Dáil debates

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Parole Bill 2016: Second Stage [Private Members]


5:05 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the Bill to the House. Members will be aware that parole has operated in the criminal justice system for many years. It applies to offenders convicted of serious offences on whom longer sentences, including life sentences, have been imposed. The system currently operates entirely at the discretion of the Minister for Justice and Equality. In making the decision to grant or refuse parole, the Minister receives advice from the Parole Board, which is a non-statutory body. The system of parole is very unsatisfactory because it is not based in statute and is ultimately controlled by a politician. In saying this, I mean no disrespect to politicians. However, it is inappropriate that a politician should have the ultimate say as to whether a prisoner should be granted parole.

Prisoners who seek parole and citizens are entitled to know what is the basis on which parole is being granted to a prisoner. It is important to have in place an independent, transparent and statutory-based scheme that sets out how and when a person is granted parole, rather than leaving this decision to the discretion of a politician who may be swayed by factors outside of what is necessary for the good of society and the rehabilitation of the prisoner.

The Bill has four objectives. I will outline briefly what these objectives are before discussing some of the provisions of the Bill. The first objective is to establish an independent Parole Board on a statutory basis. While many Governments have made commitments to establishing an independent and a statutory-based Parole Board, it has not yet been done. The second objective is to give this independent statutory board responsibility for the decision to grant parole, thereby removing this responsibility from the Minister for Justice and Equality. The third objective is to establish, on a statutory basis, clear criteria for the granting of parole in order that citizens, victims of crime and prisoners know the basis on which applications may be made for parole and the basis on which it can be granted. The fourth objective is to give victims of crime a say in the process whereby they can be heard in respect of an application for parole by the person responsible for committing a criminal act against him or her or a member of his or her family who died as a result of a criminal act.

The statutory scheme I propose does not change in substance the current eligibility for parole. What I have sought to do is replicate the system that informally operates at present and place it on a formal, statutory basis. While I am aware that some people may be concerned that individuals may apply for parole after eight years, in most years, they will not be granted parole, particularly in cases involving life sentences. As the Minister will be aware, in most cases, there is a rule that parole is not granted in cases of life sentences until a term of 15 years has been served. However, the eligibility criteria simply replicate the current system in place and the way in which it is operated by the Parole Board. This issue can be discussed in greater detail in committee, at which point more specific requirements may be set down in respect of eligibility. The Bill does not propose to replace the current temporary release provisions but places the concept of parole on a statutory basis.

I now propose to briefly discuss the general provisions of the Bill. As I did not have the resources of the Department of Justice and Equality at my disposal, I am conscious that there may be improvements that could be easily made to the Bill and I will be pleased to accept any such amendments that improve the Bill if and when it reaches Committee Stage. I have no doubt Members may have helpful amendments.

I am pleased the Bill has received general support from the Irish Penal Reform Trust and Parole Board. Before discussing its provisions, I acknowledge the assistance I received in respect of the Bill from Niall Buckley, barrister-at-law, who provided me with help in drafting it. I will now refer to the mechanism of the Bill and the Parts into which it is divided. The Bill is divided into three Parts, the first of which deals with preliminary and general matters. The second Part deals with the Parole Board, its powers and composition, and the third Part deals with parole applications and how they should be appraised and determined by the Parole Board.

The first Part contains the standard provisions that appear in most legislation, including its Short Title and commencement. Since it is not a Government Bill, I have inserted a specific commencement date, although I recognise that commencement of Acts is governed by commencement orders signed by the Minister. In this case, it is important to try to keep to a timeline for having the legislation introduced. Section 5 sets out the nature of the parole process.

The second Part deals with the Parole Board. The functions of the board, which will be established pursuant to section 6, are set out in section 7 and its objective is to convene panels to consider persons for parole and direct, if appropriate, that such persons be released on parole, subject to such conditions as may be set out by the parole order. The panels must require that persons released on parole be subject to periodic monitoring of compliance with parole conditions. They must also consider whether conditions need to be set. Obviously, some individuals will breach the terms of their parole conditions. For this reason, it is necessary that the Parole Board will have power to issue warrants for the purpose of apprehending and returning to custody persons who breach parole conditions.

Section 8 deals with the membership of the Parole Board. It is proposed that the board will have 15 members. The board must have, as its primary objective, the insurance that individuals and society remain safe when individuals are released. However, we cannot ignore the other objective of imprisonment, namely, rehabilitation. For this reason, the 15 members should include a psychiatrist, psychologist, representative of the Irish Prison Service, Garda representative, probation or welfare officer, nominee of the Irish Penal Reform Trust and a number of other individuals who the Minister will appoint. It should be recognised, however, that the persons to be appointed must have knowledge or understanding of the criminal justice system and have the ability to make a balanced and reasonable assessment of risk.

The term of office of individual members should be for four years and they may be appointed for two terms. The chairperson should be a retired judge of the Circuit Court or higher, as proposed in section 10. There should also be individuals known as panel conveners because decisions in respect of parole must be made by groups within the Parole Board.

The panels we are setting out would contain four board members and determine whether individuals would be granted parole.

Section 12 deals with staffing. Obviously, there are issues. The last thing I want to do is create a giant quango that would produce glossy reports on an annual basis with public relations advisers and solicitors firms. What I have sought to do is simply replicate the system in place. There would need to be staff, but they could either be seconded by the Minister or, alternatively, hired by individuals.

Section 13 deals with the parole panels, while section 14 deals with their powers. Their ultimate power would lie in determining whether individuals should be considered for parole. The Bill sets out a series of factors that would need to be considered in determining whether parole should be granted. Among the main factors are the conduct of the parole candidate to date and the risk of reoffending. Another power of the parole panels would be to receive submissions from any victim of the person whose parole was being considered.

Sections 15 and 16 propose two mechanisms in the consideration of parole by a panel. It could undertake a review. It would be a documentary review because in many cases we might not need an oral hearing. The Parole Board could determine whether parole should be granted based on the documentary evidence. It would also have the ability to conduct an interview under this function. Section 16 deals with a situation where parole has been refused. An individual might wish to appeal such a decision or someone else might wish to have a matter heard. This would take the form of an oral hearing on whether parole should be granted. It would not be turned into a lengthy judicial-type process. We hope to have an informal process in place for the hearings.

Part 3 of the Bill deals with the parole process and sets out the guiding principles. The main principle in every case is the safety of the community. Section 19 deals with the criteria for granting parole which are set out in considerable detail. Some of the factors to be considered include the nature and gravity of the offence, the term of imprisonment and what the trial judge said at the time.

Section 20 deals with eligibility. Section 21 deals with consideration for parole, while section 22 deals with the parole order. A specific order must be made by the statutory body. This could be monitored under the monitoring and compliance provisions set out in section 23. The order could be varied under section 24 and revoked under section 25 if someone was to breach the terms of parole.

