Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 3 May 1995

Vol. 452 No. 3

Transfer of Sentenced Persons Bill, 1995: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I appreciate Deputy O'Donnell allowing me some of her time. I congratulate the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, for swiftly publishing this Bill, which will bring us into line with internationally accepted human rights practices and will enable us to ratify the 1983 Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and the 1987 EU agreement on the convention's application. This will be particularly welcomed by prisoners' families who, if prisoners are transferred, will no longer be forced to undertake long journeys at considerable cost and hardship to visit them. It will be extremely encouraging for the family of a prisoner that he or she is nearer home and it will make things much easier for them.

Whereas the general provisions of the Bill are straightforward, I wish to query section 5 (5) which provides in certain cases for the sentence imposed by the sentencing state to be adapted to Irish law. Sentencing policy varies widely from state to state. I concede that sentences in some other jurisdictions would be considered unjustifiably harsh in Ireland but the reverse is also true. Sentences imposed in Ireland for some types of offences, particularly sexual offences, are often unduly lenient. I note that subsection (5) is qualified by subsection (6) which states:

Where a sentence is adapted under subsection (5) it shall, as far as practicable, correspond in nature to the sentence imposed by the sentencing state and shall not, in any event, either——

(a) aggravate it by its legal nature or duration, or

(b) exceed the maximum penalty prescribed by the law of the State for a similar offence.

In other words we cannot adjust the sentence upwards. I welcome these qualifications but the section must be clarified. Does it mean that a prisoner who received a ten year sentence and is subsequently transferred back to Ireland can apply to the Irish courts for a reduction of sentence on the basis that if he had committed a similar crime in Ireland he would have received a lesser sentence? I am uneasy about this section.

I am concerned about section 5. A lengthy custodial sentence imposed for sexual assault could be reduced in this State. We need only look at the reduction in sentence in the X case to see the implications of such a policy. The Minister should reassure us on this point. Section 6 (b) provides that the Minister may authorise any person to take a sentenced person to or from any place under the warrant and to keep the person in custody under the warrant. Section 6 (c) further states that the authorised person shall have all the powers, authority, protection and privileges of a member of the Garda Síochána. Anyone in custody is at the mercy of the person having custody and they should be carefully selected in order to avoid abuses. Any person authorised pursuant to section 6 (b) should be a member of the Garda Síochána or the prison service.

They probably would be in practice.

At a time of spiralling crime, prisoners' rights are a distinctively unpopular topic yet those held by the State are its responsibility. It is one which we have not always taken seriously in the past. I urge the Minister to look beyond the legislation being debated and to update the often antiquated legislation governing the prison service to place prisons within modern statutory framework. Such legislation should incorporate prison rules, a code of conduct for prison staff and establish legally enforceable conditions. Not only would this protect prisoners, it would give the protection of the law and a proper framework to those who work in prisons.

The Minister for Justice should not have sole authority for prisons. They should be placed under the aegis of an independent prison board which would monitor the implementation of relevant legislation and to which prisoners and prison staff would have recourse in cases of complaint. The Government programme is committed to examining the establishment of a prison board and parole board to ensure that prisoners are discharged from prisons in an orderly fashion rather than in the ad hoc manner they are today. Sometimes prisoners, having served extremely long sentences, get little time to adjust to society and find it extremely difficult to integrate as a worthwhile member. It is not that they do not want to do so but that the world has changed so much since they went into prison. They need special treatment and this should be taken on board. I hope the Minister will move swiftly to honour these commitments and ensure that all legislation governing the prison service is transparent.

When this Bill was first announced many commentators saw it solely in the context of the peace process and there is no doubt that it is an important step towards consolidating that process. However, I place the Bill in a wider context. It should be viewed as one part of a body of legislation which is necessary to bring Ireland into line with internationally accepted human rights practices. In 1993 Ireland was roundly condemned in a UN human rights report which noted, among other things, the absence of refugee legislation, equal status legislation which would give legal recourse to minorities such as travellers and our over-reliance on censorship. We have made some progress and this legislation consolidates that.

We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ending of World War II this month. That war was marked by a flood of refugees from the tyrannies of various nations, many of whom unsuccessfully sought refuge in Ireland. Since then there have been millions more refugees but rather than having a transparent, accountable, legislative framework we continue to operate an arbitrary refugee policy based on a loose arrangement with the UNHCR.

Last year the Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, published what Democratic Left considered a deeply flawed Bill, one which conformed to the lowest rather than the highest human rights common denominator. Following consultations with the relevant NGOs, my party tabled a number of amendments to the legislation to ensure it conformed to the highest possible standards. I urge the Minister to set an early date for the introduction of amending refugee legislation. Refugees are not the only people denied a place in our legislative framework. Last week the British Government decided to extend race relations legislation to Northern Ireland, which I welcome. It is incumbent on this Government to bring forward the long overdue equal status legislation. It is unacceptable that travellers and other minorities should be protected in Northern Ireland but not in the Republic. Ethnic, religious and other minorities have little protection here. The Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred legislation introduced with such fanfare six years ago has proved to be a legislative paper tiger. Not one prosecution was taken under the legislation but who among us could argue that there has not been a case of incitement? Everyone could name them. They have been front page news yet there were no prosecutions.

I am sure Deputies were as appalled as I was to hear over the weekend that a foreign teenager committed suicide because of the harassment he encountered on a daily basis. He felt he had nowhere to turn. The best legislation is only as good as its implementation or non-implementation as in the case of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act.

I urge the Government to establish an equality ombudsman. Legislation is of little use if people do not know about it and minorities are often excluded from the mainstream provisions of information. I envisage a system whereby those who feel their rights are infringed could contact the ombudsman and receive guidance in pursuing the matter further.

The UN report also noted the prevalence of censorship. Since then we have abolished section 1 of the Broadcasting Act and I welcome that. It should have been removed long ago. If we cannot deal with ourselves we can deal with very little and confronting various elements of our political and violent past is necessary for us as a nation. Censorship is a reality in Irish life and I urge the Minister to review the Censorship of Publications Act.

Democratic Left, Fine Gael and Labour are committed to bringing Ireland into line with international human rights standards. Matters have been put on the long finger and I look forward to the introduction of future legislation which will expand the liberties of all who live in this State. It would appear we will have to deal with and take responsibility for people who may never have lived as adults in Ireland. This legislation will have implications for prisoners who are about to be transferred. We will have to examine how we deal with these people, how they will fit into society following their sentences, whether they have psychiatric illness and whether their crimes were committed because of various illnesses, their state of health, how we govern our prisons and the attitude of other prisoners towards them. The implications of the legislation are many.

While I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue, we need to look at the wider arena. I know the Minister for Justice will be as sympathetic as I am to these problems.

I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill. I had hoped for a long time that this Bill would be introduced, ratifying a convention signed in 1987. It is a pity it has taken so long to get this far.

When we talk about prisoners we have to examine the reason we put people in prison and seek to find out whom we are trying to punish. People should not be put in prison for revenge — that should not have any part in the prison regime. Innocent families should not be victimised due to family members being imprisoned. I welcome this Bill as a humanitarian step in the right direction.

A number of years ago I lobbied strongly within my own party for the ratification of this convention and urged that a Bill such as this should be brought forward. I do not see this in the context of the recent troubles in our country but in the wider humanitarian context of ordinary prisoners being imprisoned throughout the world. I would hope that the problem of prisoners connected with the political troubles would not be ongoing. I see this as a Bill for the future mainly related to ordinary prisoners.

I have pointed out frequently when talking about this Bill that if a person was convicted of a crime in, for example, some state in the Mediterranean the sentence there would be much greater than if one was imprisoned at home for the same offence. The person would have to endure a different climate, different food, different culture, different language as well as fewer visits from relatives. In this context the Bill is important.

Recently I visited some prisoners in Britain, including some imprisoned for offences connected with the northern troubles. I visited also a person from my own constituency who is in prison for an ordinary criminal offence. The costs and the difficulties involved in visiting relatives in prison in Britain, our nearest neighbour, are horrendous. By their nature, prisons tend to be built in out of the way places which are inaccessible. Because we live on an island, it is almost impossible for people from this jurisdiction to visit relatives in prison abroad. For that reason this Bill should have been introduced before now. It is more important in an Irish context than if we were talking about prisoners in Holland and Belgium where one could travel across the borders. Bringing this Bill before the House is a progressive humanitarian step. It cannot be stressed sufficiently that this Bill relates to all prisoners, to any person incarcerated and convicted in another jurisdiction so long as that jurisdiction is a signatory to the convention. I hope the number of signatories to the convention will increase over time.

When lobbying for the Bill to be brought forward I was told the cost would be horrendous and that there are 1,000 Irish people in prisons abroad. I argued at the time — I think I will be proven right — that the vast bulk of those people are domiciled permanently in the country in which they are in prison, for example, in Britain or America, where they have family members and will not be applying for transfers to Ireland. I am confident that the number of people seeking transfers, in global terms, will not be great and that it will be well within our ability to handle the financial ramifications of transfers. That does not reduce the importance if the numbers are small but it means that the Bill is more workable than people thought when the debate was going on in other fora. The biggest argument against it was cost. I recall suggesting that if the demand was for 1,000 or 500 transfers and we did not have sufficient prison places we could deal with that problem by means of a quota and facilitate, say, the first 20 or 30. My understanding is that that will not be necessary. I cannot help thinking that perhaps this could have been done sooner but mar a deirtear i nGaeilge, is fearr deireanach ná go bráth.

