Priority Questions

Departmental Expenditure

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

1 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will confirm reports that he has been unable to secure the agreement of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to allocate the additional €16 million necessary to cover Garda costs for the visit of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama; the effect that this lack of a refund is having on Garda activities; the information he provided to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38144/11]

It is starting to feel a little like Groundhog Day, as Deputy Dara Calleary, Deputy Jonathan O'Brien and I addressed this issue earlier this morning when we discussed the Supplementary Estimates.

Arrangements have been made for the provision of additional funding for the Garda Vote in 2011 by way of the Supplementary Estimate which we dealt with earlier. One of the main reasons for the Supplementary Estimate is to provide for an overrun on expenditure that has arisen in connection with the policing of the State visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama. This situation has arisen because the visits had not been planned by the time the Garda Estimates for 2011 were finalised and the Supplementary Estimate will resolve the funding issue.

At this stage the Supplementary Estimate has been considered by the Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and I look forward to its early adoption. Additionally, in the lead up to the Supplementary Estimate I have engaged very actively with my Government colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, regarding the costs of the State visits. This has been an ongoing process and I am very pleased that it has been brought to a successful conclusion and that the funding required has been made available.

I put the question down in light of remarks the Minister made publicly last week, and we dealt with the issue this morning. However, I am anxious to ensure that the allocation approved by the committee this morning will cover the exact cost of the visits. The Minister referred to Garda efficiencies. What are those efficiencies? Do they include a cutback in policing programmes? I realise that we went through the figures this morning, but will the Minister comment on Operation Freeflow and whether there will be one in Dublin this year? Has it been curtailed as one of the Garda efficiencies? Will any other programme be curtailed?

Additional costs of €36 million were incurred for the visits of Queen Elizabeth II and President Obama. The original estimate was that the cost would be approximately €20 million. The Queen's visit turned out to be a good deal longer than was originally anticipated and was most successful. Efficiencies have been effected across the Garda Vote, as they have been effected across other parts of the justice Vote within the Department so matters could be dealt with in a more efficient and effective way. I assure the Deputy that whatever outstanding funding the Garda requires arising from the visits is being provided.

The Garda has operated with great efficiency and effectiveness this year. There has been a series of operations in which the Garda has targeted drug gangs and those engaged, for example, in the sale and smuggling of illegal fuel in this country. The force will continue to work to the highest level of efficiency. With regard to Operation Freeflow, this is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. Usually there is an announcement in December about it and I anticipate that the Garda will take such action this year as is necessary to ensure that our roads are safe. As I said earlier today, there has been a substantial reduction in the number of lives lost on our roads this year and in the number of road traffic accidents. That is partly contributed to by the vigilance of An Garda Síochána.

The Garda Commissioner appeared before the committee this morning and we all took the opportunity to pay tribute to the Garda. Will the Minister confirm that the €36 million cost of the two visits, and everybody agrees on the benefits of those visits, has been provided in full to the Garda and that no other Garda programme has been affected by that cost?

There was €36 million excess expenditure incurred within the Garda Vote because it was not anticipated that either visit would take place. During the course of the year the Garda has effected efficiencies in the manner in which it has delivered its services. The Garda has fully maintained all necessary front line services and has been particularly effective. The additional sum of €27.4 million that has been allocated was discussed earlier today. Approximately €15 million of that is directly in respect of the visits and the remaining sums were not required by the Garda because of the efficiencies that have been effected during the year. It is not my purpose as Minister to provide the Garda with funding it does not require. The funding it requires is being provided and front line services have been fully and properly maintained. Efficiencies have been effected, which is in the interests of the taxpayers and of the Garda fulfilling its obligations to use resources in the most efficient and effective way.

As I said at the meeting of the justice committee, I pay tribute to the Garda Commissioner, the officers and all the members of the force for the manner in which they have dealt with a range of issues this year in a cost-effective way. That is the way to proceed into the future.

Prison Accommodation

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

2 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if his attention has been drawn to the fact that on 21 November 2011 open prisons Loughan House, County Cavan and Shelton Abbey, County Wicklow, were both under capacity; the reason overcrowding persists in prisons such as Mountjoy, Dublin, due to the imprisonment of large numbers of persons for minor offences who could be placed in open prison arrangements, while open prisons are generally under-utilised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38142/11]

As I advised the Deputy in my answer to a parliamentary question on 22 November, we currently have two open centres in the prison estate and on 21 November 2011 Loughan House had 110 prisoners, filling approximately 70% of the bed capacity of 160, while Shelton Abbey had 97 prisoners, filling nearly 90% of the bed capacity of 110. These figures do not include prisoners on temporary release that day; for example, six prisoners in Shelton Abbey were on weekend temporary release and were due back in custody later that day and 23 prisoners were on temporary release from Loughan House.

