I presume that if we have a broad debate now we can invite the Minister to respond in a general way. If that is what is happening I will range across the broad number of issues. Like Deputy Shatter I am conscious that we are debating Estimates that we are not in a position to alter. We can highlight some of the issues that are important to us. While this debate is not receiving much external attention it is important to put a few things on the record. Some the issues I am about to deal with have been dealt with by Deputy Shatter.
This is certainly the last Estimate with which the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will deal. Regardless of the outcome of the election, unless someone nails him to his desk the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, will not be resident in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. He has had one of the most difficult jobs in Government. In many ways it is a thankless job. To say one built another prison will not exactly get a great cheer nor will the fact that he did something that might have impacted on the level of crime. In many ways it is not a Department which generally delivers good news. I disagree fundamentally with many things the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has done but I recognise he is a sincere hardworking Minister who came with an agenda to his Department. That is very important.
My time in politics has indicated to me that there are two types of Ministers: those who drive and those who are driven, and I do not mean in State cars. The Department will run itself if there is a Minister who allows it. There are those who go with an agenda of work to do. Engaging Ministers who try to get things done should be recognised. Before I get carried away with words of praise, I want to outline some of the failures of the Minister's term in office. There was huge potential to make great changes and a number of fundamental mistakes were made at the outset.
The first mistake was the abolition of the Department of Equality and Law Reform. I know the Minister will say it has not been abolished, but it has been subsumed as a junior relation in the much larger Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I have dealt with that Department for a long time and on one occasion I substituted for the former Tánaiste on the Cabinet sub-committee. I know the security focus of the Department and issues like law reform - particularly on the civil side, equality and disability take a secondary place. This is particularly true when there is such a demand for legislation. From working on this committee, we know it is the Department that has generated most legislation.
I will not be excessively wordy in dealing with some of the specific issues. I know that is a tall order for either Deputy Shatter or me, but I want to save my best lines for the weekend and I do not want to fire my best ammunition just yet, as the Minister might appreciate. The Minister sought to make most capital of the issue of prisons in his five years on office. He has brought in 1,300 additional prison places. What is the consequence of that? He says the revolving door has stopped. I do not know about that. I notice one prisoner escaped for the third time last week. That poor man is in permanent revolution. He seems to be walking in and out of prison custody at a great rate. We now have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Europe. Is that something to be lauded?
We also have one of the highest re-offending rates in Europe. For many people, prison is a university of crime. Bad thieves and rogues improve their trade in the university of a prison. It is not conducive to great rehabilitation, despite the best efforts of extremely good people. When I see some of the regimes in other jurisdictions, we are very fortunate with the calibre of people running our prison system. It is invidious to mention anyone, but someone like the governor of Mountjoy, Mr. Lonergan, is an example and inspiration to many people. His words on the numbers of people we imprison bear careful analysis.
I do not want to embark on this matter too philosophically as I do not agree it is good to lock up a greater proportion of our people or to have more prison places. We should keep imprisonment for those who violently offend. People should not be locked up for the non-payment of fines. We should have proper wages and benefits legislation to ensure fines are extracted from those who are recalcitrant in paying fines. The notion of locking people up for minor offences is unconscionable.
In my clinic in the past ten days I met a woman of very poor means who had been called upon by two gardaí and told that if she did not pay a litter fine, she would be carted off to prison. The litter fine arose because the woman could not and did not pay a wheelie bin charge in Wexford Corporation and put out a bag of rubbish beside a neighbour's wheelie bin. She had gone through a very difficult time. She did not reach out to people early enough, but there was a court case and a fine of €200, which was extremely burdensome for her. The notion of contemplating imprisonment for that calibre of individual is unconscionable.
That is the consequence of talking about having done great things in providing these prison places. There are many people in prison who should not be there. People who have offended in a violent way and are a danger to society should be in prison. There is a worrying trend for more people to be imprisoned with alacrity. There is a greater rate of imprisonment here than in the UK and that is not good. That is an issue to which I will return. The previous Fine Gael spokesperson did much work on restorative justice and produced a very good paper for this committee. That is something in which we should engage with a future Minister who is more open to it and does not have an agenda believing that prison is good in all circumstances.
The Garda complaints issue is of fundamental importance. This has not just been abandoned, but has also been talked town by the Minister. For a long time he has fought tooth and nail against the notion of having a proper inquiry into serious allegations of malpractice by an Garda Síochána. As Deputy Shatter said, he has belatedly come to believe that a tribunal of inquiry into what is characterised as the McBrearty affair is warranted, having voted and trenchantly argued against such an inquiry only a few months ago. In the dying days of this Administration, the Minister has concluded that questions will be asked of him by a new Administration, by whomever succeeds him or by whatever tribunal is finally established. Why did he allow this to fester for so long and not act? That kind of question will be put to him and he will have to answer it.