The other issue that arises is that we will have to find a certain number of places for the people who have been convicted. We have to look at the prison system in its wider context. In the modern world there must be ways of dealing with some of the minor offences such as non-payment of debts and fines, for which people are imprisoned. We must find some system of dealing with these people and ensure they face the full rigours of the law short of putting them in prison. More imaginative solutions than imprisonment could be found for dealing with their problems. I am amazed that the only means of dealing with the non-payment of a fine is a committal order. In these days of attachment orders on social welfare and wages etc. it should be possible to force people to pay their fine if they did not do so in the ordinary way, short of putting them to prison. It might be a cheaper and more effective way of ensuring that they complied with the law. A prison sentence is no solution to that type of non-compliance with the law. Some people, when imprisoned become hardened criminals because of the criminal environment. If prison spaces were freed up in that way we would be able to deal with whatever number of people have to be transferred under this arrangement without the necessity to provide a huge number of extra prison places.

In connection with those who are imprisoned for offences connected with the troubles, I would hope the kind of policy being followed by the Minister, which had been initiated by the previous Government, will be followed by the British Government.

Violence is wrong, and certainly the maiming and killing of people is wrong. However, circumstances pertained in the North that led to violence. We must set our face, as we did in this part of the country, to finding a permanent solution to the problems while recognising the historical reasons for the difficulties. One of the best ways to ensure that peace is a permanent feature both on this island and on our neighbouring island is to be magnanimous, deal with the problems and not seek vengeance.

The question of prisoners is an emotive one, particularly in the context of Anglo-Irish relations. I hope the passing of this Bill will give the British Government the courage at least to apply the Ferrers report which recommended, within the British criminal code, that prisoners should be held in prisons nearest to the areas from which they come. That would mean automatic transfer to Northern Ireland for many prisoners held in Britain on terrorist offences. I hope the passing of this Bill will act as a spur to the British authorities to do for Northern prisoners what it is possible to do in the case of prisoners from the South, that is to transfer back to the North those prisoners who come from there.

It comes across forcefully to me that the regime imposed on prisoners has become a conviction for the families, who are saying that despite having peace for the last eight months and seeing things happen that many people thought would never happen they have not seen a peace dividend. The prisoners say they themselves can live with the situation but it is hard to live with no peace dividend for their families. They cannot understand why the families of prisoners have not seen some peace dividend. It has been argued, but such argument is self-defeating, that it is not fair to the victims if the situation of prisoners is eased in any way. However, the families are not guilty of any crime. Not alone but many prisoners are relatives of victims and the communities from which the greatest number of prisoners come are the communities which have the greatest number of victims. In many instances there is no clear separation between victims and convicted people because they have tended to feed in a tit for tat way on each other. This was brought home to me clearly when one prisoner mentioned to me that his father had been killed in the troubles. In that context it is easy to understand the close relationship between victims and convicted persons in the North that is peculiar to the troubles. It is a vicious circle that we must break out of. I hope this Bill will encourage the British Government to break out of the present impasse and take a more magnanimous view.

It is also significant that prisoners and leaders of the Loyalist community have been in favour of a liberal attitude on this issue. It is not a cause of conflict between nationalists and loyalists in the North. Mar a dúirt mé, is lá iontach domsa go pearsanta an Bille seo a fheiceáil os comhair an Tí seo. Fáiltím roimhe agus gabhaim comhgháirdeas ó chroí leis an Aire as ucht an Bille seo a thabhairt ar aghaidh.

Creidim gur céim mhór chun cinn é ó thaobh na daonnachta de. Creidim go seasann an Bille seo mar chomhartha gur tír daonna í an tír seo, go bhfuil i gceist againn na Coinbhinsin éagsúla idirnáisiúnta a shínímid a chur i gcrích agus go bhfuil i gceist againn a bheith páirteach i gcomhdhaonnacht mór domhanda a thabharfaidh cothrom na Féinne do gach duine.

Ní ionann sin agus a rá nach ceart dúinn daoine a dhéanann coireanna trom-chúiseacha a chur i bpriosún ach go gcaithfidh sé a bheith déanta ar bhealach atá cothrom agus nach ceart píonós trom a chur ar mhuintir an phriosúnaigh — daoine nach ndearna aon choir agus nach bhfuil freagrach as na rudaí a dhein an priosúnach. Mar sin fáiltím go mór roimh an mBille seo.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): Ar an gcéad dul síos ba mhaith liom comhgháirdeas a dhéanamh leis an Aire toisc gur thug sí an Bille seo isteach comh tapaidh seo.

Níl sí ina hAire ach le cúpla mí agus tá sé soiléir go bhfuil sí ag obair go dian. Ní thuigim chor ar bith cén fáth go mbeadh milleán á chur uirthi ag urlabhraí Fhianna Fáil toisc go raibh moill ar an mBille seo. Bhí deis ag Fianna Fáil leis na blianta agus níor dhein siad tada faoi. Ba mhaith liom a rá freisin gur chuir an Teachta Ó Cuív fáilte roimh an mBille seo gan aon bhrú a chur ar an Aire nó gan a rá nach raibh sí tapaidh go leor leis nó gur chuir sí moill air.

Chuir sé fáilte roimh an mBille agus sin mar ba chóir, sílim.

Day after day Fianna Fáil look for Bills that now appear to them to be very important that, for some strange reason, they made no effort to have introduced when they were in power. The spokesman today was very upset that this Bill was not introduced sooner, which is strange considering the Bill was first discussed in 1978 and has since been awaiting Government action. I do not understand the collective amnesia that seems to have affected Fianna Fáil. No sooner had they left the Government benches than they were shouting for Bills and criticising delays. I am sure it must have been trying for them when their Ministers did nothing about important Bills which they as backbenchers were so anxious to produce. However, they are lucky that we now have a good Minister who is producing the goods.

Deputy O'Donnell, on behalf of the Progressive Democrats, went overboard by insinuating that the Minister was a Provo sympathiser and would not admit that the Bill was aimed at the release of IRA prisoners and that Gerry Adams had a major role in it. I hate to quote lest I offend listerners but this was a case where the Deputy was willing to wound yet afraid to strike. She made several attempts to cast aspersions on a very good Minister, which is certainly not the standard one would expect from a Progressive Democrat. It is neither progressive nor democratic to suggest in regard to a Bill that has been lying around since 1985, even when the Progressive Democrats were themselves in power and did nothing about it, that the Minister has ulterior motives in introducing it. If this Bill helps the continuation of peace and furthers discussions, that is good. Prisoners are prisoners, and if this convention does not mention victims, we cannot blame the Minister.

I welcome the Bill because it is important that prisoners are regarded as human. We may be prejudiced and feel that some of them deserve the harshest treatment. However, in our calmer moments we must always realise that they are human beings and, above all, that they have families. While we must always have sympathy for the families of their victims they should not be dumped in prison and left there. Many of those in foreign prisons encounter language difficulties or animosity, especially in England where actions were taken in our name. It should always be borne in mind that when in prison they are deprived of their freedom. This is sufficient punishment. They should be given every opportunity to improve themselves, not simply left to rot. There should also be modern facilities available. Each prisoner should have his own cell with modern toilet facilities.

I had an opportunity last summer to visit a number of prisons in the United States where I was flabbergasted by some of the work being done. One prison near Washington reminded me of a modern German factory where prisoners were busily occupied in the production of uniforms and furniture which was used by the State Department. They were highly trained and skilled and took no notice of visitors. For good behaviour they were promoted and moved to different production lines. The ultimate was to be moved to the printing section which had a special status.

I was also impressed by the fact that prisoners received instruction in bricklaying. All kinds of archways and doorways were constructed with a product similar to plaster. There were knocked down on completion and certification. They were paid a nominal sum of £10 per week. It is important that we have a modern prison system. There is no point in transferring prisoners who can avail of such facilities back to Ireland when all they would be able to do is sleep in their cells.

Another prison catered for drug addicts and those who had been imprisoned for selling drugs. Unlike here where drug addicts can end up worse off and where prisoners who have never taken drugs may end up using them, the prison authorities have been able to prevent drugs being smuggled in. We were guaranteed that there was no physical contact. While there was always the possibility that a prison officer might help a prisoner to obtain drugs it seemed that there was no way they could be smuggled in. Prisoners spoke to their families on the opposite side of a glass partition by way of a telephone system and were not allowed to have physical contact. If drugs are being smuggled into prisons here perhaps we should reconsider our approach.

We also attended a group therapy session. When we asked some of the prisoners involved if they were attending because they had nothing else to do they assured us that the intended to go straight although they were aware they might find themselves in a situation where they would be tempted to use drugs again. At least they were receiving encouragement and the advice of counsellors. We should think about adopting a similar approach here.

It may be argued that we should not do anything to help many of those who have fallen by the wayside but we must adopt a humane approach to see to it that they are given a chance in life. Many come from deprived backgrounds, in terms of a lack of education and home circumstances. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned a prisoner in England whose father was killed during the troubles. It should be borne in mind that because of their background people often do things that they would never dream of doing if their circumstances were better. We should ensure that if prisoners are allowed to return they will be able to avail of better facilities. I am not saying that they should live in the lap of luxury; it is often claimed that prisoners live better lives but a balance has to be struck in terms of reasonable facilities such as sanitation.

The fact that many prisoners reoffend means they learn nothing positive while in prison. This presents a difficulty. I do not know why it costs so much to keep someone in prison — a figure of £37,000 has been mentioned. What is the reason for this? Should extra staff be employed rather than allow prison officers work overtime? We were given figures which showed that some prison officers were earning colossal sums in overtime.

The Minister has done a good job. She is giving prisoners the option to return here if the state concerned accept their request. It has been argued that we will be flooded but I do not think every prisoner abroad will want to return, because of embarrassment or shame. The Minister should therefore be able to control the flow. I repeat that I would not like to see them return if they will not be able to avail of modern facilities and if they will receive little help in overcoming their drug addiction and end up worse off.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Bille. Tá súil agam go n-eireidh leis.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Batt O'Keeffe.

I am sure that is satisfactory.

