us consider the overall numbers, including Garda recruits in general. We have 14,600 Garda members at the moment and 700 recruits for the front line. That takes into account the approximately 300 retirements that take place yearly.

We have gone from a situation since 2018 where 18% of the overall Garda workforce are now civilian staff. We have seen a significant increase in the number of gardaí on front-line duties. We have seen progress in recent times. The most up-to-date figure we have is that 500 posts have been filled in 2019. That is 500 divisional gardaí who are out working now. They are not working in offices or dealing with human resources, information and communications technology, business or such issues. I do not have the full figures for this year yet but the intention is that we would have a similar figure again for this year.

That concludes Vote 20. We will move to Vote 21. We will do a round robin and members can come in. We will take questions under Vote 21. We will start with Deputy Kenny as he had his hand up first. If there are supplementary questions we will try to do it in the same manner.

My first question relates to something that comes up in almost all of the budgets. The appropriations-in-aid figure is projected to be €9.1 million. This is set off against expenditure. What does that category account for with regard to the Prison Service?

I noticed in the previous budget a certain amount in all Votes was set aside for audit. An audit company would come in to check to ensure there was adequate spending of public money. I am especially concerned about the Prison Service. In the past we have had issues. I know inquiries have been made, especially in regard to the mess committee in the prisons and how moneys were used. There were questions around all of that. I am keen to know whether further inquiries have been made in this regard. What is happening in respect of the particular issues raised in public some two years ago at this stage? I understand some of the allocation relates to ongoing inquires. Is a conclusion to that expected any time soon? It is a serious issue. It relates to public money and it needs to be accounted for.

The answer to the first question is that it relates to superannuation contributions. Several issues have come into the public domain in several prisons in recent months. There are several mechanisms through which there can be investigations either through An Garda Síochána or the Prison Service. We have the Inspector of Prisons as well. This year as part of the budget the Inspector of Prisons has received a significant increase.

She is also hiring at least six staff, which will allow the Inspector of Prisons to investigate a number of current situations and allegations that have been made. It is hard for me to comment on anything in particular that is under way at present. It is important to point out that there are various mechanisms. In An Garda Síochána it occurs when there is a death in custody, and the Irish Prison Service has its oversight mechanism. There is also the Comptroller and Auditor General which audits the prisons annually. A report which was published last September outlines the work that was done in that regard. There was also the issue regarding catering that was raised earlier this year. That is being examined and I anticipate we will have a report on that some time in the near future.

At the start of the pandemic the prisons did very well in keeping Covid-19 out of the prisons, which are contained environments in which the virus could spread quite rapidly. That was good. One of the things the prisons relied on was isolation for vulnerable prisoners. It is important to try to minimise the amount of restricted time for prisoners. People were on 23-hours isolation or the like, and I understand the numbers have increased and that there are still people spending a long time in their cells. We must work to minimise that.

One of the other issues was the community prison link workers. These are community workers who would work on an outreach basis with people in prison to ensure they have links in their communities when they are released. They have two functions. One is supporting people in prison and the other is ensuring a smooth transition when they leave prison, which is incredibly important in terms of recidivism. However, some of these prison link workers were having trouble accessing the prisons, accessing video chat and even accessing telephone calls with prisoners. Prisoners could, of course, call them, but it would have taken up some of their family call time, as the prison link workers were having difficulty getting onto the list of approved professionals. This varied from prison to prison and depended, to a certain degree, on the relationship with the individual governors. It would be beneficial if we could ensure that NGOs, community supports and the like could be added either automatically or certainly much quicker, without necessarily being at the discretion of support from the Department, so prisoners can continue to access these vital services, even at a time when restrictions might be in place. It should not mean the prisoner making the choice as to whether he or she calls his or her family or uses that time to call a support worker. That should never have to be a choice for a prisoner.

Some of this worked itself out and much of it involved local individual solutions, but if the Department could ensure that community prison link workers are linking with the prisons, that could be very helpful.

Before the Minister responds, I remind members that under Standing Orders we are considering the Estimates. A general policy discussion is probably a little outside the scope of that, but perhaps the Minister wishes to make an observation as it pertains to the Estimates.

