I welcome the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and his officials. It is proposed to conclude consideration of the Estimates before 2 p.m. at which time the select committee will resume its consideration of the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, 2000. The Votes under discussion are Votes 19 to 24, inclusive. In accordance with normal practice, I call on the Minister to make an opening statement. He will be followed by the main Opposition spokespersons. We will then go through each Vote individually.
Estimates for Public Services, 2000.
Vote 19 - Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
Vote 20 - Garda Síochána.
Vote 21 - Prisons.
Vote 22 - Courts Service
Vote 23 - Land Registry and Registry of Deeds
Vote 24 - Charitable Donations and Bequests.
I think, Chairman, it has been agreed that the script will form part of the record. I will, therefore, try to summarise it. In 1997 the allocation for the Justice group of Votes, including the Vote for the former Department of Equality and Law Reform, was £705 million. It now stands at £1,037 million, an increase of nearly 50% over the space of three years.
We have an organisational change programme dealing with the Courts Service, Prisons Service, Equality Authority, National Disability Authority, probation and welfare service, Land Registry and Registry of Deeds which is to be converted to a commercial semi-State body, establishment of various organisations in the asylum and refugee area, and ongoing implementation of the Garda Síochána SMI report. We also have a very elaborate IT improvement programme across several areas of the Department.
I have made criminal law reform one of the planks of my ministry. We have introduced a massive amount of legislation. The Bill was passed yesterday or the day before - I cannot remember when because one day seems to fly into another where legislation is concerned - brought to almost 30 the number of Bills passed by the Dáil since I became Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I pay tribute to the main Opposition spokespersons because the legislation could not have been passed without their help and co-operation.
There is other major legislation before the Dáil, including the Children Bill which is revolutionary in its concepts and the Sex Offenders Bill, 2000, which is extremely important. Deputy Jim Higgins asked this morning about the fraud offences Bill which will update the law on larceny, forgery, embezzlement, fraudulent conversion and so on. I expect to publish this major legislation next week. On human rights, I hope to establish the Human Rights Commission in July under the Human Rights Act, 2000.
There has been a major fall-off in the crime rate which was down by 5% last year. Over the lifetime of the Government it has reduced by 21%. It is a marvellous performance and I congratulate the Garda Síochána on it. I am happy that we are giving the Garda the resources, legislation and wherewithal to get the job done.
A national crime council has been established to feed into a White Paper and that is progressing. The integrated services process relates to social inclusion. We cannot tackle crime just through resources and legislation. It is also necessary to tackle its roots.
Regarding drugs and organised crime, I am happy with the partnership approach that is ongoing. The Garda has never been better resourced and Garda strength is now heading towards 12,000 as promised. Between last year and the year before, the Garda national drugs unit made seizures worth £120 million. The Garda operations of Dóchas, Main Street and Clean Street have netted seizures of heroin and other substances with a notional value of £20 million and resulted in 20,000 arrests.
As members are aware, the Criminal Assets Bureau is doing extremely well. The Proceeds of Crime Act, which I introduced when I was in Opposition in 1996, is helping the bureau considerably. It is going extremely well and an amending Bill was introduced recently, which we hope will be dealt with by the Dáil soon.
Was the Minister in office in 1996?
I was in Opposition in 1996 but the Bill was accepted by the then Government in which the honourable member was the Minister for the Environment. That shows how well I know my history.
I am most pleased with the Garda youth diversion projects. The funds for them have been increased to £4 million annually and they are going very well. The money laundering provisions are also going well.
I beg the Minister's pardon?
The money laundering investigation unit is going well.
I thought the Minister said the money laundering unit was going well.
A total of 2,600 suspicious transactions were reported, with a monetary value of £240 million between 1998 and 1999. That is not bad.
I take it the unit is detecting money laundering.
Even the Minister for Finance would be proud of that performance. The Garda juvenile diversion programme is most important and for the first time we have secured a considerable amount of money under the national development plan to tackle the root causes of crime in a meaningful way. The budget for Victim Support has been increased to £855,000. The organisation does great work and I thank all those involved.
There is no need for me to deal in detail with the asylum area because we have made 45,000 speeches in the last three years on this particular issue.
I feel another one coming on.
It always ends up in a row. However, one of the Government's main priorities at present is to deal in an adequate manner with the large number of asylum seekers. I expect to make an announcement shortly in relation to a major increase in the amount of staff. The number of staff has been increased already to approximately 300, but I will increase the number in a major way in the near future.
The Refugee Act, 1996, will be brought into force shortly and I am happy with the refugee legal service. The directorate for asylum support services is working extremely well in relation to dispersal. People are being visited throughout the country and being told about the current position. After people arrive in towns and are there for a while, the fear aspect goes completely. They are settling in extremely well and I am very proud of the directorate because it is doing very well with what was originally a very difficult task. As people get more used to it, they realise those involved are humans like them and there is nothing to fear. I am happy with the progress in this area.
The grant-in-aid for the Legal Aid Board has been increased to £12.9 million in 2000. It is doing great work throughout the country, particularly with regard to immigration.
Regarding equality, the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act have been passed. Ireland now has one of the most advanced equality codes in the European Union. With regard to the equality infrastructure generally, I am pleased that there is now the good office of the Director of Equality Investigations and that the Equality Authority is up and running. Ireland has a modern code and we have provided sufficient funds to keep it going.
On gender mainstreaming and positive action for women, we have adopted a strategy of mainstreaming between men and women in the national development plan and funding has been provided for it. The Department has provided a grant of £405,000 to the National Women's Council of Ireland. The equal opportunities child care programme is extremely important and an unprecedented sum of £250 million over the period of the plan has been allocated for investment in the development of child care service provision.
This will be of enormous benefit in providing child care places throughout the country and particularly, given that the Department deals with equality, in disadvantaged areas. It is not a question of forcing women out of the home and into work but of giving them a choice. Women who did not have a choice before, because they were obliged to stay at home to mind children, are being increasingly given a choice to participate in the workplace and to enter training or education.
This is the objective of the exercise and there has been extensive advertising for applications for grant aid. Some 3,000 applications for grant aid for this year alone have been received. However, the Department only has £20 million to spend this year. This is a huge increase on the sum last year - more 20 times that amount - but the level of applications shows the crying need for the development of infrastructure in this area. Ireland is way behind other European countries.
How many requests did the Department receive?
Approximately 3,000 at the last count. All those applications must be processed and considered on their merits, etc. I want to try to provide child care places in areas of disadvantage as an equality measure. There are areas which are not disadvantaged but where there is a complete lack of quality child care places. However, I am involved in the equality area so my principal objective is to try to ensure places in disadvantaged areas receive priority.
