The Minister is always welcome to the House. I warmly welcome the introduction of the Children (Amendment) Bill 2015 and thank the Minister for introducing it in the Seanad.
Senator Leydon raised the possibility of arranging a visit to the site of the children detention centre. The Minister issued an invitation to members of the Joint Committee on Health and Children to visit the centre and we expect to make arrangements to do so in the coming weeks. To be collegial, I suggest the Senator discuss with his party colleagues on the committee the possibility of allowing him to take part in the visit on their behalf.
A significant achievement by the Government in the promotion and protection of children’s rights has been the near complete closure of St. Patrick’s Institution, which has been the subject of serious criticism over the decades for detaining children in the adult prison system. For this reason, I look forward to the publication of the prisons Bill, which will facilitate the complete closure of St. Patrick’s Institution.
Before discussing the Bill in detail, I affirm my firm belief and commitment, as a legislator, to the internationally and domestically recognised principle of detention as a last resort for children, both committed and detained on remand. Detention as a last resort is fundamentally important to the welfare and well-being of children who have come into conflict with the law. I continue to be concerned about the numbers of children detained on remand who do not go on to be sentenced to a period of detention. This raises concerns that detention is being resorted to inappropriately – as a form of detention for assessment – in the case of children who have care or protection concerns. Children must not be criminalised as a result of inadequate care and mental health service provision elsewhere. While I have raised these concerns on a number of occasions with the Minister for Justice and Equality, I restate them in this debate.
The Bill facilitates the amalgamation of the three detention schools on the Oberstown site into one legal entity. The practical effects of this change will be the creation of a single management team, payroll, staff rota, etc. Crucially, with regard to governance, it will lead to integrated practices, operational consistency, coherence of model and the appointment of one director. The proposed amalgamation is critical to the success of Oberstown.
I am concerned as to whether the disciplinary system in Oberstown will be appropriate to the age of children committed and remanded to the facility. To express this in another way, will the facility be child friendly? Will the disciplinary system be distinct from the system in operation in the adult prison model and will it reflect the welfare and care relationship model?
The Minister kindly organised a briefing for Members yesterday, which was attended by my researcher, Ms Amy McArdle. Assurances were given that, in keeping with the child care model of detention, good order rules would be used to avoid disciplinary measures. Will the Minister elaborate on what is meant by the term “good order rules”? Perhaps these are rules modelled on best practice in juvenile detention in another jurisdiction. Is that the case? I would like to understand what exactly this phrase means and what is its basis?
I note in section 5 that provision has been made for part or all of the children detention school to be designated as a remand centre. I intend to consider this issue in more detail before Committee Stage. While I appreciate the intention to keep children detained on remand separate from children committed to detention to the greatest extent possible and where it is in the best interests of the child, I am concerned that we are starting from a point of non-compliance with our international human rights obligations, for example, in respect of Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Ireland currently has a reservation. The Minister will recall the concluding observation of the human rights committee last July that Ireland should establish a concrete timeline for the achievement of complete separation of remand and sentenced prisoners, juvenile and adult prisoners and detained immigrants and sentenced prisoners.
Finally, I call on the Minister to discuss with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, the issue of 18 to 20 year old males sentenced to detention who are now accommodated in a separate dedicated unit in Wheatfield. I wonder if, in keeping with the latest recommendation of the Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, all agencies that comprise the criminal justice system should recognise the 18-24 age group as one with distinct and specific needs, with the cut-off age for accommodation in the separate dedicated unit extended to 24 years. The IPRT recommendation follows extensive research.
The IPRT report, Turnaround Youth: Young Adults (18-24) in the Criminal Justice System, published earlier this week, makes a compelling case for a distinct approach to this age cohort which, although it is disproportionately represented in the prison population, making up 9% of the overall population and 24% of the prison population, is also the age of opportunity with peak capacity to change. I recommend that the Minister reads this report and brings it to the attention of his Cabinet colleagues, given his remit regarding children and young people.
On the issue of spent convictions, my understanding is that the spent convictions Bill will already expunge the records for those under 18. Perhaps the Minister can advise me. I warmly welcome the Bill and will do all in my power to support and strengthen it to ensure that it is what we all envisage. It is very exciting and long overdue.