Sections 26 and 27 deal with the preparation for hearings. There is a small amendment to the Defamation Act to protect members of the Parole Board from any claim for defamation arising from the publication of reports.

That is a brief outline of the provisions contained in the Bill. I will now hand over to Deputy James Browne.

5:15 pm

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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In bringing forward this Bill Fianna Fáil is attempting to address a significant failing in the criminal justice system. A body that performs functions as important as the Parole Board which advises on whether convicted murderers and rapists should be released back into the community should be clearly defined and mandated in statute law. The basis of its decisions should be clearly examined and understood by the country, victims, offenders, the legal system and the Dáil.

The failure to place the Parole Board on a statutory basis to date has meant that its functions do not have the force of law and only presents advice to the Minister. This puts an unfair burden on the Minister in dealing with the core issues involved. The Minister should be freed to focus on tackling crime and bringing forward legislation without having to deal with an issue that should be dealt with by specialists. Such specialists should be able to apply statute law and ethics in the interests of the community. They should be able to balance the rights of victims and offenders who have shown an ability to reform, have an understanding of their offences, demonstrate regret and perhaps deserve a conditional opportunity to move back into the community. The fact that the Minister deals with these matters can impact on public confidence in the administration of justice and key areas such as the separation of powers. Communities are often left in the dark as to why someone is being given parole, the terms and conditions, who is and is not entitled to it. The Bill seeks to resolve that conflict.

The Parole Bill 2016 would place the Parole Board on a statutory basis. It would provide carefully for the membership of the board and set out the criteria to be used in granting parole that would be clear and transparent. People would be able to see why some offenders were given parole and the terms set. It would put an end to the rumour and innuendo that can arise from time to time. That could only help. There is a lack of trust in institutions in our modern society and we need to work towards rebuilding it. We can do this by having transparency and allowing people to see why decisions are being taken and for whom. That is critical.

Importantly, the Bill also sets out the protections that would be afforded to local communities if a decision was made to permit a prisoner to return early to his or her community. Our primary concern must always be the community. People must be able to see why offenders are being released.

The Fianna Fáil Bill has victims at its centre and would enshrine significant rights and supports in law. The Parole Board would be obliged to take into account all relevant information, including victim impact statements. That is critical. Victim impact assessments and statements have been brought into the court system. This is critical to give a voice to victims of crime. They provide for an element of balance. Previously, victims were often voiceless within the court system. They were almost forgotten about once the matter was put into the hands of the court. Victim statements have become important and this philosophy is being carried into the Parole Bill. The impact of a particular crime on victims will be taken into consideration. People are often convicted under straightforward criminal legislation, but the same crime can have remarkably different impacts on victims, depending on its nature and how it was carried out. We see this reflected in different sentencing parameters. The greatly increased transparency would allow victims and the public to access information more easily on the policies and decisions of the Parole Board. That is important because it would ensure consistency. While different Governments, parties and Ministers have always done their best to provide for consistency, it has been easy for someone to point the finger and ask why a given person was able to get out. The Bill would ensure greater transparency.

This is important legislation which would benefit communities. It is welcome that the Government has decided to support it. It is an example of what can be achieved in the new political dynamic. Now well researched and well thought out legislation can be brought forward. Governments have a heavy burden in bringing forward legislation. Ministers in Fianna Fáil Governments were very hands-on in their Departments and constituencies. The new dynamic allows Members on all sides of the Dáil to bring forward legislation which, perhaps, Ministers might not have the time to produce in the normal course.

Fianna Fáil is introducing the Bill to confer responsibility for granting parole to an independent statutory body. It takes away the de factoparole system that operates at the discretion of the Minister. It operates with a non-statutory Parole Board that advises the Minister on the suitability for temporary release and parole of persons referred to the Minister by the board. Fianna Fáil believes a body that performs the important functions of the Parole Board, in advising on the release of convicted killers and rapists and other serious criminals, should be clearly defined and organised under statute. The board should be independent and transparent. It should give confidence to the community in respect of the basis on which people are granted temporary release. The failure to place the board on a statutory basis has meant that important functions carried out by the board have been denied the force of law. The current set-up merely constitutes a form of advice provided for the Minister. The Bill would put the board on a statutory footing. This has proved particularly problematic since prisoners who believe they have an entitlement to parole can seek to avail of that entitlement. This must also be considered.

Prisoners who feel they have been denied parole wrongly take actions into our courts which place a significant financial burden. The Bill is well thought out and outlines a clear set of criteria to prevent those kinds of actions in the future. It will help to free up judicial time and free up money going into our courts and justice system that is badly needed in other areas, which would be most welcome. Too much money is being spent in our courts system. We need to find better ways of resolving these issues without spending huge amounts of money on court cases.

The Bill is important for the criminal and judicial system. It is important for communities. It is very worthy legislation. I congratulate Deputy O'Callaghan on introducing it. I welcome the Government's support for it. It shows what we can achieve in the new dynamic within this Parliament. I am glad to support it.

5:25 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for bringing this Bill before the House. It is undoubtedly a comprehensive Bill and while we will not oppose it on Second Stage, there are a number of points in it that may benefit from further consideration on Committee Stage.

Establishing the parole board on a statutory basis has been a policy objective for some time and it is therefore not something the Government wishes to oppose in principle. I have publicly stated that I had intended to develop and bring forward legislative proposals providing for a statutory parole board and the commitment was in the 2016 Fine Gael manifesto earlier this year. The draft legislation which my Department had been working on was intended to set out the board's functions, powers and structure. As with the Bill before the House, the objective was a more effective and streamlined parole process which, while being of benefit to the prisoner, will always have public safety as a paramount concern.

I wish to give some background to this issue. As long ago as December 2000, the then Taoiseach informed Dáil Éireann of the Government's intention to bring forward legislation to establish a parole board. In 2001, one of my predecessors as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O'Donoghue, established the parole board on an administrative basis. It was envisaged at that time that the non-statutory board would operate for a number of years, with a view to the board gaining experience prior to being placed on a statutory footing.

The penal policy review group, which was established in 2012, produced a report accepted by the previous Government recommending establishing the parole board on an independent statutory basis. The previous Government agreed, in principle, to proceed with the implementation of that recommendation. So we are agreed on the broad principle of establishing the parole board in a statutory basis. The Law Reform Commission agrees with this proposal and the former Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality under the chairmanship of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in its report of March 2013 made the same recommendation.

As it is currently constituted, the function of the parole board is to advise the Minister for Justice and Equality on the administration of sentences of persons whose cases have been referred to the board. The board informs the Minister of the prisoner's progress to date, the degree to which the prisoner has engaged with the various therapeutic services and how best to proceed with the future administration of the sentence. The focus is very much on the rehabilitation of prisoners and getting offenders to the stage where they are ready to integrate into society without posing a danger and having served an appropriate period of imprisonment. The Minister considers in full all recommendations when making the final decision on sentence management. Where temporary release is recommended, the board also advises the Minister of the conditions which should attach to any such release.