Regarding the status of people with disabilities, we recognise that it is one of the most important social issues facing Ireland today. As members are probably aware, the Department has provided considerable resources to help disability related initiatives. The National Disability Authority, a new non-statutory body, is up and running. It was launched by the Taoiseach recently.
I am awaiting a report from the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism so that a public awareness campaign can be run. I am conscious of the need to ensure that any racism that exists among a minority of people is eradicated. I am happy with the way the committee is working and I am waiting to hear from it so we can carry on with our campaign.
The Garda Síochána Vote was up 10% over the 1999 outturn. At present, we are well on the way to meeting our target of 12,000 members of the force by 2000. I hope there will be 11,850 members of the force by the end of 2001. I am keeping the need for further recruitment competitions to meet the Government's target under continual review.
As members are aware, I am also reviewing the height requirement for membership of the Garda Síochána as an equality initiative. It is important to realise that if a physical competency test was introduced, it would eliminate the need to consider a person's height. Arguments against it do not stand up. If it is said that a person must be physically strong and six feet or five feet, eight inches tall to be a member of the Garda Síochána, the logic is that no woman should be in the force. That does not stand up. In addition, technology and expertise have advanced. People who want to join the Garda Síochána have expertise in accountancy, IT, etc. My view is that they should be given the opportunity to join.
I am waiting for the consultation process to be completed so we can consider the issue of introducing a physical competency test. This would mean that a fair degree of muscle would still be required. However, Jack Dempsey won the world heavyweight boxing title and he was not the tallest man ever to enter a boxing ring. Physical competence is a fairer test and it is an equality matter. I am glad the Opposition spokespersons said they would support this initiative when it is introduced.
What about the gender balance of promotions in the Garda Síochána?
The Minister is outlining the principal points of his statement and we will then come back to the various issues.
There are two women chief superintendents at present. We can come back to this matter later. For those who may be interested in going to see it, the Garda patrol boat was launched last month. It is based in Athlone and working along the Shannon.
I presume it will not go to sea.
I have been told on numerous occasions that I am all at sea myself. The boat will help us to go further out.
One could not go further from the sea. I hope he does not sink.
We might consider visiting the boat for a week.
The boat has the latest modern communications equipment. If one went astray, one could contact the Garda air support unit which has also been established. A new helicopter has been ordered, bringing the total to two helicopters.
Why is the final payment being made before the helicopter is delivered?
I will deal with that point later.
I might forget later.
The Garda air support unit, which became operational in September 1997, has proved very successful. I am very proud of it, as is the Garda Síochána.
The PULSE project is going well. It is a major innovation. PULSE stands for Police Using Leading Systems Effectively. The system went live in 1999. It provides the gardaí with a state-of-the-art computer system and it gives significant operational benefits to the force. The current phase is expected to be substantially completed this year. Two more phases must then be rolled out.
As Members will know, we have embarked on a major prisons building programme. I am satisfied that we will achieve our objective. We have provided an additional 2,000 prison spaces over the lifetime of the Government. By the end of this year we should have an additional 1,271 places approximately.
What is the Minister's estimate?
I estimate that it will be 1,271 places.
How long does the Minister estimate the Government will last?
My estimate of the life-time of the Government has remained very constant. It will last five years. We made the announcement that there will be a further 700 places. I hope to see these places up and running at various locations in the not too distant future once various procedures have been put in place.
The prisons computerisation programme is very important. When I tabled questions while in Opposition it was impossible to get information regarding statistics. This new system will assist Deputies who table questions in the future. They will be able to get answers that will be of considerable assistance.
For many years the whole question of overtime in prisons has exercised the minds of various Ministers for Justice and Governments. I have dedicated a team to assess the fundamental problem. As the committee is probably aware, this team has worked extremely hard on behalf of the Government. Following the publication of the prisons operating cost review report the team will undertake a prison by prison review of the staff resources which are required to deliver agreed regime activities. Their report will inform a review of structures, conditions of service and the design of a new group for the Civil Service. I expect that to be followed by a new process called SORT which involves the completion of reports on individuals and institutions by 2000. A general report containing recommendations which will be applicable service wide will also be produced. Governors of institutions for which reports have been completed have already been asked to produce plans for implementation of recommendations which do not affect basic conditions of service. Obviously negotiations on the recommendations which will fundamentally affect conditions of service will take place within the formal conciliation and arbitration process.
I have dealt with the building programme. The building programme is required for a number of reasons. First, to relieve overcrowding. There has been chronic overcrowding in our prisons for a long time. In order to implement the Bail Act that has now come into force - it will implement the bail referendum - additional places will be required. There has also been a disturbing increase in the number of sexual offenders in Ireland. An increased number of places will also be required for them. At present sentences are longer and more places are required. Ultimately respect for the criminal justice system dictates that we should end the revolving door system once and for all. This will happen over the lifetime of the Government.
We have provided £21.342 million for the probation and welfare service and a number of reports have been carried out. The national development plan will last for seven years and £25 million has been allocated to the service.
I am very grateful to Mrs. Justice Susan Denham, the working group and the courts commission who have done sterling work on behalf of the State. We will increase the allocation to the courts from £36.5 million in 1998 to £57.4 million this year.
Court accommodation is perceived as not receiving the attention it deserves. We have tried to improve the situation considerably. We have succeeded in carrying out physical works in our courts which were badly needed many years ago. We have also made massive progress in the use of information technology.
I am disappointed at the level of backlog in the Registry of Deeds office. The backlog is due to the huge increase in transactions which have come about as a result of the buoyant economy.
The final Vote deals with Charitable Donations and Bequests. We have increased this Vote and it will be 9% more than the 1999 allocation.
I thank the committee for allowing me to outline the basis of my Department's Votes provisions in summary form. I hope I have been as brief as possible in the circumstances.
I thank the Minister for his concise summary of the work of his Department. I congratulate the staff of his Department and Mr. Tim Dalton, Secretary General, for the huge amount of work and initiatives that have been undertaken and for the work they have done.
I reiterate the Chairman's words of congratulations to the Minister for getting through such a huge text in a speedy and efficient fashion. He has managed to touch on the main pulse of what is happening within his Department. It is a huge Department and it has a huge Estimate.
I will reiterate a point that we have made several times - and it is not a criticism of the Minister. We are talking about two separate Departments, Justice and Equality and Law Reform. While a lot is happening in the equality, law reform and disability sector it is not fair to connect it with justice. It is a stand alone sector and it has nothing to do with justice, crime, prisons or courts. It should be treated as a separate area and made a Department in its own right. In a Department that must deal with the Garda, prisons, courts and land registry it is inevitable that certain things are prioritised while other matters are relegated to Cinderella status. A lot is going on but the disability sector is not getting the kind of separate treatment that it deserves.