On my own behalf and that of my party I warmly welcome this legislation in so far as it goes, although this may not be as far as some people would have us believe or might like to think. Deputy O'Donoghue was correct when he said that we were ready to introduce this legislation on leaving office. I was Minister of State at the Department of Justice at the time. A newsletter dated 15 January 1995, published by the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, an organisation set up specifically to deal with this problem, refers to a draft Bill produced by lawyers employed by the commission for the information of the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, and given to her at a meeting to which they advert in the newsletter. The co-ordinator of the group, Nuala Kelly, is quoted as saying about this Bill, which is similar in many respects to the Government legislation:

This is primarily a humanitarian issue. The principal beneficiaries of ratification will be the families of prisoners, those who suffer most.

I agree with that statement. The newsletter records the presentation of the draft Bill to the Minister stating: "She accepted it and promised to make it a matter of the utmost priority, and welcomed our draft as a model to draw upon". That document was published three and a half months ago and I am mystified as to why this matter, which the Minister promised to consider as top priority, is only introduced now. Nevertheless, it is better late than never. I welcome this measure which is being introduced for humanitarian reasons. It is also intended as a measure that will help to consolidate the peace process which we all welcome.

The Bill enables Ireland to comply with its international obligations by ratifying the European Convention on returning prisoners to their place of origin. Deputy O'Donnell said today that some people in the United Kingdom may be reluctant to implement this Bill because of their sufferings in the violence of the past 25 years. However, Britain is not the only country that has suffered from the violence of the past 25 years; we have also suffered. I have many friends in the United Kingdom and am aware of their attitude to legislation such as this. They regard it as a very small price for the absence of carnage, violence and fear from the streets of the major cities in Britain. The legislation will be warmly welcomed throughout Britain.

This Bill will benefit a number of my constituents, whose families have made representations to me for some years, two of whom are incarcerated in the United Kingdom and one of whom is serving a very long sentence in Greece for a rather trivial offence. The conditions in that prison are appalling and that prisoner's family finds it impossible to visit him. The families of the two people incarcerated in the United Kingdom also find it very difficult to visit them because they are elderly and living on social welfare. I hope when this legislation goes through, these prisoners will be able to apply for a transfer to Ireland and their applications will be sympathetically considered.

When introducing legislation the least we expect is to know the extent of the problem we are dealing with and the number of people who will be affected by it. The Minister has been very remiss in giving information. Some newspaper reports suggest there are 1,200 or 1,300 Irish people incarcerated abroad. One newspaper report suggested there are 650 Irish people incarcerated in the United Kingdom alone. The figure quoted by the Minister this morning was about 600 in total, with no separate figure for the number incarcerated in prisons in the United Kingdom. The Department of Justice, in a statement referred to in this morning's newspapers, quoted a figure of 600. A representative purporting to speak for the Department of Justice some time ago referred to a figure of 650 or 700 — I cannot recall the figure. Surely we should have clear information on the extent of the problem and the number of people likely to apply under the legislation.

The Minister said in her speech: "It is worth noting that at one stage the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas estimated that the number of prisoners seeking a transfer to here would be about 40 and would level off at less than ten a year subsequently". That statement is extraordinary. We are bringing in legislation to deal with this issue and the only clue we have as to the extent of the problem and the number of people who will be affected is a statement by the Minister referring to research, or perhaps the opinion of a voluntary organisation that has no connection with the Department of Justice. That statement refers to the organisation's conclusions at one stage, but even if its conclusions were correct then, and we have no way of knowing they were, they may not necessarily be correct now. There is no logical basis for such a statement. We do not have a clue what we are dealing with here. Apparently the Department of Justice, the Department of Foreign Affairs and people in authority have not even pretended to attempt to ascertain the extent of the problem and the number of people involved. All we have is a bland statement from the Minister that at one stage a voluntary organisation estimated that the number would be about 40.

My colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív agrees that the number involved will be small and insignificant, and he may be right, but we have no way of knowing. Perhaps several hundred prisoners will apply to be transferred here under this legislation. Assuming the figure at the upper end of the scale is correct and that there are 1,200 Irish people incarcerated abroad, if 150 of those successfully apply for transfer here, that would take up the entire capacity of the new prison being built in Castlerea.

The Minister has claimed this is a humanitarian measure. I am prepared to take her at her word and to believe it is being introduced primarily for humanitarian reasons and in fulfilment of our international obligations, bearing in mind the need to consolidate the peace process, but she said in her speech: "if an inordinate number of applications were to be received it will always be the case that the Minister for Justice can withhold consent to transfers". That seems to give the lie to her statement that this measure is primarily humanitarian. Is she saying our hearts go out to the unfortunate people who are incarcerated abroad and that they should be near their families, but if the number applying for transfer is such as to put pressure on our prison system, humanitarianism will go out the window? Our approach to this measure is either humanitarian or it is not; there is no middle ground.

It would be extremely cynical of me to think the Government is not serious in talking about humanitarianism. I would hate to think the legislation before us, much as I welcome it, is a mere device to fulfil the letter of a promise made, with no intention to implement the spirit of that promise. If that is the case, and I am prepared for the moment to be convinced otherwise, this legislation would be the most cruel and reprehensible deception ever perpetrated by an Irish Government.

If the Government is genuine about this measure, the legislation must be put in context, and I find it very difficult to do that because it was announced in a vacuum along with other measures that will have similar effect. Other measures in this area include legislation to change the law on bail, which will involve more people occupying prison places while on remand, legislation to crack down on fraudsters and white collar criminals and to declare war on drug barons. All those measures will increase detection, the number of prosecutions and the numbers coming into our prison system. Those measures are being announced without details of any commensurate funding or provisions to deal with the consequence, which will inevitably flow from them. That is my criticism of this type of approach.

Every year the courts sentence approximately 4,500 offenders to serve terms of imprisonment. Another 3,000 to 4,000 are annually held in prison on remand either awaiting trial of sentence. Added to those figures are those in prison who are ridiculously being held for defaulting on fines and not paying their civil debts. The total number incarcerated annually averages 8,000 to 8,500. There are approximately 2,350 people in prison at any one time, despite the fact that approximately 8,500 pass through the system each year. Most of our prisoners are young and approximately 75 per cent are under 30 years of age. Approximately 75 per cent are in prison for offences not involving violence. A total of 31 per cent of prisoners, approximately 720 to 750, are juveniles and one in six of those is under the age of 14. Despite that and in the context of the measures being announced by the Government, the prison system is horrifically overcrowded. That gives rise to two problems. It gives rise to problems in the system and huge social problems arising from the consequences of our system of early releases.

Overcrowding in our prisons was the subject of severe censure by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which inspected prisons here last year and produced a report that is nothing short of a damning indictment of the Irish penal system. In addition to that, there is growing public frustration at the failure of the prison system to hold enough prisoners in custody for a sufficient part of their sentences at a time when crime is increasing in volume and viciousness. Even with the present number of inmates the prison system is in danger of becoming unmanageable. Overcrowding is placing the most intolerable strains on infrastructural services. Far too much effort and time, both at prison management level and in the Department of Justice, is being wasted and there is manipulation of the prison population to keep numbers at approximately 2,350, the number with which the system can cope.

The Whitaker committee pointed out that the prison population could be reduced by remitting one-third rather than one-quarter of sentences. In the context of what is happening at present that would be a facile suggestion. If such an approach were adopted and accompanied by a policy which required prisoners to serve two-thirds of their sentences, ironically many people would serve longer sentences than they serve at present. The prison system is so reliant on the early release of prisoners to create space that many would have to stay in prison longer if such a policy were introduced.

Dr. Paul O'Mahony, the psychologist to whom we are indebted for the breadth and depth of his research into the prison system, put the case well in a recent article in the Irish Journal of Psychology. He said that at present about 600 people are serving their sentence of imprisonment while at liberty. I referred already to the effect of early releases; their effect on Garda moral must be devastating. I am aware of many cases in my constituency where gardaí painstakingly pursued a case from beginning to end and ultimately secured a conviction, often against the odds, only to see the criminal walk away.

We have to make a decision on the system we will adopt regarding penal policy. If we are to go down the road of putting the primary focus on incarceration, deterrents and punishment, it will require hard decisions in terms of allocating resources and providing extra prison spaces. If we are to go down the other road, the Whitaker road, of structured early releases and community-based alternatives to imprisonment, it will require massive investment in the probation and welfare service. We, as a country, must make that decision. If we totter along as we are, confidence in the prison system, which is already at an all time low, will be dangerously reduced. If we introduce the measures announced, the prison system will have a bigger turnover than Dunnes Stores. That is the reality of the position. If we continue along that road without making clear decisions on the allocation of resources to back up those decisions, the consequences for our tottering, creaking penal system will be unthinkable.

This Bill could be seen as a social and humanitarian one, but it begs certain questions. We are all aware of the trauma experienced by prisoners abroad. As it is expensive to travel abroad, many prisoners have had a visit from their parents since being imprisoned. There was a sense of desolation and total separation and the introduction of the Bill, even at this late stage, is welcomed. It was part of an agreement with Sinn Féin made while the previous Government was in office. The Bill was ready prior to Christmas 1994 and that begs the question why it was not introduced immediately, given that it was part of an agreement and tied into the peace process. It has led to questions being asked as to why the Government was so stubborn, obdurate and insensitive on an issue critical to the peace process.