I acknowledge that this Private Members' Bill is well drafted and intended to address the long-standing policy objective of an independent parole board. I will refer to a number of issues in the time available to me.

Section 7 sets out the functions of the parole board and provides that the board shall, if appropriate, direct prisoners to be released on parole and, where necessary, also determine that such parole orders be suspended or revoked. As it stands, the power to release prisoners early is vested solely in the Minister for Justice and Equality. Section 23 of the Criminal Justice Act 1951 allows the Government to exercise the power to commute or remit conferred by Article 13.6 of the Constitution on the President - except for capital cases - and in turn delegates that power to the Minister for Justice and Equality.

Legal advice obtained in the context of my Department's ongoing work on its own parole Bill has raised considerable doubt as to whether the Government's power to remit sentences in a parole system could, at a constitutional level, be devolved. We need to have discussions on whether it could be devolved in full to an independent parole board and the implication of this for the proposals in the Bill would need to be carefully considered. It was something that had arisen in the preparation of our legislation in the area. We have not reached a final conclusion on that but no doubt it would be a point of discussion.

While not directly related, if the power to release prisoners convicted of our most serious offences is to be transferred to a body not accountable to the Houses of the Oireachtas, should consideration be given, for example, to setting out a minimum period of imprisonment to be served in the case of a sentence of life imprisonment? Implicitly, the Bill imposes a minimum period of imprisonment to be served in the case of life sentence prisoners in so far as the Bill follows the existing administrative procedure whereby review for parole arises after seven years have been served. In practice under the existing administrative arrangements, this initial review is simply the start of a process to prepare a prisoner for potential eventual release and there may be a number of reviews before a person is released.

The reference in the existing non-statutory process to a review after seven years has led to concerns among victims' families. I agree with the points made by both previous speakers. In line with the victims' directive, we need to provide for the perspective of victims' families and other relevant people in granting parole. That has probably not received adequate consideration over the years and needs to be far more central now. If we include that now in primary legislation without addressing these matters it could not only aggravate matters for victims' families but may also lead to the new parole board having to justify in court why a life-sentenced prisoner is not being released after seven years.

The Bill also proposes that the parole process would take on a more legalistic, quasi-judicial hue, which may conflict with the intended rehabilitative role of the board. The thrust of the Bill is that the new parole board would decide if and when a prisoner would be released. It does not put much emphasis on looking at the future administration of the sentence, which often falls short of release and involves recommendations about different forms of therapeutic interventions, attending particular work and education programmes and so on. That role of the parole board should remain and I imagine that Deputy O'Callaghan would have little difficulty with that.

The Bill proposes that the chairperson should be a person who is, or has been, a judge of the Circuit Court or of the superior Courts, that person being nominated by the Chief Justice. Currently, the chair of the parole board is a solicitor. Further, existing arrangements provide for four members of the parole board who would be described as community representatives. It is important to have strong lay representation on a board to bring the perspective of the layperson as opposed to somebody immersed in the legal or judicial system in these decisions. In essence, section 11 provides that these community representatives will be replaced by lawyers appointed through a competitive process. It provides that these four members be appointed as panel convenors who must either have held office as a judge of the District or Circuit Court, or be a practising barrister or solicitor. We need to discuss the appropriate membership carefully because I am very conscious of the risk assessments involved when making these kinds of decisions and the interplay of expertise needed. Having said that, my experience is that the risk assessments are given a lot of consideration within the Prison Service and in the Probation Service.

I do not have much time to go into the detail of some of the other points I would like to make. Section 16 provides that a person whose parole is being considered is entitled to appear, give evidence and make submissions to the panel; attend while a person other than the victim is making a submission; be represented by a solicitor or, with the permission of the panel, by counsel; and have a character witness in attendance.

I will make the point in summary that this is very different from the situation at present. While written legal representation can form part of a dossier, no legal representation is allowed at the interview stage or when the case is considered by the full board. I have no doubt that in some circumstances, it would be appropriate for a prisoner to have access to legal aid. I would be concerned if the parole process were to take on the attributes of an adversarial system in full. Obviously, that would lead to a significant charge on the Exchequer. In addition, it could do away with some of the benefits of the existing parole process. I think we need to consider and tease out these issues.

At present, there is no such thing as a parole order along the lines of the order proposed under section 21. Recommendations from the Parole Board are made to the Minister, who decides on each case on the basis of the board's recommendation. The Minister's power to release derives from the Criminal Justice Act 1960, which provides for all temporary release. At present, this mechanism is used for releasing prisoners on a full-term basis and is often termed "full temporary release" or "reviewable temporary release". As things stand, neither the Parole Board nor indeed the term "parole" exists in statute. That is precisely the point the Deputy is making.

I have a number of points to make on sections 22 and 26 and I will communicate directly with the Deputy in that regard. I would welcome clarity on the provisions of section 23, which provides for the Parole Board to monitor a person's compliance with his or her conditions of parole. Currently, a person who has been released is subject to monitoring by the Probation Service. It would be interesting to hear whether it is intended that this role will transfer to the Parole Board. The Probation Service is doing some very effective monitoring work at present. Obviously, it is critical and important that there is ongoing monitoring and feedback to the Prison Service and the Minister in cases when very difficult decisions are being made about releases. That information needs to be transferred in a very timely way. The Probation Service has had very good experience of doing this over the years.

While I have raised a number of issues regarding this legislation, I acknowledge that it is consistent in principle with my party's policy and with long-standing Government policy. I thank Deputy O'Callaghan again for introducing this Bill. We should have further discussions on the various issues that have been raised. I will conclude by acknowledging the work of the current Parole Board, its chairman, John Costello, and all the members of the board, who give sterling service on difficult assessments and cases.

5:35 pm

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I do not know who is due to speak after me but I would like to put him or her on notice that I will take just ten of the 15 minutes available to me. I hope the Deputy in question is aware of this so that he or she can come to the Chamber.

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for sending me a copy of this legislation and the explanatory memorandum that accompanies it. When he first published the Bill, he offered to meet me to go through its provisions if I wished to do so. I also recognise that when the Minister published the legislative programme - I think it was the week before last - she flagged that she is in the process of drafting her own parole Bill. The Minister raised some issues and gave us some useful information regarding the constitutional position in respect of one section of the Bill. In broad terms, we would agree completely with the proposal before us this afternoon. I know it has been a long-standing position of the Government that the parole process should be placed on a statutory footing. As I have said, the Government is in the process of providing for this through its own Bill.