I could reframe the question. Can we ensure that there is sufficient money in the Estimates to allow the prison link workers to be added to the list properly? Is that better, Chairman?

Thank you, Deputy.

The additional funding we have sought, which has been specifically identified for the Irish Prison Service, has been to ensure the safety of those who work in the prisons, the prisoners and their families. The Deputy made a valid point. At the outbreak of the pandemic we managed to keep Covid-19 out of the prisons. It was a credit to the Irish Prison Service, the prisoners and their families. Figures have increased in the last number of weeks and months. As of yesterday, 16 November, there were 21 confirmed cases among the prison population. That is spread out among six different prisons. The additional funding is being put in place to support measures to contain this as much as possible.

In addition, there are a significant number of measures such as basic health checks and taking temperatures for all persons and prison staff. There is ongoing revision of physical family visits. The HSE is working with the prisons on testing and tracing and the isolation of suspected cases or prisoners with symptoms to prevent the risk of transmission. The Deputy referred to the length of time prisoners are spending in isolation. The prisons are trying to keep that to a minimum, but where there are suspected cases there is a requirement for it. People over 70 years of age are cocooning, and there is training for the prison staff. Risk assessment is taking place. There are also standard operating procedures and the continuation of strong communication between prison staff and prisoners. A great deal of work has been done and that has been aided by the increased used of video technology, which is part of the Supplementary Estimate.

There is an issue with visits. They have been stopped again because of the level 5 restrictions. It is challenging because as we are in level 5 the physical visits that were booked had to be cancelled and they have had to try to reschedule. Not everybody is able to get a telephone call whenever they wish. They have to go through a process and that includes whether the call is with community support workers or otherwise. There is a reason that people have not been let into the prisons with the pandemic as it is at present, but it is important to point out that the Inspector of Prisons has always been allowed into the prisons throughout the pandemic to ensure that if there are any concerns of prisoners or any issues that have arisen, she and her team have access to them and are able to engage with them in that regard. Some of the issues the Deputy outlined are, perhaps, the issues that have been raised by prisoners.

Separately, and this might be going off track, the focus on prisoners after they leave is a major priority, particularly ensuring that supports are available. A special mental health committee has been established with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, the Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and Feighan, and myself to look at not just mental health supports in prisons but also the community supports that are available to prisoners when they leave prison. That would include engagement with the NGOs and groups the Deputy mentioned.

I have some questions on the prisons Vote. There was reference to video linking in respect of prisoners' families. What about video linking in respect of court attendance? If there is more video linking, there is improved security. It saves money on transport and keeps the staff on site, which can be a help for security. It also reduces the potential for contraband to be passed in and around the courts.

I have an associated question on prison vehicles. There is a need for a review of prison vehicles because if there are going to be more video links then some of the prison vans are too big. Is there any provision for smaller vehicles to be used in the transport of prisoners to and from the courts when it is necessary?

There is a further point. The Minister mentioned the Inspector of Prisons. I welcome her announcement of the extra funding and more staff because there has not been a report from the Inspector of Prisons for about three years. I understand she was complaining that there were not enough resources, so any extra resources are welcome. The difficulty with the Inspector of Prisons is that in a recent case she was waiting for quite some time to obtain the terms of reference. She reports to the Minister for Justice, so there is a question about the independence of the Inspector of Prisons. I note there is a suggestion that the remit of the Ombudsman will be extended. The Minister said that in a recent reply to a parliamentary question. Has the Minister considered, perhaps, a separate prisons ombudsman to create a bulwark of independence for complaints which arise from within the prisons?

I do not have the exact percentage but there has been an increase of over 60% in video links being used between the prisons and the Courts Service. I will get the exact percentage, but it is over 60%.

As the Deputy rightly says, it reduces the need for prison staff to have to transfer but also for gardaí to have to be physically present in the courts. As the use of vehicles reduces this, it is something we would like to see continue. While these measures have been introduced because of Covid, there is a very obvious benefit to it and we would like to see that continue.

In regard to vehicles, this is something the Irish Prison Service is looking at and if it makes a recommendation or a request on that basis, it is something we will look at in the same way we would look at such a request from the Garda or in regard to any other additional requirements.