Deputy O'Dea mentioned the question of the numbers of people transferring, a vital consideration. If we accept that the Bill is a humanitarian one, how can a Minister introduce it without having put a financial package together to ensure that we have room to accommodate the number of sentenced persons who wished to transfer from abroad? Deputy O'Dea referred to the most unseemly part of the Minister's speech, that if we cannot accommodate those persons, the Minister has permission to refuse a transfer. The prisoners involved have had to wait for many years for the introduction of this Bill and were led to believe in recent times that the opportunity to transfer would be available to them. Now the Bill is being introduced and the Minister has more or less admitted in her speech that she has not obtained any additional resources to free up our prison system, which is already tottering in terms of the numbers detained. Those prisoners have been held over for the years without the possibility of transfer and now that the Bill is being introduced the Minister is slapping them in the face by saying she will reserve the right to refuse a transfer. Surely any Minister introducing this Bill would have ascertained details of the numbers likely to seek transfer and the existing imbalance between the numbers seeking transfer to and from here and made provision in the budget for the introduction of this Bill. I fear that many of those prisoners and their families who are already asking what is in the peace process for them will feel totally let down if refused a right of transfer by the Minister when the Bill is enacted. That could have major implications.

Will the Minister outline who will cover the cost of the transfer of prisoners and what determination will be agreed on the remission of sentences? Since one-third of the sentence is applicable in the United Kingdom and one-quarter here, is it not fair and proper that prisoners transferred from one jurisdiction to another — who had certain rights within the first jurisdiction — have them honoured here, or in the second jurisdiction?

What additional provisions will be made within our prison service for the total reintegration of prisoners coming here from abroad, an important aspect that will have to be catered for?

I welcome this Bill and compliment the Minister on its introduction, within four months of assuming office, to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, 1983, which had been agreed by the preceding Government. Many of its provisions had already been drafted within its term of office.

I welcome the constructive comments of Deputies O'Keeffe and O'Dea, on our prison system. It may well be an opportune time to examine our prisons system, overall, the recommendations of the Whitaker report, the operations of our prison service, its reform, and ascertain where we are going. Undoubtedly certain aspects will have to be examined, in particular the last matter referred to by Deputy Batt O'Keeffe — the fact that there is a one-third remission in the United Kingdom and one-quarter here, meriting considerable examination.

This Bill has broad party support, has been in the offing for a considerable number of years and was a specific commitment enunciated in the programme A Government of Renewal. I pay tribute to the various organisations instrumental in having mounted a forceful campaign over many years to have this convention ratified by this country. I pay a particular tribute to the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, the bishop's commission, very much to the fore in that regard, in addition to NIACRO in Northern Ireland, the CAJ and NAPO, all of whom co-operated in the campaign and in the formulation of a draft Bill presented to the Minister for Justice this spring containing admirable provisions on the transfer of prisoners.

I am delighted that all that hard work done in a studious, rational and methodical fashion — involving the compilation of statistics, with interviews with individual prisoners in foreign counties, thus building up a profile of Irish prisoners abroad presented to the Irish people and successive Governments and Ministers for Justice, particularly by the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas — is bearing fruit. I compliment those organisations and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties and Amnesty International, also to the fore in this regard.

Despite having signed the convention in 1986, successive Governments were reluctant to ratify it, as it meant having to face up to the implications of the transference of prisoners. We have never been given a full account of the reason it has taken until now to ratify that convention. The Minister was not very clear on the matter in her remarks this morning. It appeared that successive Governments were fearful of the numbers of prisoners abroad who, on transference here, would result in our already overcrowded prisons being crammed even more, as a considerable number were held in prisons in Britain over many years. Presumably, it was the view of our Department of Justice that those large numbers, if transferred here, could totally overwhelm our prisons, there is very little space available within out prisons system, with the exception of Portlaoise, to accommodate additional prisoners. Presumably also, the Department of Justice would have taken the view that it would largely involve one-way traffic, as there are more Irish prisoners serving sentences abroad than at home. In addition, while the troubles in Northern Ireland continued, there was considerable reluctance on the part of our Department of Justice to facilitate the transfer of people sentenced for very serious offences of a political nature. There was also concern expressed in this House, particularly by the Progressive Democrats, that, in enabling the transfer of prisoners, we were facilitating the return of criminals here to a less severe regime, a most unfair interpretation of the intention behind ratification of this convention.

The vexed question of numbers is central to the overall issue. Deputy O'Dea referred in strong terms to the confusion, as he saw it, within official circles of the precise numbers of prisoners held abroad, the numbers stated by the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas is approximately 1,000 whereas the number stated by the Minister was 600. However, the Minister was referring to 600 prisoners who would be eligible to seek transference under the provisions of this Bill, which apply to those prisoners who have to serve at least a further six months of their sentence, and does not apply to those who have not already been sentenced.

There are approximately 180 foreign or non-national prisoners here who are entitled to seek transference to other jurisdictions, who would be unlikely to have strong roots here, unlike the proportionately larger numbers of Irish prisoners serving sentences abroad, particularly in Britain, and who would be anxious to return here to serve or complete their sentences. Therefore, the imbalance between the two categories may not be as great as thought. The Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas, who keep a constant eye on these statistics, maintain that approximately 40 such prisoners would seek transference, eventually reducing to perhaps ten or 12 annually.

That is the profile of the problem and puts in perspective the reluctance of past Governments to deal with the issue. The Government, having examined the matter as well as developments on the other part of our island, introduced legislation dealing with the transfer of sentenced persons, something we were obliged to introduce. We were obliged to fulfil our European and international commitments in this regard much sooner. The legislation is not being introduced for the benefit of prisoners, but for the benefit of their families. It is humanitarian in nature, but will not facilitate an easy life for prisoners. It will facilitate easier access by families to prisoners.

Travel to another jurisdiction from this country is expensive. When visiting prisoners in other jurisdictions members of their families must make a train, boat or aeroplane journey and frequently endure considerble hardship and additional travel on reaching the other jurisdiction. In some cases, they are faced with language difficulties. Also, on arriving at the prison in question family members frequently discover that the prisoner whom they have come to visit has been moved to another prison, a process known as "ghosting". Prisoners are frequently moved at very short notice and, in some cases, without prior notice being given to their families. It is logical that prisoners should serve their sentences in prisons close to their homes and families. Otherwise, we are punishing innocent people, such as prisoners' families and friends. From that point of view, there could be no argument against the principle of the transfer of sentenced persons.

The peace process is another important dimension of this legislation and, to a certain extent, has facilitated its introduction. It was the intention of the previous Government to introduce a Bill that would allow the transfer of prisoners sentenced in other jurisdictions for politically motivated offences, thus giving momentum to the peace process. I have no doubt that is the case. I have received a number of letters from prisoners sentenced in the United States, Great Britain and elsewhere on the Continent for offences relating to the troubles in Northern Ireland. Now that there is a cessation of violence in Northern Ireland and a peace process in operation, the transfer of such prisoners should be considered. Some of their colleagues have been released here. A means of giving momentum to the peace process would be to provide a mechanism whereby prisoners can be transferred to this jurisdiction, and this legislation provides for that.

I wish to refer to a matter that has occupied a great deal of Opposition time, namely, the state of our prisons. Now that we are contemplating the transfer to this jurisdiction of prisoners from abroad, we should examine the operation of our prison system, which we have been slow to reform. Dr. T.K. Whitaker's report in 1985 proposed radical changes in the structure, management and operation of our prison system, but very few of his recommendations have been implemented. Our prisons are grossly overcrowded and at times operate on a revolving door principle. There are no prison places for many offenders sentenced by the courts and the Governor of Mountjoy Prison has no choice but to find places by releasing prisoners before their term has expired or the remission to which they are entitled is due. That is very unsatisfactory. We have not explored the range of alternatives to imprisonment. People are being imprisoned for non-payment of debts, not a suitable function of the prison system. We operate on the basis of a standard remission of one-quarter of a sentence whereas on the other part of this island the standard remission is 50 per cent or one-third of the sentence and in Great Britain it is one-third for all prisoners. If we increased the remission rate from one-quarter to one-third of a sentence, approximately 8 per cent, it would roughly constitute the amount by which our prison system is overcrowded. Our prisons could then operate on a manageable daily basis. The Minister should consider the remission rate, not only in the context of overall prison reform, but in the context of the transfer of prisoners from jurisdictions where they are entitled to remission at the rate of one-third of their sentence.

Rahabilitation facilities must also be examined. In recent years the profile of our prison population has been made up mainly of prisoners who have committed drug related offences. Another category of prisoners which is increasing is that relating to sex offenders.

I welcome the legislation. It will ease the burden on families of prisoners serving sentences abroad and bring us into line with best practice in Europe, particularly the European Union. It will, I hope, stimulate prison reform here. I heartily commend the legislation and, as there are some areas I would like amended, I welcome the fact that the Minister indicated she will consider amendments on Committee Stage.

I warmly welcome the Bill. I first became interested in this issue many years ago when the family and friends of a former constituent of mine contacted me regarding the wish of a parisoner serving a sentence abroad to return here to serve the remainder of the sentence. It was from then on that I became interested in this issue. It was a source of disappointment to me that under successive Governments — my own included — we were unable to make the sort of progress many of us thought should be made in bringing forward legislation of this kind.

I can be satisfied in one regard in that before the Fianna Fáil Government left office we had a Bill ready and I am glad there has been no undue delay on the part of this Minister in bringing forward the Bill. Perhaps she has put her own stamp on it — I did not have access to the previous Government's proposals in this regard — but she has brought forward the legislation in a relatively short period of time and I welcome her initiative in that regard. I look forward to a worthwhile debate on the legislation, especially on Committee Stage when we will consider the legislation line by line.

As public representatives many of us have been contacted either by individuals, members of families or organisations who would be affected by the enactment of this legislation, which enables the European convention to be ratified. Many people are aware of individual cases where legislation of this kind could help and might well have helped in the past.

In the past month I was contacted by a female prisoner in an English prison who required permission to visit her very ill mother in an Irish hospital. She had applied, and people had applied on her behalf, to transfer out of the prison for one day in order to see her seriously ill mother who was in a Dublin hospital. Despite the intervention of myself and many others, including the Tánaiste and various organisations, I was greatly saddened that the English authorities found it impossible to allow that person visit her ill mother in hospital knowing full well that the medical records indicated that her mother was quite ill and was likely to die within a matter of days. Tragically, the mother died and the person in the English jail was not allowed even a one day visit to say good-bye.