In fairness, the explanatory memorandum that comes with this Bill is very detailed. Section 8 of the Bill proposes that the Parole Board should have 15 members. We can debate whether 15 is the correct figure. Perhaps it should have more or fewer members. Deputy O'Callaghan can correct me if I am wrong in my understanding of the composition of the board. He said in his contribution that the chairperson should be a retired judge of the Circuit Court or higher, nominated by the Chief Justice. However, the legislation provides that the chairperson shall be a current or a former judge. I wonder if we could get some clarification on that. Is it possible that a serving judge could be the chairperson of the board?

Deputy O'Callaghan's legislation also outlines a number of individuals who should serve on the board, including a psychiatrist, a psychologist and a member of the Irish Penal Reform Trust. I would be concerned that the Bill does not provide that someone from the civil liberties side of the debate should be represented on the board. Maybe this is something we can address on Committee Stage. I do not think it is a huge issue on Second Stage. I certainly believe the composition of the board warrants further consideration on Committee Stage. The Minister suggested that this Bill proposes to replace the community representatives on the board with people who come from a completely legal background. I do not know whether that would be a wise or an appropriate thing to do. If one is looking at the granting of parole, one will need a balanced view. One will certainly need a community view, given that we are going to be asking people to integrate back into the community. It is very important that the community should have a say in that respect.

I want to touch on section 16 of the Bill, which outlines how the hearings will be conducted by the parole panel. It provides that "hearings shall be conducted in such manner as the parole panel thinks fit and the parole panel may receive submissions and such evidence including oral evidence as it thinks fit". It further provides that decisions by panels conducting hearings "shall be in writing and shall include reasons" and lists the people to whom copies of such decisions "shall be provided". Section 16(4) provides that if the panel's decision "is to decline to make a parole order in respect of a person, the decision shall specify a date at which the person shall next be considered for parole, not later than 2 years from the date of the decision". I would have some questions in that regard. I do not have an issue with the timeframe, as it is something that can be debated, but I think some flexibility needs to be built into the system. I do not know how the case of a terminally ill prisoner who was declined parole at a hearing before having a sudden change in circumstances - he or she might now have just a couple of months to live - could be dealt with if legislation provides it is not possible for someone to have another hearing within a two-year period. Maybe we can have further discussions on this aspect of the Bill. I do not even know how we would legislate for the flexibility that would be desirable in such circumstances. I certainly think it is something we need to discuss further.

This Bill proposes that there should be a review every three months to ensure those who have been granted parole are complying with the terms of that parole. I would have concerns about how such compliance could be monitored. As the Minister outlined, this is currently done by the Probation Service. This legislation proposes to transfer that power to the Parole Board. I do not know how that will work in reality. While we are not going to oppose the Bill on this basis, we believe greater consideration should be given to this aspect of the matter. I accept that the Parole Board needs to have the power to set the conditions of parole but I emphasise that the conditions in question need to be realistic. It may be one of the conditions of parole that the person who has been released must reside at a particular address but it may subsequently transpire that he or she is no longer able to reside at that address for some reason, perhaps through no fault of his or her own. This is particularly likely to happen in the current climate, when people are being evicted from properties and families are losing their family homes on foot of bank repossessions.

While technically they have breached their conditions, there needs to be some flexibility built so the Parole Board, when reviewing those conditions, can actually change them as the prisoner progresses.

The Bill states one reason why somebody should be considered for parole is if it would enhance their employment opportunities. It would be important if we could also insert a provision to allow for parole to enhance maintaining family connections and ties.

Section 26 provides for the board to issue a warrant authorising a member of An Garda Síochána to apprehend or return to prison a person released on parole on the revocation of a parole order. This is currently in the Minister’s power. Giving that power over to the Parole Board, albeit on a statutory footing, warrants further consideration.

I am not too sure how the Bill actually got past First Stage because, technically, any Opposition legislation which would incur a cost on the Exchequer usually does not get past First Stage. Not only does this Bill have such a cost, it actually sets out expenses, how the proposed agency will be funded and the secretariat staff applied to it. I congratulate Deputy Jim O'Callaghan for getting around the system. Maybe I will give him a telephone call later on how to do this because it is the first time I have seen Opposition legislation which refers to costs not ruled out of order. Saying that, this is a good development and I hope a precedent set by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

5:45 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
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Our Bill for next week was ruled out of order.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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It would be interesting to see how it will go now.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I was not aware of that.

This is a change. Normally, Opposition legislation is ruled out of order if it is a cost to the Exchequer, a procedure with which I always disagreed. This is a matter which should have been addressed during the recent review of how the Oireachtas works. If this does set a precedent, I will certainly welcome it.

Sinn Féin will be supporting the Bill. However, we hope it just does not go to committee while the Government's Bill is being drafted. Accepting Bills for the sake of it and leaving them on the shelf on Committee Stage would not be in keeping with the new politics of this House. I hope the Minister will not do that because there is nothing more frustrating. The only thing more frustrating than getting a Bill ruled out of order is actually getting it past Second Stage, but then having it sit on Committee Stage until the Government brings in its own legislation. We would certainly like to see this legislation progressed through Committee Stage. Obviously, it will not be done in the near future as there is much work to be done on it, some of which was outlined by the Minister earlier. It is a comprehensive Bill, however. If Government amendments can be incorporated into this legislation, then it would save the Minister's office and the Parliamentary Counsel much time not having to draft a brand new Bill.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I genuinely welcome this Bill and commit my party’s support throughout its legislative process. I hope there will be a continuation of the legislative process. We are all in new territory now and the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot stop this Bill, even if she wanted to. I congratulate Fianna Fáil for devoting resources, parliamentary time and Deputy Jim O'Callaghan's skills to producing a thoughtful and well worked out set of proposals that are of central importance to the criminal justice system but are hardly populist or headline-grabbing.

It has been long-standing Labour Party policy to put both the Prison Service and the Parole Board on a statutory basis, independent of the Department of Justice and Equality. The Minister knows my strong personal views in this regard, as well as those of the Labour Party over many years. We have recently been debating in this Chamber the need for Garda reform. This was not just a call for change for change’s sake. We want a root-and-branch examination of the entire criminal justice system to ensure we can be more effective in how we deal with the moderate manifestations of criminality and how it affects communities, especially vulnerable communities. We want to see more gardaí on the ground, patrolling our neighbourhoods. This outcome, however, can only be achieved with the comprehensive reforms analysed and presented for An Garda Síochána. Accordingly, we need changes in structure, organisation and management to ensure the most effective deployment of the Garda. We see the reform agenda as a bottom-up process which will affect the way we deal with every governmental service.

That is just the beginning. The fight against crime includes straightforward Garda-related targets such as improved detection and arrest rates, use of modern technology and smart policing. It also involves the efficient and fair processing of trials and, crucially, arriving at the correct balance of deterrence, punishment and rehabilitation. An approach to crime cannot be structured exclusively at confrontation. It must also target, as far as possible, the actual elimination of crime. This means effective policing, reforms in the way the courts work, improvements in the Prison Service and greater emphasis on the Probation Service.

