Tuesday, 5 December 2006
Prisons Bill 2006: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage.
I move amendment No. 41:
In page 26, line 33, after "law" to insert "or order of any court".
The Minister indicated he might be supportive of this amendment so we resubmitted it. The purpose of the amendment is to make it clear that the accused will also be present for the purposes of any court order in addition to being present for the purposes of any enactment or rule of law. For example, if a person gets bail in the High Court which remands him or her to appear before the Circuit Court which then allows for a video link, he or she should be deemed to be present for all purposes at that stage.
I move amendment No. 43:
In page 29, line 4, to delete "shall" and substitute "shall, subject to subsection (2),".
Amendment No. 43 is a technical one and dependent on acceptance of amendment No. 44. Amendment No. 44 gives the vital discretion to the governor of a prison to decide whether he or she wants to demand a payment for services described in the Bill. There could be a number of reasons he or she would not want to do so but the Bill currently requires governors to charge for services and appears to leave no room for movement in this area.
Amendment No. 45 is an important insertion which guarantees that none of the provisions under section 37 will be used to prevent access to medical treatment for prisoners. It may be argued by the Minister that such a subsection is unnecessary but it is an important safeguard of the rights of prisoners and I urge him to accept its insertion into the Bill.
While the Bill is clear that prisons may not profit from provisions of goods or services to inmates by stating in section 37 that payments or deductions shall not exceed the full cost of providing the goods or services, it is not clear that there could not be other methods of revenue generation. I table this amendment to make the position clear and to ensure there is no loophole in this section which would allow governors, prison wardens or other prison officials to take advantage of a situation.
I will first deal with amendment No. 44. This would insert a provision to the effect that nothing in the section could be used to deny a prisoner medical treatment prescribed by a medical practitioner. At present under the rules, prisoners are provided with access to health care services on a basis equivalent to those in the community covered by the medical card system. Section 37 would allow for prison rules to provide facilities where necessary for access to elective health care outside the public system. The prisoner will be responsible for the costs associated with such elective care. However, provision of health care under the public health system for all prisoners will continue to be funded by the State. Section 37 merely paves the way for another option.
All prisoners are entitled to medical card level medical services while in prison. This provides for something which would be elective health care over and above that level of care. This section is being included to enable it to happen and not to prohibit it. It makes it clear that, for instance, private medical treatment over and above what would be available to prisoners as of right would not be obstructed by some requirement that payment be made. That is what this is about. The last two lines of the section state that the payment is confined to the full cost of providing the goods or services in question.
If, for whatever reason, a prisoner decided he or she needed a treatment which was not normally available to prisoners, such as cosmetic surgery or some procedure generally not available to medical card holders, this would permit the governor to allow that to happen provided the charge did not exceed the cost of rendering the service to the prisoner. It cannot be a question of revenue generation if the payments or deductions cannot exceed the cost of providing the goods or services. By definition, it is netted out in the section.
I assure the Senator that there is no question of this being made into some kind of money spinner for the Prison Service. On the contrary, what is happening here gives prisoners an element of dignity. For example, if a prisoner was doing an Open University course and had to contact Hong Kong as part of it, that could be done. However, I will not state that every prisoner has the right at the expense of the State to telephone an academic in Hong Kong for a chat. I must have this kind of flexibility. It is only for the ease of prisoners; it is not to put them at a disadvantage.
I thank Members for their courtesy. I also thank the Leader for extending the time for the debate. This Bill has been substantially improved as a result of the careful consideration it has been given line by line. I am grateful to the House for the way it has dealt with the Bill.
I thank the Minister for accepting a number of amendments and for debating every line of the Bill. Some of the amendments put forward will improve the Bill. I also thank his officials for the expeditious manner in which they brought it forward and for their hard work.
The subject of prisons is always an area of concern. Now that Christmas is approaching I am sure the media will home in on the number of temporary releases that may be granted. I understand that because of overcrowding many temporary releases have been already granted in Cork to make way for other prisoners. Perhaps the Minister will return at a later date to let us know how many people are unlawfully at large having received temporary releases. This is a matter of concern to the general public.
The Bill will improve the lot of prisoners and the operation of the prison system. I am delighted the Minister came to an agreement with prison officers on transfers and other issues. I hope this will continue and that we will not have to privatise the system.
I join Senator Cummins in complimenting the Minister and his staff. This Bill introduces significant and substantive prison reform. The provision for inquiries into breaches of discipline is timely. The Minister is right to try to eradicate drugs from our prisons, but that may lead to discipline problems until the systems to deal with it are up and running.
The provisions of the Bill also demonstrate the Minister's propensity to be accountable. The Houses of the Oireachtas Commission is up and running and I welcome that we will now have a clear say with regard to the construction or extension of prisons. This is good and will help the democratic process.
I also welcome the initiation of inspectors and video links etc. The Bill provides for many improvements in the prison system. In many ways it illustrates the significant amount of work on the part of the Minister and those in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform that goes into reforming the Minister's wide remit. I thank him for bringing the Bill before the Seanad.
I thank the Minister and his officials for the manner in which they listened to the Second Stage and Committee Stage debates. I thank him also for the number of amendments he has accepted and for those amendments he substituted to deal with concerns expressed in amendments he did not accept. I thank him for the personal attention he gave to the Bill.