Recently someone made a point in the Dáil about the employment of people with disabilities. They said there is a huge crisis in relation to labour shortages yet disabled people do not get the type of labour opportunities or employment that they deserve. They have the capacity, ability and intellect to provide a very valuable asset in terms of labour input.
I do not know why child care comes under the remit of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It should be the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children. We made this point during our discussions on the Children Bill. We have a Department of Health and Children yet child care is lumped into the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
I accept that the crime figures and statistics published show a downward pattern in crime. Unfortunately, today's newspapers carry details of yet another killing. A young woman was found with a ligature around her neck after lying dead for several days in an apartment. This incident brings the total number of people who have died in violent circumstances this year to 30. We now have a rate of almost two murders per week. People are dying in all kinds of violent circumstances. They are being beaten and stabbed to death. We also have gangland killings. People are also being assaulted in their homes. An example of this are the two elderly men who lived in the Offally/Meath area. We need to have a public debate immediately to discuss why Irish society is resorting to violence. We need to discuss why it sees violence as an acceptable way of dealing with disputes.
When the Minister was in Opposition he promised to set up a special unit to deal with complicated murders. Most murders are complicated. I do not know what he meant by that but he made that promise during his heyday on the Opposition benches. We need an acknowledgment and an admission that there is a problem or crisis. The Minister should then sit down with the Garda Commissioner and his advisers in his Department and work out a strategy to deal with them. We are five months into the new year and a record number of people have died in violent circumstances, the largest number ever in the history of the State. That is a cause for reflection. We should acknowledge that there is a crisis and then set about trying to address it.
We still have not achieved the required level of civilianisation in terms of secretarial and clerical staff working in Garda stations. I know there is a move in that direction. Unfortunately, many gardaí are desk bound, preparing files for the DPP and trying to meet deadlines for the presentation of files to the DPP. During the recent by-election I was confronted with a case when I was asked to meet the gardaí at Cahir Garda station. It has one clerical assistant. They have applied since 1997 for a second and there are at least one, if not two gardaí continually involved in office work.
The time spent by gardaí in Garda stations signing dole forms on weekday mornings - sometimes two or three per station are involved - is a waste of resources. Gardaí are not social welfare officers; they have nothing to do with social welfare and the practice should be stopped immediately. The Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs should be told to gets its act together and to find its own staff.
The Garda Síochána is a good force. It is unarmed and it does a good job, but there is a breakdown between the gardaí and the community which must be addressed urgently. It happens on several levels. Increasingly, the gardaí are recruited to centres of population. While technically rural Garda stations are open, effectively they are closed. The garda signs the dole forms and provides a physical presence. There is also the green man, the box that somebody speaks into. However, the gardaí are removed from the community.
Policing should be a team effort, comprising a joint approach between the community and the gardaí. If the gardaí are not physically present in an area for a considerable number of days, there is no relationship between them and the local community. They do not know the community and vice versa. It is fine to talk about a rapid response and somebody being on the scene within 15 or 20 minutes of a crime or a reported crime, but it is not the same as having the physical presence of gardaí in the communities. The unique relationship between gardaí and the community, when gardaí were on the beat and a tangible presence, has been badly ruptured.
The manner in which the law is applied and enforced is also a matter of concern. The law must be enforced but there is often a lack of discretion. An example is on-the-spot fines for speeding. I am aware of the effect of speeding on road traffic accidents and the carnage on the road and that I am trespassing on dangerous terrain, but on one of his recent radio programmes Pat Kenny made the point that getting somebody for, say, travelling at three or four miles per hour over the permitted speed limit 30 yards from a roundabout is similar to taking fish out of a barrel. It is damaging. Having spoken to members of the Garda Síochána it is clear they are not happy with this. While it brings in a lot of revenue to the Department, it needs to be looked at again.
There must be a complete overhaul of the Garda Complaints Board. It is not credible to have gardaí investigating gardaí. The credibility of the complaints board is evidenced by the figures. They do not stand up. The statistical reference to approximately six out of 1,000 plus complaints lodged is not valid. It does not reflect the true position and it does the gardaí no good.
The Minister says that PULSE is working very efficiently. When I ask questions on current crime figures and statistics for 2000, even for the months of January and February, I will get them for 1997 and 1998, but only provisional figures for 1999 and 2000. If the system is so high-tech and efficient in delivering what the Minister claims, that is, a rapid response in terms of up-to-date data, it should be possible to get the up-to-date figures at the press of a button. It is not good enough to be given provisional figures for 1999 and 2000. They should be available on a monthly basis to appraise us and other Deputies of the true position and also to give the gardaí a true picture of what is happening.
I welcome the Minister's move on the height requirement. Deputy Howlin and I raised the issue in the Dáil by way of parliamentary questions. The Minister should also look at the retirement age for gardaí. He recently presented the Dáil with figures on recruitment and the number of applicants. While there is now annual recruitment, the figure has reduced from 15,000 four of five years ago to 5,000. It is not as attractive a career choice as it was.
The age of retirement for a garda sergeant and inspector is 57 years, while it is 60 years for a superintendent or chief superintendent and 63 years for an assistant commissioner. It is a waste of resources to retire somebody at 57 who is physically and mentally healthy, who has been trained to the highest level and who has up-graded and up-dated his or her skills. The retirement age should be urgently looked at in tandem with the height requirement.
Public order is a major and growing problem. Many people are not reporting the offence because they see little point in doing so. However, it will have to be clamped down upon.
The 700 additional prison spaces are not warranted. Many people in prison should be doing community service work and making a substantial and positive contribution to the community. There is no mission statement on what the prison service is supposed to achieve. Virtually all the effects of prison are negative and counter productive. To add 700 prison spaces on top of the existing 2,000 is a waste of resources.
With regard to the two controversial orders on Land Registry fees, etc., did the Minister get legal advice? My information is that there could shortly be a court challenge from the Dublin solicitors in that it is suggested they were introduced ultra vires. The Minister has admitted there is a problem with regard to the delivery of services by the Land Registry. Has there been any substantial improvement in the county by county breakdown for dealing with the files?
Are there any proposals to provide for the transcripts of court proceedings at District Court level? Transcripts are vital in terms of keeping a record and taking a case further if it goes to appeal. There are often vast differences between the versions of what transpired in the District Court. In the current era of technology and modernisation, there is no reason why there should not be an accurate transcript of all the proceedings within all the courts, especially at District Court level because most people have recourse to the District Court in the first instance.