The State must also tackle with equal vigour the social conditions which give the criminal milieu its energy. There have been many debates recently about north inner city Dublin. The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality had an opportunity to go there last night. We must look at crime not in isolation but in a holistic way. We are beginning to do this with north inner city Dublin. However, that has to have manifestation right across our country. The Labour Party has long argued for major changes in a crucial set of relationships, namely those between the Garda, the Prison Service, the Department of Justice and Equality, the courts and the probation and welfare service. All of this needs to be examined fundamentally and made subject to much more Oireachtas accountability.

There is an equal need for a wide range of educational, social and economic measures aimed at ending social deprivation and alienation. Our prison system is antiquated, expensive and ineffective. The reformation and rehabilitation of offenders is, at best, sporadic and, at worst, non-existent. In far too many cases, prison does little or nothing to reform its regular inhabitants completely, get them back to a crime-free life and to have a sense of social responsibility. We support the establishment by statute of an independent prisons agency with the function of managing prisons coherently and in a planned and effective manner.

The agency should be autonomous in its operations and should be accountable to the Oireachtas. We need a new management structure that would devolve greater autonomy and responsibility to prison governors in the management of and planning within their own institutions. The Irish Prison Service has its own brass plate and logo, but it remains simply a division of the Department of Justice and Equality. Prison governors are middle-ranking civil servants within the structure of the parent Department, with no real autonomy. New prison legislation should also repeal and consolidate all existing statutes, many of which date from the 19th century. The role and status of visiting committees should be upgraded in the legislation. Of course, as this Bill provides, the advisory committees which deal with the release of long-term prisoners should be placed on a statutory basis as a parole board, as envisaged by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan.

In recent decades the Irish prison population has been increasing in comparison to that in other western European countries. However, a significantly larger percentage of the population have received and served a prison sentence. In other words, we have been sending a relatively larger number of people to jail than we used to in order to serve relatively short sentences. The alternatives to prison, particularly for minor crimes, are not used in this jurisdiction to anything like their potential, yet we cannot argue that a policy of more or less immediate recourse to imprisonment as a short, sharp shock has the appropriate deterrent effect. Our recidivism rate is still unacceptably high. Left to its own dynamic, the prison population will always expand to fill the number of spaces available, as as been proved dramatically in the United States. Therefore, inevitably, there will be overcrowding and the number of prisoners will increase in an unplanned way, a number of whom will require early release, which gives rise to humanitarian and other considerations. In this House we need to examine and address the issue of sentencing policy and the desirability of a policy of incarceration. A comprehensive review should be undertaken by the Oireachtas of sentencing options, with a view to better co-ordination of penal and sentencing policy.

I also mention the Probation and Welfare Service, the Cinderella service of the Department of Justice and Equality. It continues to be under-staffed, with the result that there are too many people in prison who do not need to be there because the resources are not available to deal with them in the community through the Probation and Welfare Service. This should be the primary target of additional resources in dealing with the issue of sentencing. The service also needs to be placed on a statutory basis, to operate independently and with a clearly defined role.

We need serious action on a programme for the reintegration of prisoners once released from prison. This means a comprehensive rehabilitation programme and sentence management, based on the individual needs of released prisoners. Such a programme should plan for reintegration as the norm, enabling prisoners to make well informed choices and assess their personal and educational skills. We should have a robust mechanism to treat mental health problems among prisoners, given that this is a growing problem and a real issue in prisons.

I believe the previous Government did begin to make real progress in implementing the principle that a sentence of imprisonment should be regarded as a sanction of last resort. Community-based sanctions are significantly less costly and, more importantly, have less of an impact on recidivist prisoners. There is great urgency to tackle the conditions associated with and the causes of crime. As I said, the Tánaiste has visited the north inner city. We have to see the crime issue in the round. I look forward to the debate on the Bill, but I also look forward to much more cross-party grappling with the issue of crime to ensure we deploy resources through the budgetary decisions of this Parliament that would really impact on reducing crime levels into the future. I thank Deputy Jim O'Callaghan for introducing the Bill.

5:55 pm

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, Anti-Austerity Alliance)
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We would welcome the placing of the Parole Board on a statutory footing and making it independent of the Government. We welcome the Bill's intention to have clarity and transparency on the decisions to grant parole to those serving long sentences. A more transparent and structured parole system would assist in the rehabilitation of prisoners by giving an incentive for good conduct and engagement in programmes, training and services in prison, which should be welcomed.

The other aspect of the Bill - the ability of victims of crime to make submissions and be heard in the process - has long been called for and is also to be welcomed. As this legislation would apply to those serving longer sentences, the persons being considered for parole have committed quite serious crimes that have had a major impact on the lives of victims. It is, therefore, appropriate that the victims be heard and that the impact on their lives be considered in the conditions for release. We would also welcome the input of psychologists and other professionals with expertise in dealing with the rehabilitation of prisoners.

A number of ideas from groups such as the Irish Penal Reform Trust appear in the Bill but others do not. I ask Deputy Jim O'Callaghan why this is the case and that these other ideas be given consideration on Committee and subsequent Stages. For example, we think it is important that risk assessments carried out by the Garda as part of the process not be carried out by gardaí who had been directly involved in the case, as clearly there is a danger, or at the very least a perceived danger, of bias. There need to be strict protocols or controls to ensure re-sentencing would not occur in the parole process.

We also question the extent to which exceptional cases may be considered, for example, prisoners with a terminal illness or cases involving other exceptional humanitarian grounds. There is a danger that, in detailing in primary legislation the grounds for parole, the Deputy may not allow sufficient flexibility to deal with such cases when they come before the Parole Board.

In reintegrating prisoners back into society resources need to be made available to provide support for prisoners coming out of prison. We need proper investment in education and training programmes, as well as adequate counselling services and services provided by psychologists, both in prison and for newly released prisoners.

I want to make a wider point on crime. The Bill would obviously apply to those who have been sentenced for quite serious crimes which carry a term of imprisonment of eight years or more. However, the vast bulk of those in prison are there for lesser crimes. Crime is, undoubtedly, a real scourge for many communities - working class communities, in particular, but not exclusively. Many people are deeply impacted on by crime and can live in fear of crime which affects their quality of life on a daily basis. A core point that has to be made when discussing crime is that we need to move past the most immediate crime to say the breeding ground for crime is poverty, social exclusion and inequality. The evidence is irrefutable if one compares the levels of equality in different countries or areas. If we want to deal with crime in the long run, we have to build a society in which everybody will have decent opportunities in life and be able to avail of a decent standard of living. People should not be living in deprivation and there should not be the mass inequality we witness.