There are serious questions to ask about a penal system that operates on that basis. If such a system applied in this country there would be serious criticisms of it. It was a source of great personal regret to me that this person was unable to see her mother before she passed away, regardless of the circumstances of the crime concerned. I raised the matter at a meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, of which I am a member, but despite the intervention of no less a person than the Tánaiste, we were not successful. I hope that legislation of this kind might go some way in the future towards helping in circumstances such as those to which I have referred.

In the past, one of the reasons there were considerable objections to bringing forward legislation of this kind to allow the ratification of the European Convention was the question of cost. I have seen reports from the Department of Justice which brought that question to the fore. This was always a difficult obstacle for many of us to overcome because we knew that our own prison system was overcrowded and that the transfer of additional prisoners to be accommodated in Irish prisons would further exacerbate that situation. It was difficult to overcome the objection on the grounds of economics.

Further information that is beginning to emerge indicates that this legislation will not necessarily mean that the floodgates will be opened in so far as the return of prisoners to this country is concerned. The figure of 40 has been given, although there are obviously cases in the pipeline that have not yet been dealt with. Thereafter, the figure might be 10, 12 or 14. That may not be a precise figure but it is an indication of the type of situation we are likely to face. Consequently, I do not believe there is a great argument to be made concerning the unavailability of places.

We know we have a job to do in regard to our penal system and dealing with offenders. The case has been made time and again that there are a substantial number of people currently in our prisons who would not be there if we had a more enlightened approach to dealing with offenders. I am not suggesting we should be easy on offenders or that we should allow offenders to get off scot free but we must examine our penal system which sends people to jail for non-payment of civil debts.

The other thorny issue involves the non payment of fines. I realise there is a public debate taking place at the moment on the question of ministerial intervention in the reduction or cancellation of fines. This is an area of which I have some experience because in my constituency I get a fair representation from people concerned about their inability to pay fines. These fines are usually associated with motor offences, either the non-availability of insurance or a vehicle that is not properly taxed.

My understanding is that any citizen of the State is entitled to make an appeal to the Minister and I simply advise my constituents to write to the Minister for Justice of the day setting out their personal circumstances and any other information they wish to provide and the Minister will then decide on an appropriate response. It was clear to me that people who, for one reason or another, found themselves incurring fines and who were on quite low levels of social welfare had no possibility of paying such fines and were simply faced with the prospect of going to prison or finding some other way to mitigate the penalty. As we know, the fine must be paid in one lump sum but to ask a person on social welfare to pay a £500 or a £750 fine within three or six months is asking the impossible. These people end up in our jails but are released just as quickly because there is no room for them.

That is an example of one category of person and we must ask whether it is reasonable to impose a fine for payment in that manner. If a fine has to be imposed, can it not be paid on a weekly basis either by direct deduction from social welfare payments or by some other system that would allow people to make remuneration and pay the penalty imposed by the courts? It must be done in a way with which such people can cope because they are being penalised financially. This would be one way of dealing with the large number of people who are sent to our prisons but who are released just as quickly, causing a lot of disruption. There are several ways in which we can provide the additional accommodation that might be necessary arising from the passing of this legislation. I have suggested one way but I am sure there are many others also.

We must accept that there are two categories of prisoners who want to transfer to this country. There is the category of prisoners in foreign jails who are associated with what have been described as "the troubles" in Northern Ireland. The outgoing Minister for Justice and the present Minister, in tackling this issue and the release of prisoners, have shown a great humanitarian approach which has been welcomed by all shades of opinion. I do not recall hearing any volume of objection to the early releases which are under way and it is unfortunate that the same does not apply on the neighbouring island because it would give a great impetus to the peace process.

The other category involves prisoners who are not connected with the troubles in Northern Ireland. Many of these prisoners have family members living here who find it difficult to visit them. This has been a great bone of contention with many people. I have come across cases where people have travelled from this country to a jail, particularly in the United Kingdom, only to find that at the very last moment, the prisoner was transferred to another jail. Others have referred to that as the system of ghosting, an appalling practice.

A penal administration that transfers a prisoner from one jail to another in the dead of night, knowing that the prisoner's relatives are coming to visit from overseas has serious flaws and must be criticised.

It is important in terms of rehabilitation that prisoners maintain contact with their families, relatives and friends. We all hope that when a person leaves prison he is rehabilitated and capable of taking his place in society. That can only happen if prisoners are treated humanely and are allowed continuing contact with relatives and friends. I am concerned that the practice to which I referred has happened more than once to the same family and we should speak out against it.

The Bill proposes to use the procedure of continuing to enforce the sentence which is considered by the Government to be in the best interests of the prisoner and as the more straightforward of the two procedures provided for in the convention. That is a fair and reasonable approach but the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas who have studied this issue carefully and made proposals have taken the view that the Bill should opt for the conversion of sentences and I understand this has been adopted by the Dutch Government. This precedent can be studied to see how effectively it works. I hope the Minister will be prepared to take on board amendments from this side of the House to strengthen the Bill and give expression to our views.

Areas of weakness in the legislation need to be addressed, for example, the question of information. If a prisoner here applies for a transfer and is refused by the Minister for Justice, does he have the right to information about the grounds for refusal? We speak continuously about openness and transparency and people are increasingly entitled to information on the issues that affect them. As a consequence there is room for a procedure to set down in writing the reasons a person is refused a transfer. There should also be a right of appeal either to a court or some other body to have the case re-evaluated.

We tend to be sensitive in dealing with minorities and we have yet a long way to go in accepting them. We run a two-streamed system when dealing with naturalisation. I have worked on behalf of people in my constituency seeking naturalisation. I hasten to add this had nothing to do with passports for sale. They were probably living in local authority housing and were unable to return to their own country for a variety of reasons and therefore applied for naturalisation. Some applicants move relatively easily through the system but obstacles are put in front of other applicants. If I was asked to explain it I could come to the conclusion that it is because of race, religion or some fundamentalism to which they subscribe. Even though they seem to have fulfilled all the requirements they find it very difficult to be naturalised. There should be provision in the legislation to prohibit the Minister for Justice refusing a prisoner entry on grounds such as religion, sexual orientation or medical health. We know that AIDs is an emerging problem in our prisons and I imagine that when prisoners require substantial medical treatment, this could be a difficulty. A prisoner seeking a transfer should be provided with a written statement giving the reasons for a refusal.

Where a prisoner from another country wishes to transfer to Ireland, the Government Minister of that country should not take all the initiative and a prisoner should have a right of direct appeal to the Irish Government if he feels his application is being treated tardily by another government. We need to tackle a number of issues and we can do so on Committee Stage only if the Minister is prepared to accept amendments that strengthen the Bill. I wish the Bill a speedy passage and look forward to the Committee Stage debate.

This Bill has been a long time coming and lobby groups inside and outside this country have lobbied for its passage. I am glad my colleague, the Minister for Justice, is in a position to introduce it. It was almost ready during the final days of the previous administration and I heard one or two Fianna Fáil Members comment unfavourably on the fact that the Minister did not introduce it immediately she took office. One must concede that the new Government is only in office for a few months and the Minister moved carefully with all due speed to bring forward the legislation at an appropriate time. Obviously, there will be no difficulty in putting the Bill through the House. I am sure the points made by a number of speakers and the positive questions put forward by Deputy Flood will be addressed by the Minister.

We usually have a broad debate when we discuss matters appertaining to prisons or prisoners. This debate is not centred on sentencing policy, criminal law or the ever-increasing crime wave. While those matters are of concern to everyone, this debate is more confined and is on how to deal with and respond to the situation faced by a number of Irish prisoners in jails overseas and a not insignificant number of foreign prisoners who are in Irish jails.

We are aware of the number of people demanding this legislation from correspondence and representations we have received from various groups at home and abroad. Sometimes the demand was made on political grounds but it was also based on humanitarian grounds. In particular, groups such as the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas presented the case to us in a fair and balanced light. Those of us who may have difficulties about the sensitive situation we may have to deal with when the Bill is passed will be convinced of the merits of the legislation by the very reasonable and reasoned arguments which such organisations put forward. Many of us are aware of problems faced by former constituents. Our politcal system is often criticised for bringing politicans too close to constituents but it makes politicians aware of problems faced by them. Many of us would be aware of friends or constituents who have been incarcerated in prisons overseas. This legislation is required to allow them to return home to serve out their sentence.

There is a strong humanitarian aspect to this legislation. Many Deputies spoke about such simple but important matters as visits by friends and relatives. Deputy Flood spoke about the difficulties experienced by relatives who, having travelled from the Republic to Britain to visit prisoners, found they had been transferred. He also mentioned the difficulty of travelling, the expense involved and the little opportunity that relatives may have to visit prisoners. This Bill will help to redress that. Relatives of prisoners have not been convicted but they are being punished by having to undertake such expensive and long journeys. Prisoners are punished for the crimes they commit and their freedoms are curtailed but they cannot be described as lepers. They have rights and entitlements and one of these is the right to visits.

An important aspect of prison policy is rehabilitation of prisoners. Prisoners who serve their sentence close to home can keep in contact with their family and friends. This legislation will assist in fulfilling our European and international obligations. The enactment of the Bill enables the State to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, 1983 and gives effect to the agreement on the application among member states of the European Communities of the Council of Europe Convention. This legislation, which I welcome, will allow us to take another positive step to secure and develop the peace process.

A number of Deputies spoke about the mechanics of the legislation. Deputy O'Dea asked how we would deal with the hundreds of prisoners who may wish to return home as we have a problem with prisons accommodation. It is akin to Jury's Hotel on a rugby weekend. However, I am confident that the Government and the Minister are willing to tackle this problem.