In regard to the Inspector of Prisons, I want to outline that, since 2014, quite a number of reports have been undertaken, including 82 reports into deaths in custody, two inspection reports in regard to Loughan House - one in 2014 and one on the training unit in 2017 - seven thematic reports, functional reports and two special investigation reports. Given the small size of the office, a huge amount of work has been done and, obviously, with the bigger office, I would anticipate that even more work can be done.

There was an option for the inspector to carry out investigations herself, based on issues that are brought to her attention. There is also a provision within her remit for me, as Minister, to ask her to investigate something specifically and, as referred to recently, terms of reference were set out in regard to a specific investigation. It is important that I have that remit, as Minister, where there is a concern, to be able to ask that a particular investigation can be carried out. It is also important that, as an independent body, the inspector and her team can carry out an investigation on foot of a request from prisoners or prison officers.

In terms of a separate prisons ombudsman, that is not something I have had conversations about. That is not to say I could not or would not, but it has not been brought to my attention.

The Minister would not rule it out.

I would not rule anything out but that is without any information on how it would operate separate to what is already there. There is a huge amount already there in terms of oversight and working with the Prison Service.

There was some crossover when we were talking about prisoners being released from prison and the follow-up in that respect, which I have been concerned about for some time. On the other side, there is the issue of the youth diversion programme and the resources that have been going into it. This is one of the things we see in justice in general. From Garda resources, to the resources in the prisons to the resources in the courts, they all have a trend running through them because the same people, unfortunately, end up passing through all the systems very often.

One of the issues I have been made aware of for quite some time is that of youth detention facilities. There was a case a number of years ago where it was deemed not appropriate for young people to be in adult prisons. However, the only youth detention facility in the country is at Oberstown, which is always full, and we have had dilemmas where there is nowhere to put young people who are perhaps dangerous to themselves and others. The Minister mentioned the Limerick Prison extension and the delays in getting work done. Are there any plans to provide a facility or additional spaces in youth detention facilities?

I want to make a clear it is not that I think it is a good idea to be locking people up but, at the same time, we need to have facilities when they are required. Sometimes, the courts have been put in a terrible situation where they have someone who they clearly do not want to release into society, yet there is nowhere to put them. That situation is untenable as we move forward.

Without trying to avoid the question, the facilities themselves fall to the Minister, Deputy O’Gorman, in his remit as Minister with responsibility for youth. While some of the responsibilities have come back into my remit or into the Department of Justice, there are specific programmes separate to any facilities that might exist. There is over €2 million in funding connected with three different programmes, one of which is the dormant accounts fund, and that funding is specifically going to various different youth support and diversion programmes. The Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, who has specific responsibility in the Department for youth justice, will be publishing a youth justice strategy by the end of this year. A lot of work has been done in the Department, prior to the time of the Minister of State or myself, in terms of engaging with other Departments to ensure there is a collaborative approach in the overall strategy. The Minister of State will also be establishing and chairing a committee on antisocial behaviour, which, again, will try to tackle issues before they ever get to a stage where somebody is potentially going to a detention facility or other facility.

I am not aware if there is any kind of review, work or progress in train through the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, but that is something I can ask him to come back to Deputy Kenny on.

I would appreciate that.

I have one suggestion. I know that, at some stage, we will have the Director of Prisons before the committee. I had heard of late of a case within the paramilitary block where the security was a little over the top. A prisoner was away on day release over a weekend and came back on a Monday. He had a doctor's appointment across the road in Portlaoise the following day, when there was a full Army escort to get him across the road. He had been out for the whole weekend, for what was a three-day or four-day release, and came back in, so perhaps he could have been allowed to go across the road to the doctor's appointment. While I understand he is in a very high security wing, perhaps some flexibility could be arranged to allow people to go across the road in those circumstances, which would save money.

While not being able to respond to any individual case, there are a significant number of compassionate leave cases for medical reasons and, obviously, genuine recommendations are made by the Prison Service as to whether or not security is needed. There is a very clear process that has to be undertaken, and that is adhered to. However, there are compassionate grounds for many prisoners and they generally centre around hospital visits or appointments, visiting family members, funerals and various significant events like that.