In dealing with crime when it happens custodial sentences are not the appropriate response to a wide variety of crimes and can actually be extremely counter-productive in that they can lead to people becoming repeat offenders. This does not deal with the problem. It may appeal to some Shylock notion of getting a pound of flesh or some commodity view of crime in the sense that someone has to receive their punishment. In looking at how we should deal with crime from the point of view of society as a whole and avoiding it within society, in many instances, it has been empirically proved that this simply does not work. We need investment to create a future for young people, particularly to create decent jobs, provide training and resource the education system to provide a stimulating and an engaging education for all.

Likewise, we need investment in youth services and to provide a future for everybody in our society. We will not oppose the Bill on this Stage, and we will consider amendments along the lines of what I have spoken about on Committee Stage and later.

6:05 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I welcome the Bill and well done to Fianna Fáil. There is a background to it, and the Irish Penal Reform Trust has long called for such a change and for the Parole Board to be put on a statutory basis. It was a key recommendation of the strategic review of penal policy in 2014. I thank Fianna Fáil for doing something about it.

Generally the Bill is very good. I have no difficulty with it and I will support it. However, I will highlight a number of matters and perhaps they can be looked at on Committee Stage. Section 24 deals with the variation of a parole order. The purpose of the Bill is to establish a parole board which is completely independent of political control and of the Government, but section 24 states an order may be changed on the direction of a Minister. I would like this to be examined with regard to how it would infringe on the independence of the Parole Board.

Sections 18 and 19 deal with the guiding principles and criteria for parole. I have no difficulty with these, and clearly the safety of the community, family and victim must be paramount before we release prisoners, but there seems to be an undue emphasis on the offence committed a number of years prior to the Parole Board seeing the prisoner. There is not enough emphasis on the risk assessment that pertains at the point where the Parole Board is making a decision on whether a prisoner should be released into society and whether there is a risk at that stage. It should be with regard to the risk posed at the time the decision is being made. I also have a question on the standard of proof to be applied with regard to the decision, which is not clear from what I have seen.

I welcome the broad nature of the composition of the board. This has been repeatedly asked for by various lobby groups. The Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, has pointed out there is room for improvement with regard to community representation on the board. I ask for this to be examined on Committee Stage.

The point has been made that our prisons are full of poor people, whether we like it or not. We can predict at a very early age who will end up in prison and this prediction has never changed. One might say poverty is no excuse for crime, and it certainly is not, but the fact that prisoners consistently come from a certain class and areas has been repeatedly pointed out to us by the very experienced former governor of Mountjoy Prison. The Government and Dáil have failed to look at this.

White collar crime is treated completely differently. Deputy Howlin referred to a Government of chaos, but I do not see any chaos, and I hope that during the time we are here we will examine prison policy and how we send the same people to prison over and over again. As Deputy Paul Murphy said, it must occur to us that we are doing something wrong. It simply is not working if we send the same people to prison over and over again.

When considering the Bill I ask that we examine the balance that must be struck when releasing somebody. The safety of victims and the community must be paramount, but what should be of equal value is the chance of rehabilitating the prisoner. Ultimately, this is what prison is for, in addition to protecting society. It is supposed to serve a rehabilitation role so that when somebody goes to prison he or she is better coming out than going in. I would like to see this in the Bill and it is something to which I will return.

Professor Harry Kennedy of the Central Mental Hospital has pointed out we have only two beds per 100,000 people in the population, compared to England which has 7.5 beds per 100,000 people. Our prisons serve as emergency departments for people who are sick and who should be in hospital receiving treatment. This is not happening and is something we need to examine.

I welcome the fact that prisoners would be entitled to legal representation at an oral hearing. The Bill also states a prisoner would be entitled to documentation, but it does not specify all documentation. This should be clarified. Are prisoners entitled to all documentation on which the decision will be made? This is paramount. It should not be just some documentation or relevant documentation, but all of the documentation on which the decision will be based.

The section stating that a victim may be heard is extremely important, but how will this decision be made? Who will communicate with the victim? If we take somebody who has committed sexual abuse and there are a number of victims, on the practical side how will this be dealt with and how will the victims be notified? It is an essential element of the Bill, but on a practical level how will it be dealt with?

I welcome the Bill and I look forward to Committee Stage.

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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The debate is moving on and the next available speakers are Deputy Lahart and myself. Is it agreed that I will speak after Deputy Lahart has contributed? Agreed.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, for bringing the Bill to the House and I am happy to note the Government will not oppose it.

It will be a surprise to many of my constituents in Dublin South West and to the wider public that there is such a strong political role in the granting of parole in the Irish system. In advance of this year’s general election, I held a number of public meetings on the subject of crime and burglaries, and the subject of parole was raised again and again by constituents. The current system of offering parole to prisoners is catered for in the Criminal Justice Act 1960 and has remained mostly unchanged for nearly 60 years. It gives full and discretional powers to the Minister of the day as to who is released on parole and when, with the Parole Board acting only in the capacity of adviser. The very fact a Minister effectively has the power to overturn a decision made by the Judiciary is not good practice. The manner in which parole is granted in the State and the fact that ultimate control of this system is given to a politician is outdated and in urgent need of reform.

The term parole in the Irish context is used to refer to the temporary release of longer-term prisoners. However, there is no statutory definition of parole in Ireland. Under the Criminal Justice Act 1960, the Minister for Justice and Equality may grant temporary release to prisoners at any time before they qualify for standard remission or to life-sentenced prisoners who are not entitled to standard remission. In effect, there are two categories of temporary release. These are temporary release granted with a view to the person returning to detention, and full temporary release which is intended as ending the period of detention.

At present, the Parole Board reviews the sentences of prisoners serving eight years or more and makes recommendations to the Minister as to whether the prisoner should be granted temporary release. The Parole Board advises the Minister for Justice and Equality of the prisoner’s progress, the degree to which he or she has engaged with therapeutic services, and how best to proceed with his or her sentence. However, the recommendations of the Parole Board are not legally binding and the decision to release a prisoner is made by the Minister. Furthermore, there are no clear guidelines on the criteria that indicate a prisoner’s eligibility for parole.

According to statistics provided to Members recently, towards the end of 2014, 344 prisoners in Ireland were serving life sentences, 273 were serving sentences of ten or more years, and 726 were serving sentences of between five and ten years.

The length of time served by prisoners on a life sentence increased from an average of 11 years for prisoners released in 2002 to 20 years for prisoners released in 2013.

I welcome the Bill and the proposal that the Parole Board be placed on a statutory basis, with careful consideration being given to the appointment of members of the board. There have been many other calls for this measure to be taken. In 1997 an expert group on the prison service called for this measure to be implemented and in 2000 the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights called for it also.

A study by Dr. Diarmuid Griffin of the School of Law in NUIG has also recommended that the Parole Board be placed on a statutory footing and given power to make decisions on releases. I particularly welcome the aspect of the Bill which pays particular attention to the views of the victim and the fact that the Bill would confer an obligation on any new Parole Board to take account of the views of the victim concerned. The Bill would rightly place an obligation on the Parole Board to supply any information available on the release from detention on parole of a prisoner to the victim and the general public.