I thank the Minister for providing a précis of his script. The decision to amalgamate the Department of Justice with the Department of Equality and Law Reform was bad. If it was a bad decision three years ago it has proven to be much worse now because of the volume of work in the justice side of the Department, with the asylum seeker issue a huge draw on the Minister’s time and energy and the focus of the most senior officials in the Department. In addition, there has been the instances of very serious crime and other issues, including the establishment of new structures within the Department on foot of previous reports. In other words, there was a sufficient, in fact, a hugely onerous job to be done without grafting on a Department which, by necessity, is now a sub-division. It was a bad signal from the beginning because there was a consensus when the Government before last established the Department of Equality and Law Reform with a seat at the Cabinet table. It was a signal to people who had been marginalised in the community up until then that henceforth they would have their citizenship vindicated. Nothing less than that was the objective. The first Minister, former Deputy Mervyn Taylor, did a magnificent job in that regard.
By necessity, when the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform addresses that part of his brief it is only a subset of his full brief. He cannot have the same drive at Cabinet. Some of us in Opposition have had the privilege of serving at Cabinet. We know that in brokering deals the Minister cannot grab Cabinet attention for every aspect. By necessity, he must prioritise his agenda at Cabinet. In essence the agenda of equality and the vindication of the citizenship for those who are different within society has been worsened by that decision. That is no reflection whatsoever on the hardworking Minister, but it is a fact of life I regret.
I want to deal briefly with the other individual structures of the Department. First I want to talk about An Garda Síochána. All of us are expected to say what a wonderful job the gardaí are doing. I genuinely do so and I do not do so in a pro forma way. It is increasingly a difficult, demanding and risking job as society changes and becomes more violent, as criminal gangs become more organised and vicious and as mainstream youth, as opposed to the thuggish element which forms criminal gangs, become more violent.
It is not an easy job to be a member of An Garda Síochána but there is an essential link between An Garda Síochána or any police force and the community. That bond of trust is the most basic foundation for policing. We certainly know that well on this island and the Minister knows it well from his direct dealings with the divided communities of Northern Ireland. It was for that reason that the Good Friday Agreement included, as a pivot, the reform of policing in Northern Ireland and the Patten report to ensure that the community policed had full trust in the police who were administering justice. There are the beginnings of a disconnection between the general public and An Garda Síochána. That is not a criticism of the vast majority of hard working, decent Garda men and women, but it needs to be addressed. If we do not address it, it will be a slippery slope.
There have been a number of incidents. This morning on the Order of Business Deputy Higgins raised three current reports. I mentioned two of them. Last night I raised the McBrearty issue on the Adjournment and the Minister was not in a position to be forthcoming in that regard. It is a critical issue of fundamental confidence in the fair administration of policing in Ireland and there must be a transparent response to it. There having been no response after 14 months is, of itself, eroding. It is not a simple investigation. It is an extremely complex one. It is incumbent on the Minister to use an opportunity such as that provided today to make it clear that there will be total transparency and accountability in the way An Garda Síochána operates.
The Abbeylara incident is another such case. There is disquiet among the elements in society most supportive of the police force about the notion of An Garda Síochána investigating itself. These are issues for which the Minister must take responsibility quickly. He must ensure that there is no erosion of public confidence. In fact, he must ensure the reverse, that there is renewed and reinforced broad community support for the police force on which we depend for our liberty and for going about our normal business in safety. That is one of the Minister's most important responsibilities. I hope he will take this opportunity to comment on those matters.
I want to talk about the training of An Garda Síochána also. Community training in an evolving society is essential. I want to know exactly what is being done on multi-cultural training to ensure that since the Minister is responsible for equality and law reform, any ethnic minorities or minorities because of sexual orientation or anything else in the community, are treated in a proper manner by An Garda Síochána. That can come about only by proper training and education. I want to know exactly how that is to be achieved because I know it is an item on the agenda for the Minister.
On the Estimates generally, I want to know where in the Estimate is the provision for the videotaping of interviews of people giving statements in Garda custody. What is the Minister's programme in that regard and will it be completed?
There are two other items regarding An Garda Síochána, the first of which is victim support. There is a huge concern that the victim is not represented in the procedures which bring about the prosecution of crime, that they are almost spectators whereas there is legal representation for the State by the prosecution and for the defendant but the victim is not represented. Has the Minister developed thoughts on how the victim can have his or her status underscored and his or her rights vindicated by the State?
The Garda youth diversion project is extremely valuable. I have had the pleasure of visiting a number of the projects and they should be greatly expanded. There is some expansion mentioned in the Minister's speech but he might make mention of that.
I will try to gallop a little faster through the other subheads to which I wish to refer. On the Prison Service, what is the average unit cost of maintaining a prisoner in the system? The figure published last week was in the region of £50,000. Will the Minister comment on that figure?
Chairman, you will recall that the committee focused on Cloverhill Prison at the beginning of the year at my request when the Office of Public Works and the Prison Service gave evidence before the committee. Among the written submission given to us by the Prison Service and signed by the Director General of the Prison Service was one which stated that the Prison Service cannot totally exclude the possibility that the difficulties which arose out of the construction and commissioning of Cloverhill Prison will result in legal action. Will the Minister comment briefly about the commissioning of Cloverhill Prison? Is he satisfied with the processes which were unearthed by the public comments in that regard now that it is finally in operation? Will there be legal actions taken by the Prison Service regarding the catalogue of mishaps, to put it kindly, in that regard? At this stage can the Minister reassure me regarding the snagging process at the new midlands prison that we will not be visited by the same litany of horrors? I will return to that when we deal with the Prison Service subhead.
The issue of accountability looms large in the Courts Service. With the backdrop of the national developments of this week, there is a requirement for the early publication of the Denham report and the early enactment of recommendations in that regard. I welcome obviously the establishment of the Courts Service Board but I want to see a mechanism in place and I want to hear the Minister's views about bringing about that difficult balance between a totally independent Judiciary and one which is accountable to nobody. Achieving a balance between accountability and independence will not be an easy task. During the past three years the Minister has learned that there are no easy tasks in his Department. However, the one to which I refer is particularly difficult because it is almost as bad to trample on the Judiciary's independence as it is to make it accountable to nobody. Achieving a balance which will gain public confidence will be difficult and I am interested in hearing the Minister's views in that regard.
On a more mundane note, the issue of court buildings needs to be addressed because court accommodation throughout the country is inadequate. With regard to the Land Registry - I will deal with this in more detail when we discuss the relevant subhead - it is not adequate to state that the volume of business being done is the reason for the existence of a huge backlog. If huge growth takes place in any part of the economy, there must be a response that will deal with that growth because the economy will stagnate otherwise. Given that there has been major development in the economy, we must ensure that the requisite resources are put in place at the Land Registry to cope with that development.