The question of the number of people who may wish to take advantage of the legislation was raised. Some people, including the Minister, suggested a figure of 600 but one or two of the Opposition spokespersons suggested a much higher figure. Deputy Joe Costello pointed out that prisoners who may wish to take advantage of this legislation will have to fulfil certain criteria, including having served at least six months of their sentence which indicates that the number would be much closer to the 600 mark, as mentioned by the Minister, rather than the higher figure mentioned by Opposition spokespersons. In view of the fact that there are approximately 180 foreign prisoners here who could take advantage of the legislation to return home, the problem of extra accommodation may not be as grave as some people indicated. It is a practical problem but I am confident that the Government, having introduced the legislation, will deal with its implementation.

The provisions of this legislation are sensible in that transfers can only arise where the judgment is final, where the prisoner consents to the transfer, where the crime for which the applicant is in prison constitutes a criminal offence in the administering state, where the sentencing state and the administering state agree to the transfer and where the applicant had served at least six months of the sentence. Those issues are based firmly on commonsense and will ensure that the appropriate people will take advantage of the legislation.

In the short time available to me I wish to address briefly what I described earlier as being an important follow up to the legislation, namely, the effect it will have on the Northern peace process. The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, of which I have the honour to be co-chairperson, investigated this matter in 1991 under the co-chairmanship of the former Deputy, Jim Tunney and the transfer of prisoners was debated and reported on. The security and political committee of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body produced a report which was debated at the plenary session in December 1991. The Irish Government responded to that report at the July 1992 plenary session. The strongest possible support was given by the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body for the production of this legislation. That support was given at a time when the political situation was not as advanced as at present and before the peace process. The support given in 1991 and 1992 would be redoubled at this stage. What we are talking about here — and the Bill which will shortly be enacted — can have a positive impact on the peace process.

We have to take note of the fact that the issue of prisoners in relation to the Northern problem is a key issue. As said in relation to other matters, it is not the only issue but it is an important one. Anything we can do which will progress that issue will help not only to strengthen but to secure the peace process and help to build a genuine and workable political process. In that regard, I welcome the introduction of any legislation which would facilitate the transfer of prisoners between Britain and Ireland. The legislation we are debating will develop and maintain a strong sense of momentum which will help to create confidence in the peace process and will be seen clearly on all sides as a further part of the peace dividend which was created as a result of the ceasefires of 1994. The legislation will build confidence on both sides.

The prisoner issue has always been a difficult one as far as the northern situation is concerned. Any lack of movement in dealing with that problem has potential to cause frustration and doubt on the ground in Northern Ireland. We must do everything possible to stem any doubts, to build on the peace process and to create confidence. We are taking a small but significant step forward in that regard today.

We are speaking about prisoners who, on both sides of the political divide in Northern Ireland, played a genuine and important part in bringing about the ceasefires. In a sense this is not our response to that but is a small recognition and it creates confidence and trust. It shows the peace process is working and that it can deliver. It is only through the peace process we can have genuine progress, political development and a political solution. In that regard I compliment the Minister for Justice and the Government on their response by virtue of the early release of a number of paramilitary prisoners. I also compliment the outgoing Minister for Justice who operated in the same fashion. The release of parliamentary prisoners is a difficult and sensitive issue. Both the previous Minister and the present Minister have dealt with it in a sensitive fashion. We cannot rewrite history but we cannot afford to forget the people who have suffered as a result of the troubles and violence at home and abroad, we cannot ignore the victims and their families. There was a genuine effort to take into account the views and fears of victims and their families. Paramilitary prisoners were released in a constructive and well thought out fashion, for which I congratulate the Minister.

A corresponding movement by the British Government and the Northern Ireland authorities would be helpful. It would send positive signals, generate further confidence and build further on the peace process. I recognise it is an extremely sensitive issue but I hope progress can be made.

I accept that serious consideration must be given to the question of reoffence. That is the most difficult issue which a sentence review has to take into account. What we have witnessed since 31 August 1994 and continue to witness on a daily basis is that with each passing day and week there is less likelihood of a return to paramilitary violence. In that regard the likelihood of reoffence is lessening. I hope such matters can be taken into account by the British Government and that the movement generated by the Minister and the Government will be matched on the other side because it will be helpful to the overall position.

Having signed the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons in August 1986, and despite repeated promises and commitments, successive Irish Governments failed to publish the necessary enabling legislation to allow us to ratify the convention. Today I am pleased to be part of a Government that is delivering on its commitment to Irish prisoners overseas and to their families at home.

The Bill in essence provides a procedure for facilitating the transfer of sentenced persons from foreign States to this State and vice versa so as to allow them to serve their sentence in their home country. I welcome the fact that it will additionally allow us to give effect to the EU agreement on the application of the convention among member states of the European Communities. Thirty-one States, including all the other EU countries have already ratified the convention and it is timely that Ireland has now produced this enabling legislation.

The number of Irish born nationals in foreign jails today is approximately 600 and it is estimated that those wishing to be repatriated amount to between 40 and 50 in the first year and five to seven thereafter. Although the majority of Irish prisoners abroad are in English jails a significant number, some 20 per cent, are estimated to be in other countries including France, Germany and the USA.

The passing of the Bill will enable us to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons without further delay and, in essence, will help in reducing the severe punishment that has been endured by the families of prisoners over the years.

That punishment takes a variety of forms: the financial hardship alone of funding visits to loved ones hundreds or even thousands of miles away can severely restrict the number of visits a family can make, or even rule out any possibility of visits. There is no statutory right to financial assistance for those visiting relatives in prisons overseas. For those existing on social welfare, any money provided is entirely at the discretion of the local community welfare officer and rarely comes to more than two-thirds of the cheapest fare, with no allowance for accommodation. The long journeys involved make it almost impossible for elderly parents or infirm relatives to visit prisoners and this leads to great emotional stress. For young families, long journeys represent a formidable hardship. Even journeys to the most accessible jails abroad involve a boat journey, train journeys, taxis and overnight accommodation.

Families of Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes have even further difficulties to face. These problems can be exacerbated by "ghosting"— the practice of moving a prisoner from one jail to another without notice resulting in the relatives, at best, having to replan and reschedule their visits and, at worst, arriving at the gates of a jail to find that the prisoner has been moved hundreds of miles away to another jail. Relatives visiting loved ones imprisoned in Britain are under constant threat from the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They risk intimidation, detention, strip-searching, deportation and even exclusion from the State.

Now more than ever, particularly in terms of the peace process, it is of the utmost importance that we address the issue of those Irish prisoners convicted of politically related charges. Today there are about 30 such prisoners held in the UK, and while the conditions of imprisonment for these prisoners have always been harsh, in recent times they have deteriorated alarmingly and this is a cause of concern for everyone interested in the developing peace process. Eleven of these prisoners are now serving their twentieth year in prison and none of them has been given any indication of a release date. The treatment of these prisoners differs from that of similar prisoners convicted in Northern Ireland. Had they been sentenced in the North they would have been released many years ago. That they were sentenced in Britain makes them different in the eyes of the British administration. The youngest of these was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1975 for using a fire-arm to resist arrest. He was 17 years old at the time.

Prisoners from Northern Ireland convicted of politically related crimes in Britain have never, with any ease, been granted transfers to jails near their homes and families. Transfers have followed hunger strikes, force feeding, and legal challenges rather than an obvious decision by the British Government to move prisoners from their overcrowded and claustrophobic prison conditions in England to the relatively under-occupied North of Ireland prison accommodation. Most Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes are held in what are called "special secure units". These units were first introduced in the 1960s and their use was to be reviewed on a regular basis.

It is unclear what reviews, if any, have been carried out, or what conclusions have been reached. The units are in fact prisons within prisons. People held in them have no contact with the general prison population. The units are small, usually holding at most eight to ten prisoners, with limited facilities. Prisoners are monitored at all times both by prison officers and on camera. Prisoners held in SSUs are not allowed to participate in any of the normal jail activities such as going to the library, church, the main gym or playing fields. Therefore, the range of activities possible within the unit is severely restricted.

A number of observers have expressed concern at the oppressive nature of SSUs. Many believe that prolonged detention in such facilities can only be detrimental to a person's health and well-being. Today Irish prisoners held in Belmarsh Prison are being subjected to a savage regime which denies them visits for six months, access to exercise facilities, access to religious services and access to education facilities. By all accounts hygiene is appalling and all the prisoners are suffering from headaches, gastric problems and skin complaints.

The right of prisoners' families to reasonable and meaningful access to their imprisoned relatives is being blatantly flouted. Irish prisoners in Belmarsh and Full Sutton prisons are being subjected to the worst conditions seen in English jails since the 1970s. It is common knowledge that the conditions of imprisonment of Irish prisoners convicted of politically related crimes in Britain have always been harsh and severe. However, it is British Home Office policy to ensure that prisoners are housed as near their families as possible. This is not designed as a concession to prisoners, but to facilitate family relationships and rehabilitation of the prisoners.

Following riots at Strangeways Prison in England, Lord Justice Woolf reiterated the importance of housing prisoners near their families. However, Irish prisoners convicted of politically related offences have never been granted transfers to jails near their homes and families in the North of Ireland. It was only following pressure from legal campaigning and professional groups that the British Government was forced to acknowledge that Irish political prisoners are systematically refused transfers from England to the North of Ireland.

An interdepartmental review group was set up in 1990 to examine the effects on families of having to travel to England to visit their relatives in jails there. The report of the review, the Ferrers report, was published in November 1992. Its key findings were the very minimum that could be made in the face of the clearest possible evidence of hardship caused to prisoner's families. Disregarding Home Office policy that prisoners should be housed near their homes and families the Ferrers report established a new category of "temporary extended transfers" for Irish prisoners convicted of terrorist type offences whenever the prisoner has family connections in Northern Ireland.

