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Irish Prison Service.

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 17 May 2005

Tuesday, 17 May 2005

Ceisteanna (9)

Ciarán Cuffe

Ceist:

9 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the action he is taking to address the concerns expressed in the Second Annual Report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention for 2003. [16425/05]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform)

The second annual report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention is a substantial document, which raises many diverse issues and concerns of the inspector. It would not be appropriate for me to indicate in the course of this reply, the action already taken or being taken to address each item of concern raised by the inspector. The report is very lengthy, but if the Deputies wish me to address any particular issue, I will be glad to do so.

The inspector is not alone in being concerned about living conditions for prisoners in our older prisons and about the shortcomings in prisoner care services and programmes. These are matters that were of concern to me and to the Prisons Authority interim board, prior to the publication of the inspector's report.

I have set two principal objectives for change in this area. The first is to replace outdated prisoner accommodation, particularly at Mountjoy, Portlaoise and Cork prisons. The second objective is to control the spiralling prison overtime costs that were absorbing ever increasing amounts of money. This money could be put to more productive use in improving services for prisoners.

Deputy Cuffe may be interested to know that the total overtime budget for 12,200 members of the Garda Síochána was exceeded by the overtime budget for 3,300 prison officers. This was cannibalising resources which should have been spent on the improvement of our system.

The second annual report of the inspector refers specifically to the need to replace Mountjoy and Portlaoise prisons and following a visit to Cork Prison, the inspector expressed the view that this institution should also be replaced. Significant progress is being made in each case. Following conclusion of a recent tender competition, it is hoped work will commence shortly on the provision of new accommodation at Portlaoise prison, as the next phase of the redevelopment works in that location. As members of the House are aware, a contract was recently concluded for the purchase of an extensive site at Thornton, County Dublin, for a new prison campus to replace the existing prisons on the Mountjoy campus. Furthermore, planning is well under way for development of a new prison on Spike Island to replace Cork prison. These are major undertakings involving the replacement of almost 40% of the entire prison estate. They will take a number of years to complete, but I intend to ensure that they will proceed as quickly as possible.

Members will be aware from my replies to successive questions about the measures being taken to control prison overtime costs, with the intention of ensuring that taxpayer moneys are used to best advantage. The current level of prison officer overtime is unsustainable and I am determined to pursue cost control measures to ensure that a greater portion of the prisons Vote is available for improvement in services to those in custody.

Some improvements are taking place already. For instance, the shortage of psychologists as identified by the inspector has been addressed by the recruitment of six additional psychologists to improve services to Mountjoy, Dóchas, St. Patrick's, Cloverhill, Midlands and Cork prisons. Another new psychologist will take up duty at Arbour Hill prison on 30 May and it is planned to hold another recruitment competition for clinical, forensic and counselling psychologists later this year.

Apart from his concerns about prison conditions, the inspector has also referred to the need for new prisons legislation. The question of a comprehensive new Act covering all matters relating to the prisons is included in my Department's legislative work programme but it will be some time before such comprehensive legislation can be completed and unfortunately, there are other issues of higher priority.

The inspector also referred to the preparation of a booklet on prison rules. I have decided that the 1947 prison rules need to be replaced in their entirety and I will publish my proposals shortly in this regard.

I am concerned that the Minister is cherry picking from the report because, for example, the inspector did not state emphatically that Mountjoy should move to a new location, but left open the possibility of it being replaced on the same site.

The main recommendation of the report is that there should be an independent prison inspectorate. That is not a new recommendation, but was included in the Government's response to the committee for the prevention of tortures in 1998. Six years have now passed since the Government stated that there would be an independent prisons inspectorate. My worry is that currently the prison inspector has to report to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the publication of his or her report is at the whim of the Minister. Why is the Minister afraid to allow an independent prison inspectorate and why is he delaying the promised Bill? The Bill was promised five years ago but the current programme for this Dáil session does not specify a time frame for its introduction.

I am concerned that the Minister is cherry picking aspects of the report, some of which have been discredited. For instance, it is suggested that privatisation was a positive development in the UK. However, the report on which this assertion was based was prepared by a person who was working for a private prisons contractor.

Why has the Bill been delayed and why has an external review of the management of our prisons not been commissioned? There is a danger in proposing major changes in the prison service, as the Minister is doing, without an external review. An independent prison inspectorate must be put in place, whose report is not subject to the political vagaries of whether the Minister wishes to publish it. We also need an inspectorate that would ensure that the prison visiting committees are outside the realm of political patronage.

Deputy Cuffe will be happy to know that I intend to make provision for an independent prison inspectorship in the new prison rules, which will be published in the coming weeks.

On the question of my role regarding the inspector's reports, having considered them it has been my habit to publish them. The only circumstance that has prevented me from publishing all of his reports was legal difficulties relating to some material contained in one of the reports. I was obliged to seek independent legal advice from the Attorney General and rather than censor the inspector's report. An independent counsel excised the portions of it that were potentially defamatory.

I have received the third report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention and I intend to publish it within two weeks. Deputy Cuffe may be surprised by the contents of that report concerning the issue of private involvement in the running of prisons.

I am concerned about the source that was quoted from within the Second Report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention, namely the Serco Institute. The institute has been discredited as an independent source of advice on the issue of privatisation of prisons.

I appreciate the Minister's concerns about overtime and agree that it is a problem that must be addressed. However, it should not be addressed in a face-off situation with prison officers. The Minister must undertake a process of sweeping and radical reform of the prison service to remove the mantra of secrecy that was raised by the inspector in his report.

No other Minister is engaging in more radical reform than I am.

The Minister is constantly talking about engaging in radical reform.

I reiterate my point that Deputy Cuffe may be surprised when reads the third report of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention where it refers to private involvement in the running of prisons.

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