The average occupancy rates for Shelton Abbey for 2010 was 94% so it cannot be described as being under-utilised. The occupancy rates for Loughan House would normally be in the region of 80%, for example, yesterday it was 83%. Neither centre is a committal centre and, as open centres, they are only suitable for a limited category of prisoners, that is, low risk offenders serving short sentences or offenders nearing the end of longer sentences. There is limited use for each of these prisons. Many prisoners prefer to be in prisons close to their families and will simply abscond from open centres. Open centres are not appropriate to them.

While it is my policy to encourage the maximum use of open centres as appropriate, I recognise that they are not suitable for every prisoner and that their bed capacity only represents 6% of the total prison capacity. As such, further maximising their use does not have the potential to have any significant effect on the pressures in the rest of the prison system. However, open centres have a useful role to play and we need to make the most effective use of them.

It is simply not true to say that prison overcrowding is due to the imprisonment of large numbers of persons for minor offences who could be placed in open centres. An analysis of prisoner population and trends for the years 2005 to 2010 shows that the proportion of prisoners in custody on any one day serving sentences of less than 12 months has actually gone down over that period, from approximately 20% to 15%, while there has been a significant increase in the numbers serving sentences of three years or more. We anticipate that the new arrangements made in respect of community service orders will further reduce the numbers of prisoners serving short-term sentences of less than 12 months.

One of the reasons I tabled the question was because the figures we got from the answer to the parliamentary question were startling in terms of the bed capacity and the current population. Now that the Minister has clarified that it did not include those on temporary release I can understand the reason the figures were so low on that day.

As the Minister stated in his reply, open centres are the type of facility that foster training and education, help develop personal skills and help people make that transition. Under the new five year capital strategy for the Irish Prison Service which is being developed, there will be greater focus on step-down facilities and possibly the greater use of open centres. If the Minister has any information on that I would appreciate it.

The other reason I put down the question is that when representatives of the Prison Officers Association came before a recent meeting of the Sub-Committee on Penal Reform they outlined in their submission that overcrowding could be addressed in a number of ways, one of which was greater use of open prisons, but they also stated that even within the closed prison system there is great scope to address some of the overcrowding. The example given was Wheatfield Prison where there is a new prison block sitting idle. There is a row of offices which are not being used and for a small amount of capital funding they could be converted and made suitable for some low-risk prisoners.

That particular construction was built for offices as opposed to prison spaces but I am aware of it and it is something we are looking into. As the Deputy may be aware, a review group is being established arising out of the Thornton Hall report to examine alternative ways of dealing with convicted offenders who do not pose a risk to the community and do an overall further review of non-custodial sentencing, and I expect that will be advanced in the new year. I hope shortly to announce the names of the individuals who will conduct the review.

Regarding Loughan House, one of the difficulties is its distance. A substantial number of prisoners are in Dublin or Cork and there is an issue of prison visits and access for family members of those convicted. Deputy Calleary is looking somewhat sceptical but that is an issue. Open prisons have an important role to play but, unfortunately, a substantial number of prisoners are not appropriate to be serving their time in such prisons.

To be clear, will part of the remit of the new policy review group the Minister is establishing be to examine existing prison structures and the possibility of expanding within those confines even, for instance, in terms of Castlerea Prison where there is a good deal of open space? We could examine the possibility of doing something similar to what was done in the Six Counties where they put in temporary accommodation for low risk offenders. Will that be part of its remit?

The Thornton Hall review committee group looked beyond simply the question of the construction of Thornton Hall and addressing the problems arising out of Kilworth, in Cork. It also examined some of the other means of dealing with prisoners but the review group will go beyond that and I hope shortly will be in a position to clarify its terms of reference. I am anxious we deal with this in an open and constructive way and when that group is formed in the new year I invite Deputy O'Brien and Deputy Calleary to consider making their own submissions to it because I want us to examine the most constructive way of dealing with convicted offenders in a manner that is to the benefit of the community, ensures that taxpayers do not incur unnecessary cost and tries to reduce the level of recidivism. I very much welcome the Deputy's contribution to that process.

