I welcome the opportunity to reply to what has been a lively and wholly constructive Seanad debate on Second Stage of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, 1996. It is fair to say that the House has acknowledged that the Bill contains necessary and, in some cases, significant reforms, especially in the area of criminal procedure, and these have received a general welcome.
Before I deal with specific provisions mentioned by Senators, I must first clarify any misconception about the status of the Bill vis-a-vis the Government's recently announced plans for the future structure, management and administration of the courts and prisons. Senator Mulcahy and Senator O'Kennedy expressed the view at the opening of this debate on 21 November that the House should not discuss the Bill because it was inconsistent with recent Government decisions affecting those areas.
In relation to the prison service, the Government has established a small group of persons to work out all aspects of a new board or agency to run prisons. That group has been requested to report its findings to Government by the end of January. When the report on the proposed prisons board is received, it will be considered. If it emerges that it is necessary to change the rules for the regulation of prisons, that can be done. Whatever legislation may be required as a result of this group's considerations, the outcome of whose work I cannot anticipate, will be brought before this House which will have every opportunity to consider and examine it. In the meantime, we cannot afford to stand still. We must deal with the situation as it exists. There will be plenty of opportunities to discuss the role and functions of the proposed prisons board when the group has reported its findings.
The proposed new rules under section 18 replace the current rules which date back to 1947. New rules are needed to reflect the practical problems of running a modern prison system and to allow the system meet modern conditions. It is important for all involved with the prison system, including the staff and the offenders, that these rules are made as soon as possible.
The Government has decided to proceed directly towards the establishment of a courts service on a statutory basis. I want to reassure Senators O'Kennedy and Mulcahy that the provisions in this Bill stand on their own merits. Even when a new courts service is established it will be this House and the other House which will have to legislate to change statutory procedures in the courts. The Minister for Justice will continue to have responsibility for bringing in reforming legislative proposals relating to criminal law and procedure. It is, therefore, wrong to suggest that the Bill should not be enacted because the Minister would have no power in relation to the courts. The Minister for Justice will continue to have an important role in this area and Senator O'Kennedy knows that as well as I.
The reforms contained in the Bill are procedural but of great importance. Without prejudice to the recent decisions relating to the future structure of the courts and prison service, the reforms contained in the Bill, which are mainly to do with providing a greater flexibility for the Garda Siochána and the courts, will always be necessary. They are important practical and procedural reforms needed to enable the Garda and the courts to operate with greater efficiency and they are necessary regardless of the establishment of a courts service. It would be unfortunate if Senators opposed the introduction of these measures.
Senator Mulcahy has welcomed the changes proposed in sections 5, 8, 9, 10 and 11. This House should support measures which will free Garda resources and speed up court procedures. The measures in this Bill are in ease of the courts and the Garda. For example, they give a wider discretion to the courts in relation to certain remand periods and the venues for remand hearings. The Bill also gives the Garda a new and much needed power to search for evidence in cases of murder, rape and other serious sexual offences. Restructuring the system of courts and prisons management and administration will not in the same way do away with the need for these and similar reforms in the future. For these reasons I cannot agree that this debate is wasting the time of the House.
Senator Mulcahy was concerned about section 6 which provides for the giving of certificates of evidence of arrest, charge and caution. As Senator Neville pointed out, gardaí spend a lot of time waiting to give evidence in court. It has been estimated that up to 60.000 Garda hours are spent in the Dublin Metropolitan Area giving evidence at the first appearance of accused persons in court. This is a considerable waste of Garda time. I appreciate what Senator Mulcahy has said about the process of arrest being "at the heart" of each criminal case. The section provides that the court can direct that oral evidence on the matter stated in the certificate can be given by the Garda where the interests of justice so require. I am satisfied that this is an adequate safeguard to meet the concern Senator Mulcahy expressed.
Senator Gallagher asked about the possible effects of certain provisions in the Bill on the District Court. Section 5, which provides for alternative remand courts, will have no significant effect on court business in the District Court situated near the remand prisons, for example, in the Dublin metropolitan district, as Mountjoy Jail is the main remand centre. I have considered this mattered carefully. Remand hearings are usually of very short duration relative to other court proceedings and I am satisfied that this proposal will have no significant implications for the case list in the Dublin metropolitan district. My main priority is to address the substantial cost of transporting and escorting remand prisoners, in particular from Mountjoy Jail, to the District Court jurisdiction which may be a considerable distance away.
Senator Gallagher also asked for clarification of section 14. This section amends the Criminal Evidence Act, 1992. That Act made special provision for the giving of evidence in trials in sexual offences or offences involving violence, for example, by video link. The definition of sexual offence in that Act was not updated to take account of the repeal and replacing of some of these offences provided for by the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993. Section 14 makes the necessary changes.
Senator Neville asked for clarification of the position regarding air support units for the Garda. The Government decided in April 1996 to approve the establishment of a dedicated Garda air support unit and to purchase the necessary aircraft. This decision was based on the report prepared by an interdepartmental working group on air support established by the Minister for Justice in May 1995. That report emphasised the priority attached to providing the Garda Siochána with an effective 24 hour support capability. This was critical to the Garda strategies in combating all forms of crime, including organised crime gangs, drug trafficking, paramilitary activity and serious mobile crime. It recommended the Garda air support unit be equipped with one patrol observation helicopter and one fixed-wing aircraft. These aircraft will be operated by the Air Corps under the operational control of the Garda Siochána and will provide the gardaí with a 24 hour air support capability. Tenders were invited for the aircraft earlier this year. These have been evaluated and a suitable helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft selected. Contracts are expected to be signed shortly and the necessary funding has been provided by the Government. It is expected that the introductory training for the gardaí will begin early next year with the full support capability operational by July.