We currently have no proper complaints mechanism although we have the promise of one. A long time ago, I proposed having a Garda ombudsman, modelled on the ombudsman service in Northern Ireland. The Minister flatly refused and claimed everything was rosy in the current system. He has gradually moved from that position to proposing the notion of an inspectorate. There is no legislation, only the promise. Five years represents one of the longest unbroken terms for one Minister for Justice in a very long time. It is striking that there are so many promises for the future, rather than being able to point to an agenda completed after a full term.
The lack of a Garda complaints inspectorate is one of the most glaring omissions. We do not have legislation published showing even the shape, much less the substance, of a system that will restore confidence in a very fine force that really needs reform. That reform needs to be structural and needs to go beyond the Garda ombudsman, as detailed in my proposals for a Garda authority. I hope the next Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will address this, because policing is the key to crime and the structure of the police force and its relationship to the public, particularly communities, will be pivotal. That requires a longer debate at another time.
The Minister has done something, albeit very little, about victim support and establishing rights in law for victims. We hear of people's frustration about this all the time. I said that the Minister has a tough job. Being Opposition spokesperson on justice is an even tougher job, as the Minister is aware. I know my colleague from Fine Gael is better equipped. Just like a court of appeal, every day I get volumes of files from people who feel hard done by by the legal system. I received two today. What am I going to do about them? I am neither a lawyer nor do I have any staff. I have a secretarial assistant, but I am expected to deal with these issues. The more high profile one is in commenting about miscarriages of justice, the more one attracts these submissions. We ought to have some mechanism for dealing with these matters and a Garda ombudsman would be an appropriate vehicle for dealing with allegations against an Garda Síochána. We hear much about victims who feel excluded from the process. We have made some progress in that but we need to go much further.
I could say so much about the whole issue of asylum seekers. I have had battles with the Minister on this and there is no need to re-stage those battles. This has applied to all Bills and all the grafted legislation the Minister has introduced in this area during his time in office.
I wish to raise a specific issue, which is a cause of shame and annoyance to me, in relation to the Devereaux Hotel in Rosslare Harbour. This hotel was acquired for more than £2 million by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to be used as a reception centre for asylum seekers arriving in the port of Rosslare Harbour - Europort Rosslare. Due to some local opposition, that did not come to pass and it is a shame nothing was done with that facility. The Minister backed down because of pressure from his junior ministerial colleague in Wexford. That was uncharacteristic of the Minister who, whatever else one might say, is a courageous individual who faces down opposition. The building has remained idle for almost two years, costing a considerable amount just to maintain security on it. It is the first building seen by people coming off the ferry and it is now a monument to our attitude against providing a reception centre for asylum seekers. Instead, we have a portakabin down in the harbour, despite the substantial expenditure incurred. What was the total cost of the Devereaux Hotel and the security arrangements and why has it not been used for any purpose, despite all the pledges and promises made by the Minister, both privately to me and publicly to the Dáil? I rest on that issue because there are so many other issues.
The Minister also referred to free legal aid, for which the most recent figures available to me are for 31 December 2001. The waiting period for access to a solicitor at each free legal aid centre is listed in the table provided by the Minister. It is nine and a half months in Blanchardstown, seven and three quarter months in Gardiner Street, six months in Wexford, four and a half months in Finglas, five and a quarter months in Brunswick Street, Dublin, three and a half months in Tallaght and Ormond Quay and two and three quarter months in Sligo. A person who has to wait up to nine months to see a solicitor is not being provided with a proper service. In a time of plenty, access to the law is important. That is a glaring example of things yet to be done. We have yet to see the establishment of the parole board. Although it has been the subject of discussions and questions, there is still no legislation or allocation of money for it.
On the public order Bill, now promised, I will not go over the ground which Deputy Shatter has covered, in deference to time constraints, but I agree substantially with his comments. It is just not good enough for the Minister to speak of a significant decrease in crime when that is not the perception people have and when young people, in particular, are vulnerable on our streets. This is not a myth - the increase of 130% in the figures for serious assault between 1999 and 2000 is factual. The Minister has the provisional outturn figures for 2001, as he admitted to me on the RTE radio programme, "Morning Ireland". If the Minister has not got the figures - he is shaking his head - why in God's name has he not got them? The PULSE system is working.