I am conscious there is a potential money saving there but it is probably a very specific issue, in one sense. Before we leave that heading, Deputy Daly referred to the electronic connection of courthouses. It is worth noting the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, passed by the Houses in July, which enables a lot of that electronic interaction between courthouses, prisons and other venues. I believe that has been relatively successful and has been adopted by courts around the country. It was an efficient and pragmatic thing to do at the time and has helped to move things along.

We move to Vote 22 - Courts Service. For the information of the committee, the Minister and the wider world, it is the intention that our work programme will have a wider consideration on the Courts Service and courts system, including courthouses, capacity, modernisation and so on, at a later date. While there is not scope for it today, it is something we will be returning to and we might seek the views of the Minister down the line.

I have two questions. Under either subhead A.1 or A.2, on the legal aid provisions within the Courts Service, it has been the case for some time that the number of practitioners in the criminal sphere is in decline, and legal aid rates have effectively been frozen since 2010 or perhaps even before that. It is leading to impediments in regard to access to justice that the number of practitioners is declining, and this is happening for financial reasons. It is something the chair of the Bar Council has raised, and the Law Society may have raised it as well. It impacts on clients, accused persons and defendants of any kind. Where does this sit within the Estimates and is there any provision for that to be revised or reconsidered down the line?

My second question is on the general management of the Courts Service, including during the pandemic. It has its challenges, like any other part of society, and these have been admirably met in many cases. However, I note the comments of Maura McNally, SC, the chair of the Bar Council, who only yesterday commented on the fact the courthouses in the Dublin district have effectively gone into abeyance to an extent and prefer remote hearings, whereas venues on circuit continue to have hearings.

The question of access to justice - whether litigants can get their case heard or get their day in court, be it for vindication or to pursue whatever they need to pursue - is a concern within the Courts Service. Why is it that Dublin venues seem to be progressing? I appreciate that the Minister may not be in a position to answer right away but it is a concern that reflects the wider work. On the legal aid side, that might come under A1 or A2. Perhaps the Minister is in a position to answer that.

With regard to legal aid, there has been an increase of €2 million in this year's budget which, obviously, applies to the various different elements within the legal aid structure. There is a continuing increase in need for it. Having met the Legal Aid Board, in recent weeks, I have given a commitment to review the overall process and how people can access legal aid. There was a reduction as part of FEMPI in respect of a number of different elements, including criminal legal aid, which was mentioned by the Chairman. This is an ongoing issue that requires engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Again, I have given a commitment to the Legal Aid Board with regard to this and a number of other issues it has raised relating to reduced costs for other groups such as international protection applicants, although that was following engagement with the Legal Aid Board itself and looking at the work that was being done. Again, this is something that needs to be engaged with through the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I have given a commitment to meet the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to progress this.

In terms of the overall structure, how the courts function is not within my remit. There has been a significant effort. Towards the end of the summer, the Chief Justice highlighted the fact that he wanted the Courts Service to be operating at 80% by September. Things were on track, not just in Dublin but around the country. With the introduction of level 5 and the change in the dynamic of Covid-19, that has changed. Every effort is being made to have hearings held remotely. Some significant progress has been made and there have been very positive results. I refer to a domestic violence case recently where a barring order was given out via a video camera so it has been very successful. For most of the courts, where they are hearing in person, possibly mainly the District Court, it is the emergency cases such as family law, domestic violence and breaches of the various different family orders that are being heard. The overall running of the courts is a matter for the Courts Service working with the president. With regard to the additional funding that was allocated, the €5 million related to the July stimulus was aimed at getting them all up and running and provide any of those additional measures, including PPE and hiring additional buildings to be able to conduct jury trials. That has been pretty successful in making sure criminal trials in particular have continued.

In the context of additional money being provided to the Courts Service to hire additional venues and larger venues, the feedback is that it has been progressing quite successfully in certain venues in Dublin. I am not quite sure where that is.

I will feed that back in.

I am happy to discuss that with the Minister afterwards. There have been public pronouncements on it even in the past couple of days so I could pass on those details if that is of assistance.

In the context of additional expenditure on hiring buildings, can the Minister give us an estimate of the timeline for progressing the family courts building beside the Four Courts? How is that going? Is there a timeline for the Family Courts Bill so that once we have the building, we can put the court in it?

