Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

Priority Questions

Inspector of Prisons.

2:30 pm

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

Question 131: To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps he has taken to place the Office of the Inspector of Prisons on a statutory footing; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31021/06]

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

In 2002, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, established the Office of Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention on a non-statutory basis. In 2005, I examined the possibility of providing a statutory basis for the office by means of a statutory instrument, namely, to provide for the office in the prison rules which are at an advanced stage of preparation and are on the Department's website. However, after consultation with the Attorney General, I came to the conclusion that there should be provision for such an office in primary legislation.

In July this year, the Government approved my proposal to establish an Office of Inspector of Prisons on a statutory basis. I will introduce an appropriate statutory provision by means of an amendment to the Prisons Bill 2005, which is before the Seanad at present. I hope that the Bill, as amended, will be enacted before Christmas of this year so the statutory office can be established in 2007.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I wish the Minister well in his position as Tánaiste. He has been Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for four years and four months but we have yet to see legislation to put the office of prison inspector on a statutory basis. All I have seen is media speculation. If the will was there, the Minister could have moved more quickly on this. Is he giving a commitment that an independent inspectorate will be put in place before Christmas? Will he make the same mistake that he made with the Garda Ombudsman Commission, whereby the staff will not be independent but will be seconded from the Garda Síochána? Does the Minister not agree it is crucial that the prison inspectorate is completely independent of the Department and the Prison Service?

The Minister appears to be more interested in Ceaucescu-like projects for super prisons in north Dublin than in systematic reform of the prison system and how it works. The test of any society is not how it treats the most well-off but how it treats its most wretched citizens. In three reports the Committee for the Prevention of Torture has urged the Minister to provide an independent inspectorate. We had an independent prison inspectorate 180 years ago in the 1820s. When will the Minister move on this? Will the proposed inspectorate be truly independent so it can give testimony to actual conditions in the prisons without fear or favour?

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Prisons Bill is before the Seanad and if the Deputy consults the proceedings of that House, he can confirm that. The decision was made in July this year to provide in that Bill for a statutory basis for the inspector's job. The amendments will be put down shortly in the Seanad and the Deputy will have an opportunity to debate them in this House and in the justice committee before Christmas.

The inspector is most certainly independent. Any reader of his reports will know they are not written by me or to please me or at my dictation——

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

The Minister has delayed their publication.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

——or that he is in any sense circumscribed——

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

He said the Minister was outrageous and practically unbelievable.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I am trying to answer the Deputy's priority question. I will deal with Deputy Howlin later.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context

That is something to look forward to.

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

I defy anybody to claim the inspector is not independent. The Deputy made a throw-away remark that the staff of the Garda Ombudsman Commission are not independent. That is wholly untrue. They are not seconded members of the Garda Síochána. The commission is currently recruiting its staff and it is not, in any sense, lacking independence. It is just as independent as Nuala O'Loan is in Northern Ireland. The commission is recruiting its staff independently of me and will have a wholly independent structure. It will not be dictated to by my Department.

The former judge, Dermot Kinlen, is an independent man. He has access to prisons. I intend to provide for a statutory basis for the Office of Inspector of Prisons. I do not agree with everything in his reports, and readers of the reports could not conclude that he is dependent on or beholden to me or is trammelled in what he says and does by any consideration of a lack of independence from me.

Photo of Ciarán CuffeCiarán Cuffe (Dún Laoghaire, Green Party)
Link to this: Individually | In context

My recollection is that the Bill providing for the Garda Ombudsman Commission allows staff to be seconded from the Garda Síochána. That has the potential to severely compromise it in carrying out its duties. I accept the inspector of prisons is independent but his report goes to the Minister. Its publication has been delayed by the Minister's Department, so it is not truly independent. I accept that the tone and tenor of some of the remarks in his reports would suggest he is completely independent but I wonder what he would say if he was completely independent given that he described the Minister as outrageous and with Fascist tendencies in his reports which were scrutinised by the Minister before publication.

To be deadly serious, under the Minister's watch, prison programmes, such as the CONNECT programme and programmes which address recidivism, illiteracy and addiction, have been severely cut. Can the Minister give a commitment that a prisons inspectorate will be completely independent, will be able to publish its own reports and will be able to reveal what actually goes on inside our prisons without having to have its reports vetted by the Minister prior to publication?

Photo of Michael McDowellMichael McDowell (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Tánaiste; Dublin South East, Progressive Democrats)
Link to this: Individually | In context

It was not a question of me vetting the report but of me reading it and seeing a number of passages in it which I concluded might be defamatory. I submitted them to counsel to decide whether they were publishable by me without risk of me being sued. I was advised by counsel and the Attorney General that I could not publish the report in the form in which it was. I asked that the passages be deleted from the report. The inspector and I eventually agreed on a process whereby the report would be published without those provisions. I did not want to edit him and I sent the report back to him. He is a senior counsel and a judge and I thought he would be in a position to render it publishable without risk of defamation but, in the end, it fell to somebody else to carry that out.

The reports, in so far as it is lawful to publish them, will be and have been published. If I was in the slightest way given to censorship of what was in the reports, all the remarks to which Deputy Howlin and Deputy Cuffe referred, would not appear. Therefore, it cannot be said that I have attempted to censor them in any way, nor would I do so.

The Deputies will appreciate that the Prison Service now has considerably increased accommodation compared with the situation in 1997. All the rehabilitative facilities and programmes were under massive threat as long as the prison budget was being cannibalised by overtime. I tackled that situation, and I am the first Minister for Justice in 20 or 30 years to do so. There is now a sound financial basis in the Prison Service to improve and sustain all those services.