The Minister has spoken of proof-reading the figures - how long does that take? I believe he knows there has been a very substantial increase last year over the 130% increase in 2000 and he wants that figure buried until after the general election. Action is needed on these matters. Unlike Deputy Shatter, I do not believe we will see the Minister's proposals enacted but he wants to have something to say to the electorate in relation to that most serious and glaring failure.
The Minister for the Environment and Local Government has talked about the awful carnage that is happening on our roads and he has suggested dedicated traffic courts. There is no mention of that in the Minister's proposals. The issue of "joined-up government" is important. Does the Minister intend to propose a distinct and separate traffic corps of the Garda Síochána, with its own fleet, equipment, and facilities? Where stands the Minister in that regard and where is the provision in the Estimates? How will it be funded if the proposal by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government is anything more than the sky-full of kites which that Minister has flown in recent years? If vehicles are to be provided for the new traffic corps, it is noteworthy that the Estimates provision for maintenance and running expenses is down by almost €1 million. Perhaps the proposed interdiction of traffic offences will all be done by a bicycle corps. Yet, the carnage on our roads is a real and substantial issue, not just for the Minister of State with responsibility for road safety in the Department of the Environment and Local Government but also for the Garda Síochána and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I could say much more but, in view of time constraints, I will move on to other issues.
Wearing his equality and law reform hat, the Minister has responsibility for a variety of support services for the disadvantaged and disabled. The Disabilities Bill was produced by this Minister, after a lot of discussion, although it was presented by the Minister of State. During my time in the Dáil, I cannot recall any Bill being met with such absolute annoyance, frustration and downright anger as the Disability Bill. People who thought they were being listened to were, in fact, completely ignored. Their palpable anger at the Minister's proposals, which ran counter to everything they wanted in rights-based legislation, characterised, better than anything else, a Government that just was not listening. I know a volte face has taken place, but we need more than that. The Minister needs to make it absolutely clear whether a rights-based and meaningful Disability Bill is to be a reality, on the basis the relevant lobby groups were led to believe or has the Government abandoned that whole concept?
I wish to refer to legislation to be dealt with this week. For a very long time, the Minister set his face against investigating the McBrearty affair but, five weeks ago - for the reasons I have indicated I believed he would do that - he and the Taoiseach gave me a commitment that there would be consultation on the terms of reference of the inquiry and of any amending legislation. Obviously, if one intends to ground terms of reference on legislation, it is pointless to have the legislation enacted without consultation and then simply consult on the terms of reference. I regret the Minister has not availed of that five weeks to engage with any Opposition Deputies. I received a telephone message yesterday to the effect that the Bill would be published today and that I could have a briefing on it. When I asked whether it was consultation I was told it was not, and that our views were of no consequence since the Government had signed off. For good measure,it was to be guillotined through all Stages inthree hours although Members of the Dáil willnot have general sight of the Bill until today.That has not happened before on an amending Bill for the terms of reference of a tribunal of inquiry.
The tribunals of inquiry have always been creatures of the House, not of Government. Although the instrument is signed by a Minister it has always been so, and I have been involved in the construction of terms of reference for various inquiries in the past. I have often drafted parts of the terms of reference and even parts of the amending legislation. Therefore, I regard this as a breach of faith by the Minster and I regret that.
The same official came back to my adviser yesterday to say that there would be discussion on the terms of reference separately but that he did not know when this would be. I presume the terms of reference are to go through next week, so I do not know what consultation can take place if the legislation is to be drafted and enacted next week. The Chief Whip tells us that he wants the decks cleared so that the Taoiseach's pleasure can be determined without obstruction after next Thursday. It was a breach of faith that the Minister did not have that consultation.
Those are my observations at this stage. The huge potential of a capable Minister has been unrealised and that is also a proper summing up of this Government. Huge potential in a time of plenty has not been realised. There are huge issues still to be addressed by whoever comes to take charge of this Department. I hope it will be split into two constituent Departments when the next Government takes office.
On the provisional outturn figures for 2001 for the Prisons Service in Vote 21 - subhead A1, salaries for prison officers are listed as €95 million while overtime payments are listed as €55 million. I thought the Minister was to address this issue - he certainly talked a great deal about it. In the Estimate figures for 2002, he proposes to reduce overtime to €28 million. How does he propose to do that or is it just a fanciful wish? Will the person who brings these figures to the Dáil next year be in the interesting situation where the overtime bill is more than half the basic salary bill?