In respect of Hammond Lane, funding has been allocated, which is one of the most significant elements. The design stage is being finalised. Once that happens, it will go to tender. There is quite a large hole in the ground so a bit of work has been done but quite a significant amount of work needs to be done. I would like to see it as soon as possible. If the design can be concluded as quickly as possible, and I believe it is nearing an end stage, we will move to the tender process and things can progress quickly.

The Family Courts Bill is a huge body of work that looks not just at the physical infrastructure but the system itself and how people go through it and the ancillary supports. It is similar to what we are doing with the domestic and sexual violence piece with regard to a person's journey if he or she goes through the courts. The legislation will be worked on for most of next year but I wish to alert Deputies that early next year, while we have an implementation group consisting of the specific agencies that must implement the changes, there will be separate engagement with NGOs and representative groups and public consultation to allow people to have an input into the legislation and what is being proposed so far in the heads of Bill that are published. It is a huge body of work that will take most of next year but, obviously, once that is in place, I would like to see Hammond Lane and other pieces of work progress as well. There is a question around the family court structure, whether we will use existing courthouses and whether they will be designated particular days or whether we need to develop or build new structures. We must then decide where they will be so a body of work needs to be done. I will engage with Deputies on those issues early in the new year.

Following on from what the Chairman said about regional courthouses in general, there is a concern among practitioners around the country that court sittings are being moved to regional centres such as Limerick from Ennis and other places in Clare and Kerry. Criminal hearings and sentencing hearings are being moved to Limerick. The result is that gardaí must leave the county. They are away all day and perhaps for longer than that. Another difficulty is that complainants and their families along with the families of accused people must also move outside the county. Justice should be seen to be done in the local area as much as possible. While Covid restrictions are in place, we have an opportunity to improve courthouses. For example, there is no video link facility in the courthouse in Tralee and no space has been rented in that area for remote jury selection.

There is a wider issue relating to Tralee courthouse, which the Minister may have heard me mention before. This is the time to refurbish the existing site on Ashe Street. There is ample space there for redevelopment and the Covid restrictions provide us with the opportunity. Some of the concerns that the Courts Service may have had about the existing building might not constitute such an issue after all. For example, victims of crime and domestic violence cases do not necessarily have to be within the court building and have separate rooms. The Department is renting office space a couple of hundred yards up the road and I understand that hundreds of thousands of euro is being spent annually when there is space upstairs in the existing building that could be utilised. As regard the family law courts, in which Tralee may or may not be included, there is a building across the road that could be used as a family law court to keep it separate but more or less, make a complex out of it. I hope the Minister is fairly well versed in most pros and some of the cons relating to keeping it there. I suggest that now is the time when things are in a state of flux to act and refurbish the existing courthouse, which would benefit the town and county by keeping and securing the future of court services in the town.

Regarding A3, I am not sure if it may be in the briefing material but could the breakdown of the capital works programme for courthouses be circulated to the committee? Perhaps it already has been circulated but, if not, could it be done so we could see where it is being spent and the different projects? I am sure the committee will have submissions for the programme next year.

I understand from the previous Minister that an amount was ring-fenced for Tralee courthouse.

I am informed that approximately €17 million or €18 million was ring-fenced.

As the Deputy is aware, four options for Tralee courthouse are being considered. Obviously, the Deputy has a very clear preference for that. The options are: building a new courthouse on the portion of the Ballymullen barracks site; refurbishment of the existing courthouse; possible acquisition of a site owned by An Post that is to the rear of the courthouse; and building a new courthouse on the Island of Geese site. I understand the last one is now in council ownership. This is under consideration and I hope a decision will be made soon. The Deputy is not the only one to have made views known as to which would be best for various reasons, including the court itself, community impact etc. All that will need to be assessed and taken on board when a decision is made.