The Free Legal Aid Board is a euphemism. As the Minister is aware, there is no such thing as free legal aid because people are obliged to pay a certain amount for such aid. If the Minister is not in a position to reply directly to my questions, perhaps his officials could take note of them in order that he can reply at a later date. With regard to the Free Legal Aid Board, I have received a number of complaints from people who were billed in respect of so-called free legal aid services. The board arrives at costed contributions for cases and, as a result, people can be obliged to pay onerous bills. On occasion, because of the experience of those to whom I refer, others are dissuaded from accessing justice. Given that the concept behind the board is to facilitate access to justice, that matter must be given consideration. I would welcome the Minister's comments on whether the structure needs to be changed.
The Minister stated that 28,000 speeches have been made on the asylum issue. In that case, I will be brief. With respect, I believe the Minister and his Department have made a dog's dinner of this issue in recent years and the mistakes that have been made are not easily rectifiable. I have no intention of being confrontational but we must recognise that there are lessons to be learned. The recently established directorate faces a tall order because, of necessity, it will be obliged to deal with a complex situation. Plans cannot be made six months in advance if people arrive in the country today and require accommodation tomorrow. However, I accept the directorate is learning all the time.
I received a telephone call from the midlands yesterday - perhaps this is the fault of the Office of Public Works rather than the directorate - about a site which has been set aside for asylum seekers, for whom caravans were ordered by the Office of Public Works, next to a Traveller halting site. I am open to correction but I understand, from the representations made to me, that there will be a common entrance to both sites. I am informed that when the first caravan arrived - there are no asylum seekers on the site at present - a Traveller directed those transporting it to place it beside his own. An official from the Office of Public Works ran on to the site to redirect its placement and his intervention was immediately met with protests. The Travellers adopted a "what we have we hold" attitude and stated that the site was barred. The official from the Office of Public Works stated that if they allowed the remainder of the caravans to be transported on to the asylum seeker site the local authority would supply each Traveller family with a replacement caravan. The caravans arrived and were placed on the asylum seeker site and the county council states it made no commitment to supply replacement caravans to the Travellers. This evidence may be anecdotal but I was informed about this case in good faith yesterday. However, if that is the nature of the provision we are making for asylum seekers we have made a dog's dinner of matters.
The Minister indicated that he wants to establish the human rights commission by July. Will he inform the committee with regard to the structure of the commission? Has the Minister decided who will be nominated to chair the commission and when will details of such a decision be published? Would he consider discussing with Opposition spokespersons the structure of the human rights commission? I accept this would be a novel development but, given that we are establishing a body with a unique character, it might prove beneficial for all concerned.
Is it agreed we should bring the meeting to a close at 1.30 p.m.? If we do, we will have one hour between now and then to deal with the various heads. Is that agreed? Agreed. I call on Deputy Barnes, vice-chairperson of the committee and Chairman of the sub-commitee on women's rights, to make her comments.
I wish to flag a number of questions in advance so that by the time we come to deal with the subheads the Minister might have the relevant information in his possession or, as Deputy Howlin stated, perhaps he might provide it later.
I congratulate the Minister and his staff on the extraordinary workload with which they have coped in recent years. The combination of the portfolios of Justice and Equality and Law Reform has created an almost unbearable burden and has almost led to the development of a conflict of interests.
I wish to inquire about the position vis-à-vis refugees and asylum seekers. The Minister indicated that the dispersal and integration process in relation to these people is working better than heretofore. Has any section of the Department responsibility for monitoring the situation and developing mechanisms to ensure communities remain on-side when refugees or asylum seekers are placed in their areas? Surely some lessons have been learned from the conflicts that have arisen in recent months and perhaps what has been learned could be used to find creative solutions to future difficulties.
Does the Minister or his Department consider that it might be appropriate to carry out an advertising campaign to undermine images and stereotypes of racism, particularly in light of recent violence in this regard? Such a campaign would have very positive effects and I wonder if an allocation could be made in respect of it.
With regard to issue of gender balance, will the Minister indicate the ratio of women to men in the ranks of the Garda Síochána? Deputy Howlin, in the context of special units and young offenders, referred to Garda youth diversion projects. A great deal of debate has already taken place on this matter in respect of the Children Bill and Deputy Jim Higgins and others visited a unit in Scotland where young offenders were trained and rehabilitated rather than merely imprisoned. Is it intended to open such units, which are far more successful than remand centres and young offenders' prisons, in Ireland?
Recent criminal justice legislation made provision for the use of closed circuit television and video recordings but I understand only a small number of such projects are up and running. I am prompted to raise this matter with the Minister because there seems to be a long delay in having this installed in each Garda station and perhaps in prisons.
A horrifying incident was reported in the British media yesterday where a member of the Cambridgeshire police had raped and sexually abused a number of women prisoners over a period. He had been a community police officer previously when he also abused his position. The police superintendents were making the point that there should be at least one or two cells with video equipment and closed circuit television, particularly for women prisoners. Given the male dominance in the force, there may be no women gardaí to interact with women prisoners. This alerted me to the fact that we should consider this aspect also. Perhaps the Minister will come back to me on that issue.
A recurring issue for us all is the family courts. Given that cases are heard in camera and there is no reporting or publishing of the outcome of these cases, there is a great unease that judgments are being made and because there is no monitoring of those cases we do not know what reforms are needed, nor do we know whether the judgments and training of staff in these family law cases operate to the satisfaction not just of those involved but of the public. There is great public unease about the secrecy of family courts. There is no need to break the anonymity or confidentiality of those involved but an observer could monitor the proceedings on behalf of the State and publish them.
I welcome the fact that the long sought request that in certain circumstances victims in rape and serious assault cases be allowed separate legal representation is being granted. I congratulate the Minister on this and hope it will be available in a flexible manner rather than a restricted way.
I am sure the Minister is more aware than most of the increase in crime and public order offences. There is an increasing incidence of violence against young men on the streets. There have been some horrifying incidents where young men were attacked by gangs and sometimes beaten up very badly. I do not know what can be done about this but it is causing great unease and is devastating for the families of the victims. These attacks seem to be random and completely unprovoked. It is very scary that young men are sometimes afraid to walk the streets even in groups. I would like information on progress in this area.
I am anxious that we go through the Votes. As the Minister has a large number of questions to answer, are there any suggestions on how to proceed?
It would be helpful if the Minister responded to the general questions and we can move quickly through the Estimates.
I do not accept that the Department of Equality and Law Reform has suffered as a result of being amalgamated with the Department of Justice - the opposite is the case. We set up a National Disabilities Authority and the child in care issue has been handled by the equality section of the Department for a long time. In fact, were it not for the work of the staff in the equality section of the Department the funding of £250 million secured over the period of the national development plan would not have been acquired. Someone had to take the initiative and we are quite proud of having done so.
