Dáil debates

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Priority Questions

Prison Building Programme

3:00 pm

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Question 31: To ask the Minister for Justice and Law Reform the progress made on the Thornton Hall prison project; when plans for the construction of a new prison at Thornton Hall were first announced by his Department; when a builder will be engaged to build the first block on site; the amount this block will cost; if the design has been borrowed from the collapsed public private partnership project; the number of prisoners that will be accommodated in block one; the cost that would have been involved when the State withdrew from the PPP development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28663/10]

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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In 2006, the Irish Prison Service launched an EU-wide tender competition for the design, construction, finance and maintenance of a new prison development by means of a value for money public private partnership. The Léargas consortium was appointed as the preferred bidder for the project in April 2007. An environmental impact assessment in respect of the development was published in February 2008 and development consent was granted by the Oireachtas later that year. This development consent requires the construction of an access route and perimeter wall before the construction of the main prison buildings.

The pre-contract negotiations on all aspects of the project, including its legal, technical and financial aspects, culminated in February 2009 when the Léargas consortium was asked to submit its best final offer for the development. Following a detailed evaluation of the offer by the Irish Prison Service and its advisers, including the National Development Finance Agency, the offer was deemed to be not affordable in light of the significant increase in the cost of finance and, particularly, the increase of over 30% in the level of the annual unitary charge which would have been paid to the consortium. The tender quotations for that PPP competition remain commercially sensitive. The Department of Finance guidelines require the quotations to be kept confidential. It is difficult to identify and isolate the costs that arose from the abandonment of the PPP competition. I understand that significant costs fell on the bidders who participated in the competition. The major cost to the State results from the delay in developing a modern prison campus on the site.

The development is proceeding on a phased basis. Phase 1 comprises essential enabling works that are required for the development, including the construction of a dedicated access road, perimeter wall and off-site services. Tenders for the construction of the access road were published in February of this year. Tenders for the construction of the perimeter wall will be published in September. I expect the first contract to be signed and construction work on the access road to start this summer. All of these works are being done by means of traditional procurement methods. Phase 2 will include the development of the main prison campus. A detailed appraisal is under way in accordance with the capital expenditure guidelines of the Department of Finance. The new business case is at an advanced stage of preparation.

As I mentioned last week during the debate on the Estimates, my priority is to ensure that prison cells are made available at Thornton Hall as quickly as possible. A phased opening of a prison complex at Thornton Hall would not be viable under a PPP approach. Therefore, I favour proceeding using traditional procurement mechanisms. I envisage the construction of the main prison campus in a number of stages, possibly three, with each stage being opened as soon as it has been completed along with the necessary ancillary facilities. While this will increase the time schedule for completion of the overall project, it will mean additional capacity could be available up to two years before that envisaged under the PPP process. It is still my intention to have a total of 1,400 cells with a capacity of 2,200 spaces delivered at Thornton Hall, but with earlier delivery of the first blocks and staged delivery of the rest. The design prepared by the preferred bidder for the former PPP competition will not be used.

I will bring this matter before the Government in the next few weeks for approval. I will not be in a position to confirm the details, or outline an indicative timetable for the proposal, until the Government has considered my proposals. As regards costs, it is not the practice to disclose commercially sensitive data in advance of a tender competition. In the light of our current economic circumstances, it is clear that costs have to kept to a minimum. The cost of the new approach will have to be substantially less than the final cost envisaged by the preferred bidder in the PPP competition.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Minister's response to my question about a major infrastructural project is a good example of the manner in which the Government treats the House. It shelters behind commercial sensitivity and other protections in order to avoid telling the House what is going on. I do not know anybody who agrees with the Government that a huge prison facility should be constructed on the Dublin-Meath border for an enormous amount of money. Some €42.2 million has already been spent. Did I hear correctly when the Minister said the money spent on professional fees - €7 million to date - and on the design work done under the previous arrangement has fallen and will not be utilised? The construction of this facility is the only major solution that has been proposed to the crisis at Mountjoy Prison. How can the Minister come in here, a year after the project collapsed, and say he cannot give me indicative dates for when the builders will go on site or finish, or when the prison will open? All he has said is that the matter has not yet been considered by the Government.

I do not know if the Government is serious about addressing the potentially explosive situation in our prisons. I refer in particular to the gross overcrowding at Mountjoy Prison. The Minister should put this House in a position to compare what is now being contemplated with what was agreed with the preferred bidder before the collapse of the project a year ago.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I question the Deputy's seriousness when it comes to addressing the problems in the Prison Service. His party has objected to this project at every twist and turn. The Government will make a reasonable decision when it has received the best advice from outside experts and advisers in the National Development Finance Agency. It was clear in the prevailing economic circumstances that the PPP model was not affordable into the future. We had to re-evaluate our plans, in effect, and proceed on the traditional public procurement basis.