The overall aim of the Bill is to create safer communities by ensuring those released back into society are ready for this move and pose a very low risk of reoffending. This would be done by ensuring the members of the Parole Board were from a wide section of representative bodies.

The Bill proposed by Deputy Jim O'Callaghan is to be commended and will I believe be welcomed by prisoners' rights advocates, members of the public and An Garda Síochána, all of whom have cause for disquiet under the existing system.

6:15 pm

Photo of Robert TroyRobert Troy (Longford-Westmeath, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the House for agreeing to let Deputy John Lahart and I swap seats. We are moving ahead of time, but I want to add my voice to the debate on the Bill and compliment my colleague Deputy Jim O'Callaghan on bringing it forward. It is good to hear such positive contributions across the House. The Irish Penal Reform Trust, too, has added its weight behind the legislation. I noticed, while listening to the Minister, that she said it was her intention to bring forward proposals in this regard and that putting the Parole Board on a statutory basis was part of the Fine Gael manifesto. If one looks back to the 2011 programme for Government, however, there were many promises on legislation that remained unfulfilled, including in my area of responsibility during that term, including, for example, the information and tracing Bill on adoption. I do not say this in a critical manner, but I am saying the composition of the Dáil affords the Opposition parties a real opportunity to help and assist the Government which might not always be able to get its own legislation through the House. The Bill represents real and meaningful help from my colleague who, as I think everybody will experience, has the knowledge and experience to bring forward legislation such as this.

When one considers the current position, it is effectively at the discretion of a Minister for Justice, on the advice of a non-statutory Parole Board, whether somebody should be given parole. That is not right and my party firmly believes a body that performs such important functions as advising on whether convicted killers or rapists should be allowed parole should be clearly defined and organised in the Statute Book. Whether we care to admit it, there are certain public representatives, Members of this Dáil, who could potentially serve as Minister for Justice and who, as we witnessed in the last Dáil, of which I was a Member, refused to condemn murders and rapists. I certainly would not like to see people who are friendly with rapists and murderers serving in positions of authority or as Minister for Justice where the Parole Board was not on a statutory basis. It is, therefore, welcome that the Bill would provide that the Parole Board was fully independent and placed on a statutory footing, would remove the decision-making process from political control and ensure future decisions would be made in an open, transparent and consistent decision-making process.

I noticed recently that a former Minister for Justice had also alluded to the fact that previous members of the Parole Board had been appointed based on political connections. I do not say this in condemnation of the Government; I am sure it could just as likely have been a former member of my party. That is not right or proper and it is right that we have people with the necessary expertise such as psychiatrists, psychologists and welfare officers to make these decisions.

It is welcome that the Bill would give significant rights to and provide supports for victims of crime because when we talk about the duration of sentences handed down, we are talking about the most heinous of crimes. The Bill would provide for an obligation to ensure the victims of crimes and their concerns would be addressed.

I welcome what Deputies Brendan Howlin and Catherine Connolly said about the need for a wider debate on crime. The problems in the inner city are well known and have been receiving a lot of attention. It is also well known that most crimes are committed by people who tend to come from less well-off families. While the focus is on the serious problem being encountered in inner city areas, these problems are felt in every community and constituency, in every rural village and small provincial town. The extent to which drugs have taken over the country is simply phenomenal. We need to deal collectively with the consequences in the numbers of fights, assaults and burglaries. While it is welcome that there is a focus on what is happening in the inner city which rightly needs our attention, it cannot be done to the detriment of what is happening in rural Ireland.

I thank the Chair for his forbearance in making my contribution.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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On my own behalf and that of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, I thank the Members of the House who contributed to the debate. In particular, I thank Deputy Jim O'Callaghan for bringing forward the Bill. While there will be issues, as there always are dealing with all Bills, whether Opposition or Government, that will require further consideration during the passage of the Bill, it is both comprehensive and well drafted.

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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During my period as Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Defence in the past five years a subgroup of the committee produced a report on penal reform, with which I am sure Deputies are very familiar. While focusing on the need to address overcrowding in prisons, one of the recommendations made concerned the need to place the Parole Board on a statutory footing. The report, for which Senator Ivana Bacik was rapporteur, was published in March 2015. We travelled to Finland as part of the work involved where we visited prisoners because we had discovered its penal system was very advanced. One of the issues that arose from the report was the fact that the Parole Board here remains subject to political control and that this could result in a conflict with international human rights law. These were some of the points made in the report; therefore, the Bill is timely.

A very important factor in ensuring the successful reintegration of an offender into the community is his or her structured and supported release from prison. Again, this formed part of the report.

Given that the Parole Board focuses on those prisoners serving longer sentences, it is essential that its role continue to focus on the administration of the offender's sentence from the time he or she becomes eligible for parole. In this respect, under existing arrangements, the Parole Board informs the Tánaiste of a prisoner's progress to date and the degree to which he or she has engaged with various services. It is this type of information that can inform how best to proceed in the future administration of the sentence. In particular, it is important to maintain a role for the Parole Board whereby it can provide practical advice and support to assist offenders in completing their sentences and returning to the community. I again pay tribute to organisations such as Care After Prison; the Irish Association for the Social Integration of Offenders, IASIO; the Churchfield Community Trust and others which are doing a lot of work in supporting prisoners as they integrate back into the community.

I would like the role of the Parole Board, the Probation Service and others to continue in that regard.

The Bill is consistent with the primary concern of a parole board, which is the safety of the general public, and that the board operates under the obligation to be satisfied that the prisoner has addressed his or her offending behaviour and that any threat to the safety of the public or the community is minimised. The Bill provides, in its guiding principles, that the paramount consideration for the board in every case is the safety of the community. That said, I also support a more formal structure and basis for the Parole Board, and this Bill endeavours to provide that. Establishing a Parole Board on a statutory basis will ensure greater transparency and clarity at an operational level.

We must ensure an even transition from an administrative to a statutory basis for parole and the best way of achieving this transition should be clarified before the legislation comes into force. I also welcome the fact the Bill envisages a role for the victims of offenders who are under review. An appropriate role for victims in the process is essential. An important consideration for the existing Parole Board has been the involvement of victims in the review. The Parole Board takes into consideration the views of victims and the impact of the offence on their lives before it makes a recommendation to the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, highlighted some of the issues in the Bill which would require further consideration, and I do not plan to repeat them. However, addressing these matters and the extent, or otherwise, of their implications is the purpose of the legislative process and I look forward to contributing to the process. I am sure Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Sinn Féin Chairman of the justice committee, will help Fianna Fáil by facilitating and prioritising the Bill. In particular, it is important we ensure that any proposals are constitutionally robust and that, where a role for the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Executive should be maintained, it is maintained.