Clare Daly

Ceist:

3 Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will consider halting the prison building plans at Dóchas and instead divert resources to provision of community based residential and therapeutic alternatives to prison for women, which are proven to be cheaper, more effective and more capable of addressing the complex needs of women offenders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38141/11]

On Tuesday, 29 November 2011, there were 127 prisoners in custody in the Dóchas Centre against a bed capacity of 105. Since it opened in 1999, it has consistently had the highest level of overcrowding in the Irish prison system. For that reason measures were taken to expand its capacity.

Work commenced in April 2011 on the conversion of an administrative building on the Dóchas Centre site into an accommodation block to provide an additional 70 spaces. The building work has now been completed and it is expected that the spaces will be fully operational in early 2012.

Women account for less than 4% of the prison population. A review of the figures for October 2011 show an average of 155 female prisoners in custody in the Dóchas Centre and Limerick Prison. Thirty-five of these women were on remand by the courts, a matter which falls wholly within the power of the Judiciary. A further 85 women were serving sentences of one year or more for offences including a number serving life sentences for murder.

It is my policy to maximise the non-custodial options for those found to have committed offences but only where a significant custodial sentence is not warranted. This applies equally to men and women. However, the remit of my Department is limited to offenders and we cannot duplicate or replace the supports that should be available to all in need of care.

The Probation of Offenders Act allows courts to discharge an offender subject to conditions rather than imposing a custodial sanction. Conditions in such orders might include a requirement to be subject to supervision by the Probation Service and to participate in an appropriate treatment or rehabilitation course. The Probation Service in co-operation with 48 community based organisations are currently spending in the region of €10 million providing services to adult offenders in the community some of which include residential courses. Temporary release also allows suitable prisoners to be released from prison subject to conditions to participate in appropriate programmes.

I should say that in line with the recommendations in the Report of the Thornton Hall Project Review Group, I am establishing a group to carry out a strategic review of penal policy which will include specifically the issue of female prisoners.

I thank the Minister for the reply. Overcrowding is a serious issue in all of the prisons and, as the Minister stated, especially in the Dóchas Centre but what has arisen out of this crisis is a shift in the ethos around which that facility was built, namely, the idea of a more open and rehabilitative process. A consequence of the overcrowding is that it has been replaced by a somewhat more punitive regime which is hugely detrimental. The Minister stated that over 85 of the women are serving sentences of one year or more but an analysis of the crimes that led them into that situation would reveal that most of them occurred as a consequence of drug use or abuse, poverty and so on. Unless we tackle those issues building more spaces is the wrong way around that problem. The idea of providing dormitory spaces for women prisoners, given the problems that have already arisen in the prison, is a recipe for disaster. I note the Minister has said the building is built but is there any way we could alter that to have more single unit provisions because it will be a nightmare for the women and the staff?

All I can say to the Deputy is that I inherited the legacy of a prison that was inadequate in the context of the space provision available for women prisoners. Very early action was taken to provide additional space, and that additional space should relieve the overcrowding and address what is the current difficulty in a manner that is manageable within the funding available to me. The works started in April. We expect those facilities will be in full use by early 2012. It would have been impossible to have done anything quicker than that, and to have constructed a larger facility would not have been possible because of the absence of funding. This is a measure designed to relieve the difficulties created by overcrowding, and I have confidence that the governor of the prison will ensure that those spaces are adequately allocated and utilised. I agree with the Deputy that we need to take a large number of other measures with regard to adults — both men and women — who are imprisoned but it must be remembered that people are in prison for committing serious offences. There are many people who come from difficult social backgrounds who do not engage in offending and assaults, who do not burglarise or commit theft, and to take it to its extreme, who do not murder people. Prison has a role to play, but it is important we take a balanced and considered approach. I am looking forward to the work that will be done by this new review group to see what other options we can also deploy in addition to the current non-custodial options that are being deployed.

Are the extra 70 dormitory spaces replacing the bunking up situation in the single cells? A previous governor resigned over the totally inadequate nature of that provision. Will that be discontinued as a result of these spaces?

Has the Minister obtained any information on how many current prisoners are reoffenders? In my experience, many of the same people come back again. If moneys were invested while they were in there to deal with some of the other problems, this would lessen the risk of reoffending and provide a considerable benefit.

We all agree that the maximum possible needs to be done to ensure that those who are in prison for committing offences do not reoffend. There will always be a significant segment of individuals who, no matter what services are available in the prison system, will still reoffend. That is the lesson in every country in the world, no matter what type of sentencing regime they have. However, the objective of prison must be to ensure that facilities are available to reduce the level of reoffending.

The opening of these facilities should reduce the level of overcrowding within the Dóchas centre and I hope it will ameliorate the necessity for additional prisoners to be held in a prison cell which may have been originally designed for one individual.