I would take issue with anyone on the matter of equality and law reform legislation. The Employment Equality Bill and Equal Status Bill were struck down by the Supreme Court. In was easy enough to include the relevant amendments in the case of the Employment Equality Bill. In that context, I wish to pay tribute to my predecessor in the Department of Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Mervyn Taylor. I am on record on numerous occasions as saying what a very fine job that very distinguished parliamentarian did when Minister. The Equal Status Bill had to be gone through line by line and eventually the Bill was published and passed through the Dáil. The Parental Leave Bill was drawn up in my Department, as was the Human Rights Commission Bill. I will soon publish legislation leading to the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law for the first time. These are major progressive measures and, therefore, I do not accept the criticism which has been made.
In relation to crime figures, the number of serious crimes over the three year period since the Government took office has fallen by 21% at a time when the population of the country increased by 200,000. There is no question that the legislation which was enacted and the resources which were put in place have contributed enormously to the fall in crime figures. I must pay tribute to the Garda Síochána for the work it is doing. Of course, I am concerned about the level of violence in society, as is everyone else. There is no doubt that violence is related to the drugs problem when people become irrational.
Not exclusively, unfortunately.
Not exclusively, but the drugs issue plays a large part in the level of crime. In so far as I can, I am trying to tackle the issue of violence in society. I have had a number of meetings with the Garda Commissioner to determine the measures that can be introduced to tackle this problem. However, there has been a fall in crime figures of 21%. To my knowledge, this is the largest single fall in crime figures in any European state in the same period. This must be acknowledged.
On the issue of civilianisation and so on in the Garda Síochána, there are now approximately 1,000 clerical workers in the Garda Síochána, which represents a major increase. Young gardaí are encouraged to mix with the community in which they live.
There have been problems in relation to the Garda Complaints Board. The board has contacted me and I hope to increase staff numbers there by 100%.
Was there an overhaul of the board apart from recruiting additional staff?
The Garda Complaints Board is being reviewed at present and I will make announcements later in relation to the steps that will be taken.
The board itself is calling for a review.
Yes. I am also conscious that the European committee dealing with torture visited here. When I met with its members they expressed concern in relation to the operations of the Garda Complaints Board. However, many of the complaints are vexatious. Many gardaí believe that if a complaint is vexatious their good name is being damaged and they too have cause for complaint. One must look at the issue from their perspective. If a person makes a complaint against a garda that he or she did something against the individual, it may be completely vexatious and untrue, but it can be traumatic for the member of the Garda Síochána involved. In general terms, the Garda Complaints Board works well.
It does not.
It is my view that it does. We have obtained sanction to increase the number of staff by 100% and there is an ongoing review of the board.
The board itself does not work well.
I am telling the Deputy that we will increase the number of staff by 100% and I am satisfied the complaints board has delivered fair and balanced judgments in the cases before it. It is true that a great deal of the complaints are vexatious. There is no getting away from that.
Deputy Higgins also raised the issue of the retirement age for the Garda Síochána and said that it is too low. Some High Court judges continue working until they are 72 and it appears incongruous to see a garda retiring at 57 and a superintendent at the age of 60. People raise these issues periodically within the Garda Síochána but there are also members of the force who are happy and pleased to retire at 57 and 60 and even earlier.
It is a case that they would have the option of staying on.
Yes, the option could be examined. There is a trend in the commercial sector of people taking earlier retirement. It is across the divide and the only place we do not see it is in politics.
I am not so sure.
Some get retired.
Many people are also coming back to work.
There is plenty of compulsory retirement in politics.
There is a large turnover.
I disagree with Deputy Higgins's assertion that prison spaces are not warranted. There has been a fundamental disagreement between us on that matter for a long time. I have set out my stall on that issue. Additional prison spaces are required for different reasons. There is overcrowding in the prison system. Mountjoy Prison has been overcrowded for years and many of the young men housed there are accommodated in what I can only describe as Victorian conditions. It is inhumane. I intend to refurbish Mountjoy, floor by floor and wing by wing.
What is the timescale for that?
I hope to start this year, but it will obviously take time.
What is the timescale for the 700 spaces?
The lifetime of the Government.
The Government will be in place for five years. Therefore, in two years' time, we will have delivered completely on our promise.
I think the Minister has been in the Garda helicopter without oxygen.
Approximately 1,271 places will have been provided by the end of this year in fulfilment of the promise made. What is extraordinary about this is that a Government made promises to the people and kept every one of them. That is certainly the case for the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This is something which may be new on the Irish political Richter scale, but it is being done.
The Minister should save it for the hustings next week.
As far as I am concerned, the next election begins the day after the previous one. I will not save it for any hustings. As far as I am concerned, I am on permanent alert.
That is quite appropriate, the Minister should be alert.
Regarding the issue of land registry fees - Deputies should note that I am being general - I do not imagine there would be any court challenges to those because the power to make the fees order exists. We are going to make the Land Registry a commercial body. We are all agreed it will be a semi-State company. This issue has been ongoing for ten years, so we are definitely going to do it.
So there will be no accountability and the Minister will not have to answer questions?
Questions will have to be answered. It will not be done overnight.
Will it be like the National Roads Authority?
I am glad the Deputy has the confidence to assert that I will be Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for the next ten years or something similar.
Does the Minister want to volunteer for that?
He would not wish that on himself, would he?
No more than I would wish the Opposition role on Deputy Higgins. The Land Registry will become a semi-State body but it will take time to set up that. In the meantime, it will have to be able to charge some type of commercial rate. We have sanction for 55 more staff which will improve the situation considerably. The area of examiners of titles is a very specialised and difficult one.
Regarding transcripts for the District Court, it is not a court of record, but a court of summary jurisdiction and I do not agree that there is a need for transcripts.
Deputy Howlin raised the amalgamation issue and I have dealt with that. He also felt there were the beginnings of a disconnection between the public and the Garda and he cited three different ongoing reports and the need to build confidence in policing. He said the McBrearty report and investigation was taking too long and that there was a need to bring forward the Abbeylara report.
All these investigations are under way and I have explained that I will do whatever is necessary to ensure that people can have the fullest possible confidence in the Garda Síochána. I certainly have the fullest possible confidence in it. I cannot be expected to pre-empt the reports and pre-judge what happened. When the reports are to hand——
They must be brought to finality expeditiously.
Yes, when the reports are brought to me, it is my intention to make the facts public. If further action is required, I have always stated that I will take whatever action is required.