On the sittings of the court, we have asked the Courts Service to ensure inasmuch as possible and particularly for emergency cases that trial hearings can continue in a safe way and that the health of those who are working there and others attending are protected as much as possible. It has meant a reduced number of sittings and that certain places are not being used in the way that they would have been. These measures are based on Covid restrictions and are continually reviewed. As we come out of the pandemic in the coming year, I hope, there will be a resumption of much of what was happening prior to the pandemic. It is also important for us to review how things have worked to date. Obviously, the capital plan is much longer than the Garda one which we are considering renewing and changing next year going into 2022. I believe another ten years are left in the courthouse capital project. A review needs to happen, taking into account the Covid pandemic, how things have been operating, the restructuring of the family court system and many other factors, with a new or revised version of the current capital plan put in place.

When is the decision on the Tralee courthouse likely to be made? I detect from practitioners that a certain war-weariness is creeping in that nothing is being done. Not even a stair or a wheelchair-accessible lift has been installed there. The Garda and the practitioners are all happy with the existing building. The Ballymullen site should be ruled out as it is outside the centre of the town. I would like a decision to be made sooner rather than later because a weariness is coming in.

I know Covid has been a factor in this and has delayed many things. I would like to see a decision made sooner rather than later because I am conscious that many people are awaiting it.

I know it is of interest to the Deputy and it is a subject the committee can return to in due course. It would be useful to get detail on the A3 line item, which would allow us to see the stages of progression of courthouses around the country. I will be making a submission on Naas courthouse. I will not delay the committee with it now. It is one of the largest districts in the country, serving Kildare and west Wicklow. With the closure of the Kilcock courthouse, it means that all business is effectively being done in one building in Naas. I might return to that on another occasion.

Many courthouses around the country are under pressure due to the Covid pandemic. They are all having difficulties. Based on reports in a local newspaper, the relatively new courthouse in Carrick-on-Shannon is considering severely limiting the number of sittings and closing it down much of the time because there is insufficient space for people to move around. We need an assessment of each courthouse and what can be done to make it work better. While I understand the Courts Service may already be doing some of that, it is important for it to happen as quickly as possible.

As we are discussing courthouses it would be remiss if I did not mention this. All Opposition parties and groupings have requested the Minister to come to the Dáil Chamber this week to make a statement and answer questions about the process of appointment of senior judges. It would be important for her to do so from the point of view of her position and the position of the Judiciary. To clear up the matter it would be important that she would do that. I take this opportunity when she is here. I know it is not is not part of what we are doing, but I thought it was important to put that to her when she is here before the committee.

As I said at the outset, we are confining our matters to the business we need to do in this committee. I hope we will have many sessions of the commission ahead of us over the next few years. We will have an opportunity to delve into all sorts of matters, but for the business before us today-----

As it has been raised, I have no problem responding to that if it is appropriate.

The Minister may make a brief statement.

The last thing I want is for anyone to say I am refusing to answer questions or outline the process that is taking place. Earlier this year the Chief Justice identified that there was a vacancy within the Supreme Court. He asked the then Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, to fill that vacancy. Obviously, the process then ensued. The Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which is an independent board chaired by the Chief Justice and contains the presidents of the courts along with others, made a recommendation. Given that there had been an election, there was an interim Government and with the outbreak of Covid, that appointment was not made.

Having been appointed at the end of June, after a number of weeks I looked at the recommendation that had been made and other expressions of interest that often come for any of these positions. Following that I spoke to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Attorney General. On foot of that, a recommendation was made, and a name was given to Cabinet. It is important to say only one name is ever given to Cabinet, whether it is for judicial appointment or appointment of a chairperson or member to a board from any other Department. Based on that recommendation, which had come through the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which is an independent board, that name was approved by Cabinet. It is important to say there is a very clear process. As Minister for Justice, I adhered to that process and the person who was appointed came through an official process from an independent body chaired by the Chief Justice himself.

I thank the Minister. I am reluctant to set a precedent because we have much work to do in the coming years and I want to stick to our agenda where we can. I appreciate that the Deputy asked a question and got an answer. We will bank that.

Are there any other questions on Vote 22? As there are no questions, I will move on to the consideration of Vote 24, which largely relate to the sections that are moving to other Departments owing to the restructuring of Departments. There are no questions. They are of minor monetary value in any case.

I thank the Minister and her officials for attending today and for their briefing materials and the notes supplied in advance. I appreciate that further notes will be provided following the meeting. I thank the members for their questions and participation. I thank the clerk and the team for their support.