Garda Stations

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

4 Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the names of each Garda station that will close or will have its opening hours restricted during the years 2012, 2013 or 2014 on a county basis; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38145/11]

A final decision on whether station closures will take place, and if so, what stations, will be taken in the context of the Commissioner's draft policing plan for 2012 and will be announced shortly. The policing plan will also be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

As with every other public sector organisation, the Garda Síochána is going to have to manage with reduced resources. The Garda Commissioner has, therefore, quite properly been reviewing all aspects of the Garda Síochána's policing model, including the deployment of personnel, the utilisation of modern technologies and the operation of Garda stations, both in terms of opening hours and possible closures. The purpose of the review is to ensure that Garda resources are managed and deployed in the most appropriate manner to meet existing and emerging policing requirements and to maintain Garda front line services to the greatest extent possible, which is consistent with Government policy.

I can confirm to the Deputy that I have received the Commissioner's draft policing report. There are proposals on Garda stations which I hope to bring before my Cabinet colleagues early next week, and I expect announcements on the matter to be made next week.

We knew the Minster had the report as the Commissioner was with us this morning. The one thing he did say is that there are not 240 stations recommended. Can the Minister give us the overall amount?

Many local communities have the information. They seem to know that their station is on the list, for whatever reason. There is much genuine concern within rural communities, although the Commissioner made the point that he has not just targeted rural stations. There is also an issue in respect of the visibility and presence of a Garda station and what it does to deter crime.

The Minister made the point this morning at the committee that some stations on the list have been closed for 30 years, but they are in the minority. There are many viable stations on that list which are currently providing a service. In view of the way in which the criminal model is changing, the way in which they have greater access to different parts of the country, I would like the Minister to be very considerate of the impact of closing Garda stations in certain areas.

The OPW owns the properties to some extent, but the money for investing in these properties comes from the budget of the Department of Justice and Equality. No savings will be made to the Department if these stations are closed, but the OPW will make the savings. Why are we dismantling a Garda service to serve another Department's budgetary wants?

I know the Deputy does not expect me to announce this afternoon which stations will close. We have the Garda Commissioner's report and this has to go to the Cabinet before we make a final decision. I am not being misleading in any way when I say to the Deputy that I am not in a position to make announcements until Cabinet colleagues have been made aware of the content of the report and a final decision has been made. That decision will announced next week.

There is no reason for any community anywhere in the country to be alarmed. The proposals for closures do not apply to the very large numbers that some media outlets have been predicting. The proposals are designed to ensure greater policing effectiveness and not less. They are designed to ensure that members of the Garda Síochána are available for front line services and not engaged in administrative functions behind the desk at Garda stations that have very little footfall, or in circumstances where they would be better off out on patrol or engaging in investigation work. The proposals also apply to stations that are in such close proximity to other stations that it simply makes no sense to have two stations so close to each other. The major savings in this will be in more effective and efficient use of Garda time.

If Garda stations close, they are held by the OPW as they are the property of the State. I am dependent on a decision being made by Cabinet colleagues on the use of funds that may arise from the disposal of buildings consequent on the closure of stations. We have to address that issue.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has confirmed the Cabinet will make the decision on the report. Given that it is a Cabinet decision, perhaps it is time we looked at this across all Departments. There are public buildings in every part of the country and every Department jealously protects those public buildings. This issue came up this morning at the committee. Why do we not look at those public buildings and use available space in them for a Garda presence? Equally, we could look at using space in Garda stations for the presence of other organisations, such as Leader companies in offices held by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in rural areas. If everybody gets out of this silo mentality in respect of State property, we can maintain services and a presence in a much more cost effective way.

I have a general view that silos are a bad thing, unless something is being stored in them. Much to my surprise, I discovered in the review that some stations have not been opened for many years but have never been officially closed. A formal announcement was never made about the consolidation of some Garda stations. For example, I am aware of one station that has never officially been closed, but has not been open either since 1986. It has had no Garda presence since then. There are a small number of stations that are clearly not being used for policing purposes for a significant period of time. It is a complete mystery to me why previous Governments did not dispose of those buildings at a time when funding could have been realised, or at least used for other purposes. I hope to be in a position to address these issues when matters are decided early next week and announcements made.