Many would ask what is the problem with temporary extended transfers? The first is that almost two-and-a-half years after the publication of the Ferrers report only eight prisoners have been granted temporary extended transfers. Two have been granted permanent transfers. Approximately 30 sentenced Irish political prisoners in England still wish to be transferred to the North.

The second problem is that the Ferrers report excludes prisoners with families in the Twenty-six Counties from temporary extended transfers even though a land journey anywhere in Ireland is easier than travelling to England. Irish prisoners in England are held as prisoners of the British Government and as such can be held anywhere within what is described as the United Kingdom. National or ethnic origin is not allowed to determine where other categories of prisoner are held.

The third problem is that prisoners transferred remain under the authority of the British Home Office rather than the Northern Ireland Office. This means that the prisoner can be returned to England at any time at the whim of the Home Secretary. This causes anxiety and stress for families who are trying to rebuild relationships after many years of infrequent visits.

Why have so few prisoners been granted temporary extended transfers? The British establishment is continuing its relentless practice of handing down the most savage sentences it can and ensuring the worst prison conditions and ill-treatment of prisoners and their families that it can get away with. The Ferrers report was commissioned and published not as a gesture of goodwill but as a result of the legal, professional and campaigning challenges to the systematic refusal to transfer Irish prisoners convicted of political offences. No one has to be a believer in conspiracy theories to note that the production of the Ferrers report has effectively bought off much liberal criticism of the British Government on this issue although it has failed to implement it fully. Professional and liberal organisations took the view that something was being done and everyone should wait and see. However, prisoner's families rightly take a different view.

What are the effects on prisoners' families of the continuing refusal to transfer such prisoners to Ireland? There is a feeling that the British Government is deliberately playing malicious games with the lives of Irish political prisoners and their families, giving rise to division, fear, anxiety and suffering. Some prisoners have been promised transfers but they have not been implemented. Others have been told that they are to be transferred but following the breakout from Whitemore jail recently these have been cancelled. Prisoners are being "ghosted" in spite of pre-arranged visits. In essence, prison conditions have deteriorated to the point where some prisoners are receiving "closed visits", that is, with a pane of glass separating the prisoner from the visitor. Conversations in Irish have been ruled out and many prisoners convicted of political offences continue to be held in solitary confinement.

Last week I received a letter from a woman in Belfast who has relatives in prison in Britain in which she pointed out:

It is now eight months into the ceasefire and the British Government are not showing one ounce of good faith towards Irish political prisoners and their families. Prisoners' families continue to be harassed under the recently renewed Prevention of Terrorism Act. Fear, debt, isolation and infrequent visits are the reality of travelling to England to visit an imprisoned relative there. Prisoners are repeatedly ghosted in spite of visits being pre-booked. Children see their imprisoned parent at intervals of up to two years. Visits in Irish have been terminated; closed visits, i.e. between glass panels with no physical contact, have been reintroduced and elderly relatives are unable to travel. Irish political prisoners in England are being held in solitary confinement. They are suffering skin complaints, vomiting and diarrhoea and serious allied weight loss. Prison conditions in England have deteriorated dramatically to the point where the health of prisoners and their relatives is severely affected.

She asked Members of the Oireachtas to help in bringing to an end the suffering of prisoners' families by securing the transfer of Irish prisoners from England to the North so that they can gain meaningful access.

With the development of the peace process it was hoped that this issue, with others stemming from the conflict in the North, would be resolved. It is unfortunate that the response to date from the British Government has been negative in the extreme. Many would suggest that the British administration is deliberately provoking trouble with the prisons. To date prisoners have shown great restraint in the face of provocation and are seeking to resolve the issues without engaging in prison protests. If they are to resolve the issues they will need the continued assistance and intervention of all those who wish to see the peace process further developed at this critical stage.

For several years humanitarian organisations have not only been campaigning for the transfer of prisoners from England to the North but also to ensure that the Government would ratify the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Prisoners. Now that the enabling legislation has been introduced it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the officers and members of the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas and the Committee for the Repatriation of Irish Prisoners for ensuring that this item remained near the top of the political agenda. I also thank and pay tribute to the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, for ensuring that this Bill was introduced at an early stage and the former Minister for Justice, Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn, for her efforts.

I pay tribute in particular to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Spring, who from the day Labour entered Government made this issue a priority in the Government's programme. I thank him for his continuing efforts to resolve the difficulties arising with regard to Irish prisoners in Britain.

I rise not to conclude the debate but rather to contribute a few words of my own. As someone who has responsibilities in the Department of Justice, I am pleased to be associated with this measure. The Minister, Deputy Owen, has given it high priority. Despite what has been said by some Members on the other side of the House, this legislation was not in a state of readiness when the Minister entered the Department. From the very beginning she was determined to ensure that no time would be wasted in bringing it forward. This was not unexpected because she voiced similar sentiments when in Opposition and has for a long time been a supporter of this measure. It does happen on occasion that things said in Opposition are forgotten on entering Government but that is not the position in this case.

I have a personal reason for being a strong advocate and supporter of this legislation. For many years I have practised the profession of politics and represented constituencies north of the Border. I am well aware of the hardship caused to relatives of prisoners held in England particularly to elderly parents who have to travel in many cases to remote areas. Practically all of these people, many of whom come from what might be described as a good Republican background, feel alienated while visiting prisoners in England, knowing that they are not applauded by the local population. I am aware of instances of very real fear among relatives making those long journeys. They were not made welcome and some of them had the impression that warders and others went out of their way to indicate their strong opposition to them. This is another reason I am in favour of this legislation.

The contribution of this legislation to the peace process has been emphasised.

The position of prisoners has always been a central issue both historically and in terms of peace in the North. Their support of violence was on occasions very much a determining factor in the continuation of the campaign of violence. The sacrifice made by prisoners, particularly those who gave their lives — in my opinion wrongly, but that was primarily a matter for them — the hunger striker, particularly those who died on hunger strike, was a very important element in the continuation of violence. Similarly, the support of prisoners for the peace process is a very important element and is recognised as such by everyone involved. This is a very good reason to support this legislation and I am particularly glad to support it.

I wish to share the remainder of my time with Deputy McGinley.

I understand the Minister has replied to the debate.

I thought I made it clear at the beginning I was not replying to the debate but simply making a contribution as a Member of this House, but obviously I did not.

I am very glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this important Bill. I agree with previous speakers from all sides of the House that it is long overdue. The convention dealing with this matter was approved by the Council of Ministers in 1982, almost 13 years ago. It came into force in July 1985 and we signed it in August 1986. Many people have been imprisoned since 1986. I compliment the Minister on introducing this Bill within such a short time of taking office. We were told by the outgoing Government it was at an advanced stage of preparation and the Minister lost no time in introducing it.

The Bill primarily deals with the transfer of prisoners, a group of people whom many of us are inclined to overlook — it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It deals with foreigners in prison here and Irish citizens in prison throughout the world. The Minister said in her speech there are about 180 foreigners in prisons here and about 600 Irish nationals in prisons throughout the world — I am sure many of those are in the UK. Many of them are political prisoners, both republican and loyalist. At this stage of the peace process it is proper that we should be aware of those prisoners. It has been the policy in the UK for a number of years that prisoners serve their sentences as close as possible to their families, and that has been widely implemented in respect of prisoners from England, Scotland and Wales, but unfortunately this concession is not extended to republican and loyalist prisoners in the UK.

This Bill is an important element in the peace process. I compliment the Minister on her recent action in paroling and releasing political prisoners in this jurisdication, a move which is helping the peace process about which we have been all so excited. Coming from a Border county I travel through the North very often and I know the peace process has changed the social environment in Northern Ireland. It is a great experience now to travel though that part of the country where the security forces are no longer evident on the streets of towns, as they were in the last 25 years, and to see families going about their everyday activities without fear and without having to undergo body searches or looking over their shoulders to see bombs going off. The peace process has brought a new life in all communities in Northern Ireland.

This Bill will be of great interest to many Irish prisoners in the UK and other parts of the world. When implemented, it will be possible to have these prisoners repatriated to serve the remainder of their sentences here provided that is their wish. I am sure many Irish prisoners in foreign jails wish to serve out their sentences there. That is their choice, but if they wish to serve the remainder of their sentence here they can be repatriated by making an application, provided the Minister and the authorities under whose jurisdiction they are held are agreeable to their transfer. A number of speakers indicated that this may create difficulties. For example, if the 600 prisoners serving sentences in foreign prisons were to apply for a transfer when the Bill is enacted where would they be accommodated? Having listened to the Minister, I do not believe that will happen. Research indicates that it is unlikely that there will be more than 20 or 30 applications for transfer per year and the facilities here would be more than adequate to cater for them.

As public representatives and Members of this House, we often receive letters from prisoners in jail in various parts of the world, particularly in the UK. A letter written to Gareth Pierce, a well known legal person in the UK who often represents Irish people, by an inmate in Belmarsh Prison in England indicates what the inmates are subjected to. It states that the food is inadequate, cold, served on dirty trays and causes stomach disorders; all vitamin and mineral supplements have been withdrawn from the canteen; all toiletries, except soap and shampoo, have been disallowed and all materials needed to keep cells clean, such as mops, detergents etc, have been withdrawn as have all educational facilities and so on. I hope the accusations in the letter will be investigated because even though Irish prisoners are serving sentences in another jurisdiction, the Government has a certain responsibility for their well-being.

Not alone will the Bill facilitate prisoners, it will also facilitate their families, those who have to travel to the UK and further afield to see them. The costs involved in visiting relatives in jail in the UK are almost prohibitive — travel and accommodation may cost a few hundred pounds. It is doubly difficult for elderly and infirm parents who are pensioners or are social welfare recipients to visit their sons or daughters who are serving long sentences in the UK. Some Irish prisoners in the UK have only occasional visits from their loved ones at home.