When I was asked in relation to Abbeylara if there would be an independent public inquiry, my reply was carefully couched. I said on RTE radio: "Not as of now". Subsequently, some people took that to mean that an independent inquiry was being ruled out entirely, which was not the case. Five FBI agents assisted in the Abbeylara investigation. The best thing to do with that situation is to await the report. I expect it shortly. I have obviously been very anxious——
Will the Minister yield for a second?
The difficulty I have in raising these issues, such as the McBrearty case, is that, in my judgment, it is not good enough that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is removed from it and has no responsibility. I brought serious allegations to the Minister's attention, so he cannot be passive in this. Great concerns exist about ensuring the investigations are not interfered with. I understand civil prosecutions on those issues are pending. It is not something the Minister sets up and is distant from. He is daily responsible for confidence in the Garda Síochána and its administration. While not in any way interfering with it, he must protect the investigation and be seen to do that in a clear way so that people have confidence in it. That is the general point I wanted to make and I hoped the Minister would have used the opportunity to reinforce that view.
I have repeatedly raised the McBrearty case in the Dáil. I do not understand why key witnesses are not being protected. I have spoken to one of the key witnesses who is under a great deal of pressure. As Deputy Howlin said, civil proceedings are pending and the Minister and the Attorney General have been contacted. Where there has been allegation and counter-allegation, claim and counter-claim, charges of every sort and people making contradictory statements, key witnesses should be protected and, while members of the Garda should not be suspended, they should be moved. The atmosphere in Letterkenny Garda station is lethal at present. It is factionalised and the system has almost broken down. The witnesses must be protected.
There is no question of the Minister standing aloof from all this. The investigations are under way. We have seen what happens when due process is abandoned. We must not abandon due process. We must not have——
We are arguing for due process.
——a situation where investigations are not carried out properly. We must ensure that each side is heard and that there is natural justice, not kangaroo courts. I have ensured that these necessary investigations are under way and I await the reports in respect of them. It is true that Deputy Howlin brought certain matters to my attention on 1 June and these concerns were passed on. I cannot be expected at this point to deliver an interim report.
I must await the outcome of the reports. I assure the Deputies that, when the reports are presented, they will have the opportunity to discuss them in great detail, either in committee if the House is not sitting or in the House if it is, so that there will be full transparency in the system and people can see that they can have full confidence in the system.
If it should be pointed out that there is an inadequacy in the system then we will address it at that point. I do not want to undermine the entire investigative process in the McBrearty case. It is being dealt with by an assistant commissioner and the other cases are being dealt with by very competent people. When I have the reports, as I say, we will have a full discussion of these matters. I agree that it is of fundamental importance that people have the fullest confidence in the Garda and in that respect the Garda has one of the proudest records in the world.
Regarding multicultural training, Templemore has been training gardaí in multicultural policing - policing in a diverse society. The provision for videotaping interviews in Garda custody is in the Estimate.
We may be simply able to accept the subheads if the points we have raised are dealt with. How many Garda stations will have this?
The intention is——
In the 2000 Estimate?
My best recollection is that the intention is that in each Garda district headquarters there would be videotaping. I would have to go through all the papers for the details. It is envisaged that there will not be a district——
A Garda district?
Yes, there will not be a Garda district in the country which will not have——
A central location.
In some cases, but it will not just be a district headquarters. Wherever there are facilities——
How many districts are there numerically?
We can have a specific answer to this given to Deputies. It appears there is information.
That is not a very burdensome question.
There are approximately 120 Garda districts.
So there will be 120 stations equipped?
By the end of this year we hope to have it installed.
Yes. That is a major innovation in terms of the legislation we have introduced in recent years.
That is very satisfactory progress.
Could a more detailed answer be submitted to the Clerk of the Committee so that he can pass it around?
If I went through all these documents I could give detailed answers but I was under the impression I was to give general answers.
Will I go on with the general answers?
We welcome the 120. When gardaí advise people they are to question, will that facility be an option?
When we had a pilot programme in relation to this, it was optional. Guess what happened?
People did not want it.
Very few took it up.
There is good reason for that too and that was put to the Minister.
Very few took it up so what we did was we made it compulsory——
The gardaí made offers to people.
——in the pilot areas. It was made compulsory. Mr. Justice Esmonde Smyth was chair of the committee and stated that it started to work really well when it was made compulsory. This is a protection not just for the individual but for the gardaí——
——who are very pleased to see it coming about. Many of their names are being dragged through the mud as a result of false claims being made against them.
Regarding the vindication of victims, I have published a charter for victims of crime which was welcomed by organisations which deal with victims. The unit cost of a prisoner is approximately £44,431 per annum.
That is very exact for an approximate figure.
It is approximately that. Regarding the snagging of the midlands prison, when I was young the only things that were snagged were turnips, but that seems to have changed.
That was known as hard labour.
We knew it as hard labour. I do not anticipate legal action arising out of Cloverhill. I do not think there will be such action; that is my feeling at present.
Too embarrassing for all concerned.
It would not be too embarrassing for me. I am very proud of that prison.
It was the cacophony or litany of——
Whatever lessons had to be learned have been learned. The midlands prison——
No slippery floors or people absent.
There is a great deal of monitoring and supervision to ensure everything is ready for the grand opening, to which Deputies Howlin and Higgins will be invited.
Is this not the third opening?
No, this is the midlands prison.
Is it fully functional?
He says it is.
It is fully functional and has not been filled to capacity yet, but it is functioning very well. It is the biggest remand prison in the State.
When does the Minister anticipate it will have a full complement?
I anticipate it will have a full complement within about eight weeks.
Are all technical difficulties now resolved?
One should never say "all" but I anticipate the vast majority are. I do not want to find that some bell goes off tomorrow morning and then Deputy Howlin tells me next week in the Dáil that I was wrong. That is the current situation.
What is the current staff number in Cloverhill?
We will write to the chairman and he can give the Deputy that information. We are trying to reduce the ratio of prison officers to prisoners and this will come down progressively when we have a full complement of staff in respect of all the new prisons.
It struck many of us as a point of confusion that there was a serious assault on a prison officer in Limerick last year. He was the only prison officer on a wing, yet the staffing ratios show there is virtually a prison officer for every prisoner. It did not seem right that that should be the case.
That may have been the specific instance of that case. The assault occurred in January and the individual has been dealt with by the courts.
The prison warder is in Mountjoy Prison.
If we are going off into specifics——
We were talking about the ratios.
I am talking about the ratios as well. As the new prisons are filled the ratios will fall. They will not fall dramatically, but they will fall. Minding prisoners is not the same as having a hotel. It is a different ball game. A prison can be a very difficult place to work and prison officers' work can be very stressful.
Have procedures changed subsequent to that assault in January?