There has been a long-standing commitment on the part of successive Governments to putting the Parole Board on a statutory basis and that purpose will be widely supported inside and outside the House. As the Minister mentioned in her remarks, work has been ongoing in the Department of Justice and Equality on the formulation of similar proposals to create a statutory footing for the Parole Board. The provisions of the Bill and the debate today will inform that work.

I pay tribute to everybody who has contributed to the debate so far today. It has been positive, structured, reflective and very important. As I said in the Seanad earlier, I agree with comments by colleagues who stressed the need, when we deal with crime, to look at the other side of the equation, building up communities and youth services and ensuring people follow through on education. I could not agree more with what Deputy Robert Troy said earlier about the role of drugs in communities across the country. He is correct. It is very corrosive and damaging and we must do all we can to focus on it from every angle to try to minimise the ongoing damage.

Again, on behalf of the Minister and myself, I thank Deputy Jim O’Callaghan and the Members of this House. I also express my appreciation to Mr. John Costello, the chairman of the Parole Board, and the members of the board for their ongoing work in this area.

6:25 pm

Photo of Thomas ByrneThomas Byrne (Meath East, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta O'Callaghan as an obair dhian a rinne sé maidir leis an mBille seo, agus leis na daoine eile a thug comhairle dó.

I congratulate Deputy O'Callaghan on bringing forward the Bill. I expect it will be one of the first Bills to be passed by this Oireachtas. It will probably not be passed before the water charges legislation but it will possibly be passed soon after it. I look forward to it. It will be a significant achievement. There is much work to do between this and then. I am sure Deputy O'Callaghan is very much looking forward to Committee Stage of the Bill, as will other members of the justice committee. It will happen sooner rather than later, assuming Second Stage is passed to today.

Deputy O'Callaghan is doing something that was recommended a number of years ago by the Thornton Hall review group, which called for legislative proposals to be brought forward to establish the Parole Board on a statutory basis. It is important that the Parole Board be established on an independent, statutory basis and does not operate simply at the discretion of the Minister but does its job independently and well. We also think of the parole officers and staff around the country who do their work extremely well. We want to give them and the board independence. A body that can set free the most serious criminals must have its functions set down clearly and appropriately in legislation, which is not the case now. The legislation is extremely necessary and urgent.

When we think of parole, we make a connection with freedom or cutting sentences short. However, the Bill and the independence and statutory basis of the Parole Board is needed in order to give victims of crime reassurance. The Bill gives victims rights and supports that are necessary. It is not about the criminal but about having a proper criminal justice system that ensures people are punished appropriately and, while all rights under the Constitution are recognised, that the rights of victims are recognised in particular.

The Bill would create an obligation on the Parole Board to provide information that is accessible to victims and the general public about matters relating to people who are being released. These matters are often of great public controversy and little is known about how the system works. If there is legislation and a statutory footing, according to which the Parole Board must operate, rather than decisions being made by a Minister on an ad hocbasis, there will be more public confidence in the criminal justice system and how convicted criminals are dealt with subsequent to conviction.

Given the strength of the Opposition, the collective will of the House and the fact that the Government has supported the Bill, the numbers are such that legislation such as this is likely to be passed and become part of our statutory framework. I hope our friends in government and in the Executive branch understand the concept completely. The Bill will have to go before a committee within ten weeks. I am not sure how that will work vis-à-visany recess in August. It will be brought before the committee no later than September, or possibly earlier, given that the justice committee will have few items on its agenda when set up. It will have no backlog and this will be one of the first items on its agenda. It will require detailed analysis on Committee Stage. I would like it to have this careful analysis but for it to go through relatively quickly and return to the Dáil for Report Stage, which will not take too long, and then go to the Seanad where it will not take long. Then, it will be passed and we will have a new statutory body created by Opposition legislation. Some work will need to be done on this side preparing for Committee Stage and much work will need to be done by officials. I commend the officials who will have to do it and wish them well as they analyse the Bill. The Executive also has an important role in this. I commend Deputy O'Callaghan and look forward to the legislation being passed.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Parole Bill 2016 and commend Deputy O'Callaghan on bringing it forward. It is welcome legislation which is very practical and sensible and is not very controversial. It brings about a change which has been debated, discussed and sought for many years. It is very welcome and I am glad there is support across the House for it. It puts the Parole Board on a statutory footing, which is welcome given that it provides clarity and transparency. Citizens, those working in the legal system and the parole system and prisoners going through the system will know where they stand and how the system operates. It allows the Parole Board to be fully independent of political interference, which is welcome. The Bill clarifies the law in this area and helps us support a proper balance between the protection of the public, which is of key importance to every Member, and the upholding of the rights of prisoners who are sentenced.

The fact the Parole Board has not been on a statutory basis has meant the recommendations or advice of the board was just a recommendation or advice to the Minister who could do with it as he or she pleased.

I recognise that more than 80% of recommendations were accepted but this still vests a great deal of power in one individual and in the Cabinet which is never a good thing, particularly when dealing with issues of liberty that affect the lives of our citizens. The removal of that element of power is very much welcome. More fundamentally, people were uncomfortable that a member of the Cabinet was making decisions in respect of matters that were originally decided by the Judiciary. That trespasses on the separation of powers and the line was getting blurred in this regard, a view that was shared by many. The ad hocbasis on which parole is granted is an outdated way of operating an important aspect of our criminal justice system.

I very much welcome the victims of crime element of the legislation. That can never be lost because behind every person's sentence is a crime and those affected by it. The victims deserve to be heard and have their views taken on board by the Parole Board. It is vitally important in ensuring citizens that their rights will be vindicated, that justice will continue to be served and that their views will be listened to at all times.

I also welcome the recognition of the rehabilitation element of our justice system whereby we simply do not lock people up and throw away the key and we recognise that people can change with assistance and become proper functioning and contributing members of our society. Rehabilitation must play a role in our justice system, otherwise we will not have served the public's interest in the best way possible.

We had an informal system to deal with a serious matter, which is the problem people had with it. The release of prisoners who had committed serious crimes before the end of their sentences is a crucial issue and it should be dealt with on a statutory basis. That is why we have such good support for the Bill. Seeking to ensure transparency in the way the Parole Board operates is a welcome aspect of the legislation. It is our role as parliamentarians to identify areas in which there is not clarity and transparency in our justice system and to address them. While it may not be the pressing issue of the day and it is not interesting or exciting for people, our work is important in this regard. It is essential to clear up these matters. That is why this is practical legislation, which addresses changes that are necessary in this grey area.

It is good that a Fianna Fáil Bill will proceed to the next Stage and that it has gained cross party support. It demonstrates in this era of new politics, which we have discussed a great deal over the past number of months, that changes are happening and it is important for the public to see that we are making such changes in a positive and practical way that will have an impact outside the Chamber. As a new Deputy, I very much welcome the implementation of these changes. When I meet members of the public, I can point to changes, new politics and the positive changes we are making in this Chamber.

Question put and agreed to.