Friday, 27 June 2003
Adjournment Matters. - Prisons Service.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House and I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this issue.
I am raising this issue in the hope that the Minister of State will give the assurances necessary to the community in Ballinasloe that the Government has better plans than those that are currently the subject of rumour in Ballinasloe in respect of the possible expansion of the Prisons Service to a site in Ballinasloe. It has been rumoured that personnel from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform may have been in Ballinasloe to inspect or assess the suitability or otherwise of premises owned by the Western Health Board which are to be vacated soon.
I do not need to tell the Minister of State about the situation in Ballinasloe in the past five to six years. The Government has failed to respond to the needs of the area by way of job creation following the closure of the flagship industry in County Galway, A. T Cross, which was followed in the recent past by the loss of 385 jobs at Square D. Nothing has happened, despite the fact that a task force, in which the Minister of State was participated, was established four or five years ago. More recently, a co-ordinated group of all statutory agencies, under the guidance of the county manager, Donal O'Donoghue, endeavoured to re-establish the positive environment in Ballinasloe for the setting up of a new worthwhile industry. Unfortunately, nothing has yet happened as a result of that effort, but it is hoped the position will change. During her last visit, the Tánaiste gave an assurance that the area would become a priority.
Time has now passed, the gates have closed at Square D, just as they did at A. T. Cross. It is difficult to envisage the arrival of a major industrial project to replace these industries in the near future. That is a tragedy for families and the economic environment in Ballinasloe. Ballinasloe has recently come under threat as a result of what might be contained in the Hanly report by way of the downgrading of Portiuncula Hospital. Regardless of our direction in the future, there is a threat which is too much to take for Ballinasloe.
The Tánaiste gave another undertaking that there would be no downgrading in Ballinasloe. A commitment was given that there would be decentralisation to the town. This would be fine if the promises came to fruition and were not just remarks made to people who were literally on their knees in search of hope. We all have hope and it would be wrong to indicate that there is no hope for the town and surrounding areas in regard to future development.
I call on the Minister of State to indicate that Ballinasloe will become a focus for investment again if the Government and the Ministers responsible take the initiative to make one very important decision, namely, to designate the town and its hinterland for tax incentives in the future. Some years ago, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, designated the upper Shannon region and the response has been very positive. It turned around a very gloomy situation. The Minister of State will be aware that Ballinasloe is now in a gloomy situation and, therefore, I ask him to give a commitment to the people of the town that tax incentives will be put in place so that investment can return to the area. The environment is right in every sense and the people will be supportive.
It will be detrimental to the area if the only response from the Government is to expand the Prisons Service in Ballinasloe. I do not say that in a derogatory way. I say it on the basis that if that is the best than can be done for Ballinasloe in the current crisis, a crisis which has been ongoing for five years and which culminated in the closure of Square D, it is time the Minister of State physically put the boot in and demanded a response for the people of the area. They were neglected with regard to the spatial strategy. It would have been ideal to incorporate the town with Athlone, which is just 15 or 16 miles away, but it was turned down.
I implore the Minister of State, who has represented the constituency for many years, to relay the message to the Minister for Finance that, first, the people in this middle Shannon region want designation and, second, that they will not accept an expansion of the Prisons Service in Ballinasloe.
The position is that under the provisions of the Children Act 2001, the Minister is obliged to provide separate detention facilities for 16 and 17 year old males and females who are committed to custody by the courts either on remand or under sentence. These secure detention centres, called children detention centres, will operate under their own unique regime which will cater specifically for the needs of juvenile offenders.
The provision of these facilities has been identified as a priority by the Irish Prisons Service. As the House is probably aware, the Minister recently announced that he had accepted the recommendation of the Commissioners of Public Works that a proposed Prisons Service development at Newlands Villa, Clondalkin, including the construction of a children detention centre, should not now proceed. The site had initially been identified following public advertisements. On foot of these advertisements, submissions regarding 25 properties were received by the Prison Service. In addition to the above properties, another 15 or so sites in State ownership, including all existing prison properties, were considered.
In reaching this decision, the Minister also gave careful consideration to the representations of local elected representatives and residents, as well as the detailed objections received from South Dublin County Council. Following the decision of the Minister not to proceed with the development of this site to provide custodial accommodation for persons in this age category, the Office of Public Works has, on behalf of the Irish Prison Service, made preliminary approaches to a number of public bodies, including the Western Health Board, to identify properties in public ownership which are surplus to requirements and which might enable the service to meet its obligations under the Children Act 2001.
This process is ongoing. There is no decision to instigate more detailed inquiries regarding any particular site pending the completion of preliminary inquiries with all the public bodies concerned and an assessment of the potential of whatever properties may be available for transfer to the Prison Service.
It is too soon at this stage to indicate when this process will be completed other than to say that, given the extent of the inquiries being made, and the considerations involved as to the suitability of any properties identified, a decision in the matter is not imminent. All possible options remain under consideration in the broader context of the implementation of the Children Act 2001, and all relevant factors will be fully taken into consideration in identifying the best way forward.
I understand this matter became public knowledge when there was a statement by the Minister that he was not proceeding in Clondalkin, and I understand that approaches were made officially to his Department offering certain properties in the Western Health Board area for consideration. I note that Senator Ulick Burke is a member of the board. If there is to be any decision whatever on this issue, it will be a matter for the board to ratify the de-designation or the transfer of title from the board to a State agency or other organisation. I am sure that if this proposal ever came before him and his colleagues, it would get the proper consideration.
Ballinasloe is a priority for investment and the Government and all State agencies are giving it detailed consideration on an ongoing basis. It is not true that we have not delivered jobs there in the recent past. We have delivered a major new 40 acre business park and are planning a major new road network. We have an international French company on that business park and we are proceeding with further developments on the park to attract more investment.
The Senator can be assured that as long as I continue to represent Ballinasloe and east Galway, I will give it every possible support to ensure that we get the proper investment there. Changes and big decisions will have to be made. I am sure I will have the full support of Senator Ulick Burke to ensure that decisions, which will include opportunity for investment and job creation in the town, will get the full support of all public representatives when that opportunity presents itself in the medium and longer term.