In so far as procedures are required to be changed at all times, the security of prison officers is kept under review and any changes required are introduced. The prison service adapts as it goes along. There is now a prison authority and a director of prisons, Mr. Seán Aylward, who runs the prisons. It has come out from under the hand of the Department, although I am still accountable. The prison service, which I believe will run the prisons effectively into the future, is now fully operational.
Is the prison service the Minister's final word in structural change? Does he envisage privatising the running or transport of any prison?
I do not believe that privatisation is a valid option for prisons. I do not believe it has worked elsewhere.
I am glad to hear it.
Regarding transport, we have ensured in Cloverhill that there is a court near the prison and it is the same in Castlerea. I am grateful to the relevant district judges——
And a Chinese restaurant.
The Chinese restaurant is for the takeaways.
Not the runaways.
Quite correct. The fact that we have courts means that the need for travelling around the country is gone and that is a big help in terms of savings.
We have improved many court buildings. The Estimate is well up and we have done some very good work. The Courts Service is now in charge of the running of the courts and the general administrative procedures. I am politically accountable for the courts but the Courts Service runs the courts on a day-to-day basis on a structured level.
Everyone makes a contribution to free legal aid. Deputy Howlin is correct - there is no such thing as free legal aid per se. Everyone makes a contribution but that is based on an individual’s family circumstances such as one’s income, how many children one has and what one’s mortgage or rent is. It is not as if anyone——
I came across a couple of recent cases. Would the Minister consider reviewing the guidelines on what is covered and required of the individual applicant?
The Deputy will be aware there is a famous board called the Legal Aid Board.
Is that the one in Cahirciveen?
It is the one going to Cahirciveen. That board——
There was a famous registry in Dublin that was going to Longford for a long time. I am not sure if it ever got there but maybe the board will arrive in Cahirciveen.
The aspiration will be achieved to the delight of everyone. The Legal Aid Board makes decisions as to how fees are paid and how the matter is dealt with. It makes recommendations to the Minister. We listen to what it has to say. However, in general terms, I am informed that Clare Connellan will be the chairman of the board. No one is over-stretched or asked to pay more than he or she can afford. If there are specific cases I would suggest the Deputy forwards them to Mr. Goodman, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, who is a very reasonable and efficient man. He will give the Deputy a satisfactory reply.
As regards the Human Rights Commission and its chairman, nothing is more important than there is a level of consensus, not just as regards the membership of the board but particularly as regards the chairman. If the commission is to get broad support across society everyone must feel he or she has some form of input into the selection of the chairman. That is a very difficult task. In so far as the people are represented in the Dáil, it would be my ambition to see if we can reach some kind of consensus. That is what I will propose to Government as to the selection of the chairman and the composition of the commission so it can get on with its work. I will take up the invitation to discuss the matter with the main Opposition spokespersons and smaller parties who wish to make an input into finding the most suitable person for the position.
Deputy Barnes asked whether there was monitoring of what works and does not work in the dispersal of asylum seekers. We are experimenting at present. This is a new phenomenon and we are looking at direct provision and how it works in terms of, for example, hostels, guesthouses, hotels, mobile homes and so on. My understanding of the situation in Athlone is that some Travellers went into the asylum seekers' caravans but the gardaí told them they could not do so and that they had to move along. In fairness to the Travellers, they left and the issue was sorted out in no time.
There may be further details of which I am not aware but, irrespective of which community with which one is involved, - minority or majority - the main thing is that people can co-exist. The objective has been to try to achieve this. Where people have become used to it the level of co-existence has been quite successful. Once people have respect for the law and realise it will be enforced as regards asylum seekers or anything else, things seem to work out. There is no evidence of any difficulties being created by the people concerned. There has been no notable increase in the number of incidents of which I am aware.
Does the Minister mean racial attacks?
There have been some racial attacks. There is no evidence of difficulties having increased as a result of asylum seekers coming into an area.
Is the Minister monitoring this situation?
We have the usual figures and there is no evidence of that. We are waiting for a report from the racial and multi-cultural committee. When we receive that report I will become engaged in a major public awareness campaign which, I imagine, will involve advertising. I am going to await the experts' report - and these people are experts - so that we can combat racism among a small minority.
Some of those involved in attacks on unfortunate asylum seekers or visitors who are non-nationals are quite capable of doing the same, and have done——
To the indigenous population.
——or would do, I better be careful, would do the same to the indigenous population. We should be under no illusion in that respect. Sometimes one wonders whether these people would have behaved in this way anyway, but that is another day's work. I accept there is a need to tackle racism among a minority of people and there is a need for an educational campaign generally. We are going to get involved in that process.
I have dealt with the rehabilitation of young offenders. All young offenders are entitled to education and vocational training in St. Patrick's institution. It works very well. Closed circuit videos and so on would be an invasion of privacy. Incidents of suicide are one of the saddest things which happen in the prisons service. A person, for example, who is suspected of being a danger to himself or herself is monitored every 15 minutes or so, but some of them still manage to commit suicide. The alternative is to have a video camera on the person all day but that is a terrible invasion of privacy. I do not think it would be acceptable. One does that sort of thing to a caged animal but not to a human being. This is a real difficulty.
The incidence of suicide is down. There was only one this year while there were six last year.
Yes, but it is still a matter of concern. Separate legal representation for victims of rape and other serious sexual assaults will take place after the passage of the Sex Offenders Bill but only in relation to a trial within a trial. In other words, where the defence seeks to bring the previous sexual experience of the victim into play, the court will ask the jury to leave so a discussion can take place as to whether the victim's previous sexual experience is relevant. Sometimes the court will say yes and sometimes it will say no. However, because this is such a private and sensitive matter, and the victim is very often a woman, in future the victim will have representation in court to argue on his or her behalf.
Unfortunately, I am advised that if I extended the legal representation throughout the trial there would be severe constitutional and other legal difficulties because the defence could argue that the accused was being doubly prejudiced. That would create a serious difficulty and the courts would probably strike down the measure. Unfortunately I have gone as far as we can go.
I do not expect a reply now, but is the Minister aware that the Circuit Court criers are going on strike next week? I do not know if that will disrupt the courts but in respect of their claim a £20 award was made to them four or five years ago and the FUGE Union has issued strike notice. This matter should be addressed particularly if it is going to affect the courts.
I am informed that the chief executive officer of the Courts Service, Mr. Fitzpatrick, is trying to deal with this matter with a view to averting the strike. We do not want the criers dispute to end in tears.
I do not mind but it could disrupt the courts.
It could of course and we will try to resolve it.
If you are negotiating, think about changing names such as tipstaffs and criers.
They are old English terms of course.
We have dealt with the Estimates for 2000 very comprehensively. Is it agreed to note Votes 19, 20, 21, 22, 23 and 24? Agreed.