I hope the Deputy is not suggesting that I should mention indicative prices in the House, particularly in a pre-tender situation, as to do so would be to tell the world, including potential tenderers, how much they should be tendering for. Deputy Rabbitte should understand from his experience in Government that it would not be wise to do that. We are proceeding with the construction of the access road and the perimeter wall. Tenders have been put out in that respect. As I have said, the construction of the access road is expected to start this summer. It is anticipated that the construction of the perimeter wall will start in January 2011. In the next week or so, I will seek the approval of the Government to proceed on a public procurement basis, rather than on a PPP basis, to ensure we get the best value for taxpayers' money.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Minister says that during a tendering process, one should not advertise how much one is likely to pay. That is exactly what the Government did when it bought the land concerned. The Government let it be known that it had €30 million to spend on a farm on which to build a prison. It got a farm, all right. The Minister expects me to jump up and down and applaud him for building a wall around a farm. That is as far as we have got after all these years.

We are entitled to know what direction the Minister intends to take. He has said he abandoned the PPP model because it was unaffordable. I always contended that it was unaffordable and did not represent value for money. The Minister believes he should be congratulated for abandoning the PPP model even though he embarked on a PPP arrangement in respect of this project in the first instance. I do not doubt that traditional procurement methods would deliver this facility much more cheaply than the preferred bidder method that was contemplated at the time. Can the Minister tell the House, so that Members can relay the information to people who are interested in penal policy, what kind of timeframe is envisaged before prison spaces will be available at Kilsallaghan?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Rabbitte says he is very interested in penal policy, yet when his party was in Government it cancelled the prison building programme. Not one prison cell was built during his party's involvement in Government.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Does the Minister remember anything about Brian Boru, in the 10th and 11th centuries? He should answer my question about the present.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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We can only judge people on their priorities when in Government.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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That is a weak argument.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Rabbitte said his party left government with a surplus. Deputy Rabbitte and the Labour Party Minister for Finance decided the priorities.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Our priority was to keep the country on an even keel and not let it go down the tubes, as the Minister's party has done.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Government has run it into the ground.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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The Government in which Deputy Ruairí Quinn was Minister for Finance decided not to build one prison space during its lifetime. When we came into office in 1997, we started a prison building programme and we have built 1,750 prison spaces since then. We will be opening another 200 prison spaces in Wheatfield Prison in the very near future. That is our record. We will then build another 300 prison spaces in a new complex in the Portlaoise-Midlands prisons. Those are the medium-term plans. The long-term project is the complex at Thornton Hall.

I was not directly involved in negotiating the purchase of the land at Thornton Hall.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The Minister is never directly involved in anything that goes wrong.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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He was at the Cabinet table.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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However, I doubt very much if whoever was responsible went around saying he had €30 million to spend asking if someone could come up with land. I doubt very much if that happened.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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That is exactly what happened after the collapse of the M50.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Our priority is to have Thornton Hall built as quickly as possible. I am not in a position to say the timescale until I get Government approval. If I do, Deputy Rabbitte will be the first to hear the timescale.

In view of the prevailing current and future economic circumstances, we are building Thornton Hall on a more realistic basis. In my own view and the view of the officials who advise me on prison numbers, the prison should be built on a phased basis. We will provide another 200 places in Wheatfield, probably in September, and another 300 when the extra prison spaces are built in the midlands complex. Ultimately, we will be building - we estimate on a three phase basis - up to 1,400 prison cells with a capacity of 2,200 within the Thornton Hall complex.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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If the project, as arranged with the preferred bidder under the PPP, has collapsed, why can the Minister not make public the financing arrangements that were being sought, so that we can make an assessment regarding value for money?

The Minister believes one should only compare parties on the basis of what they did when in government. When the Labour Party was in government we handed over to his party a solvent country creating 55,000 jobs a year with the public finances in surplus. His Government will leave to us a bankrupt country that is going down the tubes and cannot provide money for necessary prison spaces or anything else. Is that not the degree of economic mismanagement by Fianna Fáil in the past seven or eight years?

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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If Deputy Rabbitte wants a lesson in economic management, history will show that more than 600,000 extra people got jobs during the lifetime of the Governments of which I was a member.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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And 439,000 of them have lost them.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I come back to the net point of the record of prison building. The record of Deputy Rabbitte's party is that one of its first decisions in Government was to stop the prison building programme. In 1997, because there was a crisis in the prison building situation, we started a prison building programme. One cannot build prison spaces overnight. It takes time.

The tender process for the PPP was entered into on the basis of confidentiality and Department of Finance guidelines, to which we must adhere.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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The process has collapsed.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Those guidelines also mandate that these commercially sensitive details be kept confidential.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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It is history.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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That is all hypothetical because it is not how happening.