I am aware a number of people from the Gaeltacht area I represent who are serving sentences or on remand in the UK find it disturbing that new rules and regulations introduced prevent their loved ones conversing with them in the Irish language. Sílim gur mór an trua é sin. Níl a fhios agam cén fáth go bhfuil siad ag cur a leithéid i bhfeidhm. B'fhéidir am éigin go ndéanfadh an tAire agus an Rialtas fiosrúchán maidir leis sin.

I know of one family from my constituency who were prevented from conversing in Irish, the language they use in their Donegal home, when they visited their brother in a UK prison a few weeks ago.

Another difficulty is that of ghosting, where prisoners are moved to another prison with only a few hours notice. Ghosting has consequences for families. As no notification of the move is given, families can never be sure where a prisoner is being held, that letters are reaching their family member in prison. When they visit they may be told at the prison gate their loved one has been moved to another prison, possibly hundreds of miles away. It is not unusual for a prisoner to be moved 500 miles to another prison. Such instances are an added stress to worried relatives. The practice does not allow prisoners serving long sentences to settle into a stable regime which is necessary to maintain psychological well-being. This practice should be investigated.

When we think of prisons, we think of a number of Victorian institutions. There were three great Victorian institutions, the prisons, the workhouses that date back to famine times, and what became known eventually as the psychiatric hospitals. The latter two have certainly changed. Psychiatric hospitals are no longer what they used to be. They have been opened up, liberalised and do not care for as many people as they used to. They have changed completely and there is little difference between them and general hospitals. Many of the remaining buildings which were workhouses have been converted into comfortable homes for senior citizens where they are well cared for. The only Victorian institutions that have not changed much in the past 100 are some of our traditional jails. I have never been to Mountjoy, but I have visited Portlaoise on a number of occasions and it is one of the most forbidding places I have ever been. It is very scary, dark and unattractive and visiting it, even for a short time, would prevent one doing something that would cause one to end up there on a semi-permanent basis.

During the last meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body held in Kilmainham a number of British MPs expressed an interest in visiting Kilmainham jail. They had heard a good deal about it and wanted to see where Parnell and other Irish patriots spent a few months. Having visited the jail, the general consensus was that it was a fine place to visit, but it would not have been a pleasant place to spend even one night. The cells were dark with small windows one could not see out through unless one had something to stand on, a forbidding place. It is regrettable that we have not reformed or modernised prisons, but this aspect is being addressed, I understand, in the building of new prisons.

In the weekend newspapers we often read of constituents who fail to pay a small fine, such as that imposed for not paying car tax, and often are sent to jail for one, two or four weeks. We hear of our prisons being overcrowded, the revolving door syndrome and people being in and out almost in the one week. Instead of sending people to prison for minor misdemeanours such as the nonpayment of fines, community service would constitute more appropriate punishment but, whenever violence or an assault on a person or property is involved, a prison sentence would be more appropriate.

The provisions of this Bill will be of considerable advantage to Irish nationals in prisons abroad who will be able to return to prisons here, thus facilitating easier visits by their families.

I compliment the Minister on the introduction of the Bill so early in her tenure of office.

On behalf of my parliamentary party colleagues I congratulate the Minister on introducing this Bill which will have our full support.

As already pointed out by Deputy McGinley, this convention dates back to 1983. As a member of the Council of Europe, having attended its various committees and plenary sessions, I know countries that had not ratified the convention were named on several occasions and I was always most unhappy that Ireland was the subject of criticism for not having done so. Many people might have concluded that we were endeavouring to excuse or in some way condone the actions of those who had committed serious crimes. Here I refer to the actions not alone of non-nationals in prisons here but Irish nationals imprisoned in many countries worldwide, of whom there are in excess of 600. the substantial proportion located in prisons in the United Kingdom.

Perhaps the Minister will give a breakdown of that figure, informing us where such prisoners are located, so that we will have a bird's eye view of the overall position, in addition to informing us how many non-nationals are imprisoned here. Both categories are interlinked and a number of Members referred to the potential problems if, on enactment of this Bill, we tried to effect such transfers under the regulations laid down in the convention. It would be impossible to accommodate some 600 Irish prisoners at present located in foreign jails, assuming that agreement was reached with the relevant countries for their transfer. If we transferred all the non-nationals accommodated in our prisons back to their respective countries, if their governments were prepared to accept their transfer we would not have sufficient room for returned Irish nationals imprisoned abroad.

I am not too clear on the relevant criteria to be applied for such transfers. For example, is there any onus on foreign Governments to accept their nationals at present imprisoned here? Does this convention make it obligatory, or is it purely voluntary?

All voluntary.

Therefore, it will be on a voluntary basis under which Governments will have to decide in each individual case. In turn, it would mean that our Government or Minister for Justice of the day would be required to examine each of the 600-plus individual cases, taking a decision in conjunction with the relevant authorities in the countries in which our nationals are held involving considerable manpower, many hours of discussions and negotiation over a long period. Therefore, after the enactment of this Bill — and the sooner the better — I do not think we should expect an influx of Irish prisoners from abroad to, say, Mountjoy, Portlaoise or other prisons. As I am sure the Minister appreciates even if that was possible politically, it would not be physically possible.

The overall question of different categories of prisoners will have to be examined in considerable detail. When replying the Minister might inform us what the relevant process of transfer will involve. Let us suppose ten Irish prisoners are acommodated in a prison in London and whose families submit an application for their transfer to the Minister for Justice. The applications would be considered, after which dialogue would commence between officials of the Minister's Department and those of Her Majesty's Prison Service, or the British Department of Justice, reaching a decision on each individual case. I can foresee it being a protracted process. Therefore, it would be wrong to give the impression that all our prisoners abroad would arrive back next week, from Holyhead, Dublin Airport or elsewhere. One of the largest files retained in my office since my election over 12 years ago deals with correspondence, mainly from mothers or wives of men in jail in other countries, the majority in the United Kingdom.

Ratification of this convention should not be viewed as our condoning breaking the law in other countries, in some cases involving very serious crime. On the contrary, we must consider this matter in a compassionate manner. We must remember that these prisoners have families, wives and children, surviving on low incomes, in receipt of social welfare benefit. Equally, public representatives receive correspondence from parents mainly about their sons, but in some cases daughters, imprisoned, say, in Cork, far removed from their home in counties Louth or Donegal. I remember one case of a mother having to travel to Cork, take a ferry across to visit her son, which involved travelling all day, remaining overnight and returning the following day. I estimated this would have cost her a minimum of £100 although her only income derived from social welfare. Travel by train or bus is bad enough, but one can imagine the cost involved for those visiting family members imprisoned in France, Germany or even America or Canada. I accept that such families receive a social welfare allowance, but that does not provide assistance towards the cost of travel to visit their loved ones in prison. We want our nationals returned to prisons here to facilitate communication between them and their families.

Many of our prisons, which date back to the early part of this century and were probably built for different reasons, are grossly overcrowded. Deputy McGinley referred to the revolving door syndrome, something with which I am familiar. I am aware of a case where a garda squad car brought a prisoner, sentenced in a court in Dundalk, to a prison in Dublin and later met that prisoner on the way back to Dundalk. The provisions of this Bill can be successfully implemented only if accommodation is made available for prisoners.

The legislation or regulations introduced by the Minister will fail miserably if this is not done. Prior to this the Minister could make the excuse that Ireland was not a signatory to this convention or that the necessary legislation was not in place for the transfer of prisoners, but that will not be the case in the future. The ball will be in a different court, we can no longer blame the Taiwanese, the Canadians or the British, the blame will lie with the Minister for Justice and the other agencies involved.

In the United Kingdom, in particular, members of religious orders, the Irish-London Association, the Irish-Manchester Association, the Irish-Birmingham Association and other voluntary groups visit Irish prisoners. Indeed, many prison chaplains are of Irish extraction and do tremendous work in helping our nationals who are imprisoned in Great Britain. I am not as familiar with the position in other countries where there may not be the same Irish community spirit as in Great Britain. From visiting prisons in England, Scotland and Wales I was made aware of the great fear of many prisoners because they are Irish. The psychological effect of what happened on the British mainland regarding the wrongful imprisonment of persons created a fear in the minds of Irish prisoners abroad that they would not receive justice outside their own country, but I did not witness such fear in the prisons I visited. That fear was removed when Irish people living in Great Britain were allowed visit prisoners and assure them that all was well at home. As someone who worked abroad for many years I am well aware of people's concern about the welfare of their relatives at home. One can imagine, therefore, what it must be like to be imprisoned in a foreign country where the majority of the prisoners are non-Irish and in some cases do not speak English. Communication with families is one of the most important psychological problems facing prisoners abroad and I am sure foreigners in our prisons face similar problems.

We should also consider the difficulties facing those who cannot visit their relatives in prison abroad either for financial reasons or because they cannot afford to take time off work to do so. My greatest sympathy lies with Irish nationals who do not have family, but want to return to Irish soil to complete their prison sentence because of their belief that they would be in a more friendly environment.

I welcome the Bill but await an indication from the Minister as to how she proposes to deal with the 600-plus prisoners who are located in a variety of countries. Where are they located? What form will the transfer of such prisoners take? What regulations will be put in place, either nationally or internationally? Will separate arrangements be required with every country involved or are there guidelines in the convention to deal with the matter?

I congratulate the Minister on moving rapidly on this matter and for making an indirect, if not a direct, contribution towards the peace process. Much of the discussion that has taken place, for example, regarding political prisoners, centred around their release. I admire the Minister for moving in a sympathetic manner in that regard. However, it must be recognised that there are many people in prison here for committing serious crimes over the past 25 years.

Debate adjourned.