Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Office of the Ombudsman Status
To ask the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform if he will amend the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2008 to extend the remit of the Ombudsman to prisons and all issues relating to asylum, refugees and naturalisation. [43490/12]
These issues were, in fact, debated in some detail in the course of the Committee Stage debate on the Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill 2010 in the Seanad last week. Since the debate is ongoing in the other House I am not sure how far we can stray into it. I intend to debate as widely as you will allow, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.
In relation to the prisons, the Minister for Justice and Equality has confirmed his intention to introduce a new, credible prisoner complaints system to deal with genuine complaints in an open, transparent and independent way. Robust new procedures will be implemented, with priority given to complaints causing most concern, namely, those alleging ill-treatment, use of excessive force, racial discrimination, intimidation or threats. Such complaints will be examined by investigators from outside the Irish Prison Service. Given the proposals of the Minister for Justice and Equality, the Government does not consider it appropriate at this time to bring an action taken in the administration of the prisons for the custody of persons committed to custody by the courts within the Ombudsman’s remit.
The Deputy will be aware that the programme for Government contains a commitment to introduce comprehensive reforms of Ireland’s immigration, residency and asylum systems which will include a statutory appeals system and set out rights and obligations in a transparent way. This is intended to provide for the efficient processing and determination of citizenship applications within a reasonable time period. These reforms will be progressed through the enactment of the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill 2010.
The provisions of the Bill will radically reform the asylum and immigration process, including the introduction of a single procedure for the processing of "protection cases" which will allow for all aspects of asylum, subsidiary protection, leave to remain, etc. to be dealt with together rather than separately and in sequence as is the case under the current system. This will streamline and speed up the entire process.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The Minister for Justice and Equality intends, following the development of key Government amendments to the Bill, to return to the Oireachtas with this comprehensive legislation as the centre-piece of a wider programme of immigration reform. It is his objective to be in a position to bring the new Bill to the Government for approval and publication later this year. In view of his intention to embark on a deep and extensive programme of reform in this area, the Government has decided that it would not be the appropriate time to introduce a review of administrative actions in this area by the Ombudsman. The Deputy should, however, be aware that while it is not proposed to extend the remit of the Ombudsman to prisons and all issues relating to asylum, refugees and naturalisation at this time, the Government has agreed to these bodies being brought under freedom of information legislation. This will play a role in strengthening the openness, transparency and accountability of these bodies.
Let me paraphrase it then. I thought it would be more effective to quote directly from the report. The Ombudsman has consistently said the remit must be extended to include prisons and all matters pertaining to asylum and related justice issues. Given that the Minister is a member of the Labour Party with what I understood to be a particular view of these matters, I would have thought he would be enthusiastic to ensure people who are either in custody or going through an asylum, refugee status or naturalisation process would have fair recourse to the Ombudsman. He has said he will initiate various processes, which begs the question as to why he would duplicate a system in place. It does not answer the fundamental issue. What is he hiding? Is he so afraid of what might come out of the prison system or what people within the asylum system might bring to the attention of the Ombudsman that he is making a deliberate calculation to keep them out of the system? That is the only way I can logically account for his approach. It appears that he has buckled under pressure from the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, which is a pity.
I do not think so. I have taken great care in dealing with the issue. This is an area in which I have an open mind. The Deputy is correct. It may well be appropriate to include it within the remit of the Ombudsman. I have engaged with every Minister on the extension of the Ombudsman's remit. This is the biggest extension of the Ombudsman's remit taken since 1970 when the office was created. We are adding 140 bodies. I am working closely with the Ombudsman on all of these matters, so much so that she has assigned a member of her staff to work with me in the preparation of the legislation, on which we are working hand in glove. The Bill is before the Seanad and we will have an opportunity to debate the two issues to which the Deputy referred when the Bill is brought to this House. In this narrow area I propose to put in place a proper statutory complaints procedure which has been sought repeatedly by the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. When we see it, we might need to have another port of call in the Ombudsman. However, we should first examine how such a statute would work. Significant and fundamental reform is under way in the immigration and naturalisation service. Let us see how it beds down. At a later stage it might be appropriate to extend the Ombudsman's remit to include it.
I wish to make two important points in response to the Deputy. The Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill which is before the Seanad is an important part of the reform agenda I am driving. It will place a major demand on the Ombudsman and we are discussing how this need can be met. Not only does it involve a considerable extension in the number of bodies within the remit of the Ombudsman from 35 to approximately 180, we also intend to provide for automaticity in respect of any new body created. Instead of having a requirement for a statutory provision to include a body, the only ones excluded will be the ones specified in the excluded category. Every other body will be automatically included.
I intend to give a role to the Public Service Oversight and Petitions Committee of the House, which is chaired by a colleague of the Deputy and who is a very fine Chairman, in determining who should be included within the remit of the Ombudsman. Its members could well be the ones who will make a judgment call. I will be minded to listen attentively to their decisions once we have the new regime in place.
The Minister is telling me he has an open mind on the issue. I am trying to read the tea leaves. I take from what he said that he sees the good sense in proposing that the prisons, asylum seekers, refugees and those seeking naturalisation be included within the ambit of the Ombudsman. I am still at a loss as to why, having extended the scope of the office so broadly, the Minister would shield these particular areas from the remit of the Ombudsman. For many of those involved in the asylum process, the system is wholly inadequate and, in some respects, disgraceful. I refer, in particular, to the system of direct provision, on which the Government has made commitments that have not yet been met. For those within the prison system, many of whom are Irish citizens, this sends a message that the light will not shine on whatever complaints are made. The Minister has said he envisages an alternative statutory route being taken to address complaints in the prison system. Why do this? He is all for streamlining, working smarter and doing more with less. Why is that not the case in this regard?
It is because the reports of the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention which I am sure the Deputy has read call for immediate action to deal with complaints within the prison system. To put it bluntly, writing to the Ombudsman, causing reports to be made and involving inspectors, is a long-term process. What is recommended is the immediacy of a complaints system to deal with allegations of racial and physical abuse and other complaints. That is what the Minister for Justice and Equality will provide for. Providing such a system does not amount to duplication. If it does not prove satisfactory, we could have a further appeals mechanism in the future. People will see having a proper independent evaluation, external of the Irish Prison Service, of any allegation of wrongdoing within the prison service as a necessity in a modern democracy.