Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Questions (42)

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]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

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.