Departmental Agencies

Jonathan O'Brien

Ceist:

5 Deputy Jonathan O’Brien asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason he has discontinued funding for an organisation (details supplied); if he will reinstate this funding to allow them to continue their activities; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38143/11]

It has been decided that funding to People with Disabilities in Ireland must cease at the end of 2011. I would like to thank the members of PWDI and their staff for their efforts over the years, but in common with all aspects of Government spending, everything has to be examined with a view to preserving, so far as possible, front line services. On the basis of a value for money review, it has been clearly established that the vast majority of the money allocated to PWDI is being spent disproportionately. The largest proportion of PWDI's annual budget has been spent over the last number of years on the operation of its office headquarters and on administration, rather than on the creation of programmes and services which would directly benefit people with disabilities.

This was an untenable situation and could not be allowed to continue as people with disabilities were benefiting little from the allocation in real terms. However, there is no reason that the local People with Disabilities in Ireland, PWDI, networks throughout the country should not continue to be active as volunteer bodies or should continue their work with people with disabilities.

It is my wish to ensure that people with disabilities benefit directly from any money allocated to this sector. With this in mind, I am currently overseeing the finalisation of a major value for money and policy review of disability services in the Department of Health to ensure that existing funding allocated for people with disabilities is spent to best effect. I am also interested to hear what people with disabilities have to say on issues affecting them. I have established and I will chair a new national disability strategy implementation group to develop and progress disability strategy. The new group will include representatives from several disability stakeholder organisations and also several people with disabilities who will be able to bring their lived experience to bear directly on the important work of this high level group. This will ensure the voice and perspective of people with disabilities will continue to be heard in a more focused and cost-effective way.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Government must ensure that in 2012 and continuing thereafter funding is allocated for maximum provision of services for people with disabilities, having regard to overall resource constraints which affect all sectors at this time. As can be seen from the following table, due to a general decline in network activity around the country, PWDI as an organisation was unable to spend its allocation in recent years. More than €1 million allocated to PWDI since 2007 has been returned to the Exchequer. Government funding for the years 2007 to September 2011, inclusive, is set out in the following table.

Year

Allocation

Drawdown

2007

€1,400,000

€1,400,000

2008

€1,465,000

€1,465,000

2009

€1,465,000

€1,088,423

2010

€1,465,000

€895,290

2011

€900,000

€577,403

Totals

€6,695,000

€5,426,116

I wish to interrupt the Minister of State. The remainder of the reply will be in the Official Report.

I am keen to put something else on the record which is important. Some of the statements made in the past week may have inadvertently indicated that fees were paid to board members. They were not paid and they have never been paid and we are all aware of that.

I assure the Minister of State that we submitted the question last Thursday before I spoke to her on Friday. It was not done to put her on the spot; it was simply that the question was submitted before I spoke to her. I wish to know more about the reasoning behind it. The Minister of State suggested that the majority of money was spent on administration and headquarters costs. Is it possible to get some indication of what percentage of the funding was spent in these areas and what percentage was spent providing services?

As the Minister of State is aware, most disability policy flows from the old commission report on the status of people with disabilities, produced 15 years ago. The commission identified the need for a national body to represent people with disabilities in that report. Is it the intention of the Minister of State that the new strategy group she intends to establish will become such a national body to represent people with disabilities?

I will provide Deputy O'Brien with a complete breakdown of the allocation later on. It was disproportionate. I understand it was of the order of 60% or more in terms of the national headquarters.

I met the board members of People with Disabilities in Ireland this afternoon to discuss how their voice can continue to be heard. I intend that it will be heard nationally through the disability stakeholders group which is central to all of Government. Other issue must be considered as well. I see no reason that their voice cannot be heard through partnership or Leader programmes or through local authorities, in other words, where decisions are made and where people with disabilities can have a useful input. We are considering such a structure. I intend to invite more people with a particular view in respect of disability to join the disability stakeholders group at national level within the Department of the Taoiseach.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. The groups affiliated to the PWDI remain at work. The Minister of State suggested there is no reason they cannot continue in a volunteering capacity but this is simply not practical for all the groups. Is there any possibility that these groups could apply for funding in other areas within the Department or through the HSE to enable them to continue to operate? The Minister of State knows the work of some of these groups as well as I do. They carry out great work and they should not be penalised for whatever took place at headquarters or at administrative level.

There are always areas open to such groups either through lottery funding or through the HSE. I know exactly the groups to which Deputy O'Brien is referring. We intend to consider some suitable form or structure either through partnership, Leader programmes, local authorities or the health forums. Avenues of funding are always available. The difficulty was that although the challenge was put up to PWDI earlier this year in terms of how it could give better value for money for the people it represents, this did not materialise and we must find another vehicle to make their voice heard.