Tuesday, 9 April 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
UN Conventions Ratification
I raise the optional protocol to the convention against torture, OPCAT, a very important international treaty that governs Ireland's obligations to protect its citizens from all forms of torture and ill treatment. Ireland signed OPCAT in 2007 but 12 years later, we have yet to ratify it, meaning that we are not bound to comply with its requirements. When does Ireland plan to ratify this instrument? In response to a parliamentary question tabled by Deputy Clare Daly last week, the Department of Justice and Equality indicated that primary legislation will be required and that it will circulate a draft scheme to stakeholders before making a formal proposal to the Government this year. The Government held a similar position, however, on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In that case, it indicated that primary legislation would be required, but then decided to ratify it before the required legislative changes were enacted and progressed them after formal ratification. Has the Minister of State considered whether this would also be an option in the case of OPCAT? If the Department remains of the view that primary legislation is required, will the Minister of State provide more information on the status of the process? Does the Department hope to bring the proposal to Cabinet before the summer recess?Will legislation be introduced in the Oireachtas in autumn? As the Minister of State knows, groups working in the area are concerned at the pace at which the proposals are being advanced. Therefore, as much detail as the Minister of State can provide would be appreciated.
As the Minister of State also knows, the key and most crucial part of the convention is the optional protocol which requires states parties to set up, designate or maintain at the domestic level one or several visiting bodies for the prevention of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. These are known as national preventative mechanisms. States are required to provide those national preventative mechanisms with unfettered access to all places where persons are deprived of their liberty. In light of the history in Ireland of unlawful detention and institutional abuse, including in the Magdalen laundries, we need to get the inspections process right. Independent and regular inspections of institutions and care settings shine a light on otherwise hidden or closed spaces. The nature of such spaces is a common thread in abuse. We must also broaden our understanding of the deprivation of liberty beyond traditional detention settings like prisons and consider health and social care settings, immigration detention centres, direct provision centres, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes.
The current system is in need of reform. By ratifying OPCAT, we can introduce new inspection regimes and improve, reform and consolidate the existing ones. I understand the Government is considering appointing a single body to conduct inspections in all deprivation-of-liberty settings. Potentially, this may be the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention. I ask the Government to consider alternatives to this option. We need sector-by-sector mechanisms whereby those with experience and expertise conduct inspections within their own sectors. For example, HIQA has expertise on health and social settings as the Ombudsman for Children has with child-related settings. We need experts overseeing their own sectors to achieve real and effective oversight. These individual sectoral mechanisms could then be co-ordinated by a single body, with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission being the obvious choice. I am happy to work with the Minister on any of these proposals. They are all practical and would see OPCAT implemented in Ireland to the highest possible standard. I look forward to the reply.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, who sends his regrets, I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter in the House. We acknowledge also Senator Ruane's dedicated interest in this area and in respect of penal reform and detention generally. It is an important issue which I hope she will continue to raise.
As the Senator said, Ireland signed the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, or OPCAT, in 2007 but has yet to ratify the instrument. The protocol is additional to the convention, which Ireland signed and ratified a number of years ago. The Government is committed to the convention and has participated fully in everything its ratification entails. The additional protocol is preventative in nature and provides for the establishment of national preventative mechanisms for the inspection of facilities where persons are held involuntarily. While the Department of Justice and Equality has been tasked with progressing legislation to ratify the protocol, the instrument impacts on a number of sectors, including health, defence, children and youth affairs. The Department has, therefore, consulted key stakeholders in 2018. These stakeholders comprise those organisations with policy or operational responsibilities in respect of inspection arrangements across the ambit of the national preventative mechanism regime provided for in OPCAT. As I stated, that goes beyond the justice sector. In addition, stakeholders consulted include advisory and advocacy organisations with expertise in this area. As part of this process, the Department has sought the views of stakeholders on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's 2017 research on the implementation of OPCAT in Ireland. This welcome research led to the publication of a comprehensive report on the primary considerations for the State in making progress towards ratification and implementation of the protocol.
The last submission in the consultation process was received in April 2018. Since then, officials have met a number of stakeholders, including the Inspector of Prisons and Places of Detention who was appointed last year. It is intended that the inspector and her office will have increased resources to carry out OPCAT-type inspections in the justice sector. Late last year, the Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties held a round-table discussion on the implementation of the protocol. Given the feedback at this discussion, it was decided that further consideration should be given to what organisation should carry out a co-ordinating role for national preventative mechanisms, including the option of appointing the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which Senator Ruane also suggests. The Department is finalising the draft scheme of an inspection of places of detention Bill to provide for the ratification of OPCAT. It is intended to provide in the Bill for a network of national preventative mechanisms in relevant sectors. The Bill is intended also to provide for a co-ordinating mechanism to assist the sectoral bodies and liaise with relevant stakeholders on the implementation of the protocol.In finalising the draft scheme, every consideration will be given to the proposals which were conveyed during the consultation process, including which organisation should co-ordinate the national preventive mechanisms, NPMs. The Minister intends to circulate this scheme to stakeholders for their comments as soon as possible. In doing so, the Department of Justice and Equality will look for other relevant Departments to consult all relevant stakeholders in their sectors. Similarly, in due course, it will be a matter for each Minister to appoint one or more sectorial NPMs. Following these further consultations, it is intended to finalise the scheme for submission to the Government for approval and transmission to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting this year.
That sounds positive and is in line with what we have suggested to the Department. I have been working with other bodies on this. I am happy to support and work towards the goals the Minister of State set out for legislative provisions and draft schemes.
I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to bring the House up to date on this matter. I also thank her for stating she would be willing to assist with this process. That is a welcome suggestion.
The Government is committed to ratifying OPCAT. However, it is not straightforward. It involves not only the justice sector but other sectors too. The Department of Justice and Equality is in the process of finalising a draft scheme which will be circulated to stakeholders for comments. The Department will look for other relevant Departments to consult all relevant stakeholders in their sectors. Similarly, it will be a matter for each Minister to appoint one or more sectorial NPMs.
The intention is to build upon existing inspection structures, expertise and experience. The Department is working intensely with the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission in finalising the scheme and co-ordinating the NPMs. Their comments and those of other stakeholders will be taken into account before it is finalised for submission to the Government for approval and transmission to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel for formal drafting. It is intended to have it done this year. Every effort will be made to progress this matter as quickly as possible.