Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentleman,
I am very pleased to be here today to launch the 2006 Annual Report of the Parole Board. This is the fifth annual report of the Board following its establishment in 2001 and I would like to thank Dr. Gordon Holmes and the Board for their continued important work in this area.
The Parole Board’s principal function is to advise me in relation to the future management of those prisoners who are serving sentences of imprisonment greater than eight years. The Report outlines that the Board made recommendations to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform in a total of 73 cases during 2006, a figure substantially up on the previous year. The overwhelming majority of these recommendations, almost 90%, were accepted in full.
The Report also notes that the largest single category of prisoners coming up for review are those serving life sentences for murder. The Chairman alludes in his Foreword to calls to remove the power of granting temporary release to such prisoners from the Executive. As you will be aware a number of cases by life sentenced prisoners are currently before the courts. For that reason it would not be appropriate for me today to make public comment on the issues raised in the individual cases. However, what I would say – and say very clearly - is that my strong view is that the Executive must retain the unfettered right to make the final decisions in such cases and I as Minister will exercise that right in a fair and impartial manner having regard to all the factors, including the view of the Parole Board. Previous judgements in the Irish Courts have found that the management of prison sentences is a matter for the Executive and the State is vigorously upholding this view in the current litigation. I will say no more on the issue at this time.
It goes without saying that any parole system has to balance humanity, justice and the public interest. Key issues of consideration in deciding whether to grant early release to any prisoner, particularly those serving long sentences, include the risk of re-offending and the safety of the general public. I know that the expertise which the members of the Board, led by Dr. Holmes, bring to the discussions in this office seek to balance these competing concerns. The advisory function which is exercised diligently by the Board is a very important part of the process.
Looking in the longer term to the whole area of prisoner rehabilitation I am of the view that we need to redouble our efforts in order to assist prisoners to return to society with the best chance of leading law abiding and self supporting lives after release. That is why the new Programme for Government places renewed emphasis on this area – we must do more and we will. The Programme sets out a number of commitments in relation to the prison system, with a particular emphasis on the rehabilitation of prisoners. I will be vigorously pursuing the implementation of the commitments. Prison is an expensive option and we must do all we can in a planned and targeted way to ensure that we work with prisoners to assist them upon release. I will be pursuing this with the Director General of the Irish Prison Service and my Department.
The co-operation and support of a number of key agencies is vital to the work of the Board. It would be remiss of me today not to acknowledge that support. I know the Chairman and the Board concur with me in acknowledging the expertise and support provided especially by the Irish Prison Service, local prison management, the Probation and Psychology Services, An Garda Síochána, and other services involved with prisoners.
I have read with interest your detailed Foreword Chairman, and I note the personal views you express on a number of issues. In particular, you mention your concerns in relation to the gaps in the Victim Support Movement. I too share that concern. That is why the Programme for Government also has a number of commitments in relation to victim support, including the establishment of a statutory Victims Support Agency and a Victim’s Council to formulate victim policy.
On my appointment I was anxious to move immediately with the commitment to support victims in a tangible way. To that end I have asked my Department to look urgently at what is the best and quickest way to get a Victims Support Agency up and running effectively. This Agency, which in due course will be underpinned by legislation, will be fully resourced and staffed and its core mandate will be to champion the rights of victims of crime. I will be making an announcement in this regard in the not too distant future.
I am very conscious that as I launch your Annual Report a very well respected member of the Parole Board – Martin Tansey – passed away last March. Martin was admired and respected not just within the criminal justice system but far beyond. His vast experience in offender rehabilitation - having headed up the Probation and Welfare Service for close to 30 years until his retirement in 2002 – and his deep psychological insights were hugely valued as a member of this Board (and its precursor body, the Sentence Review Board). I understand that he performed his duties as an influential member of the Board right to the end of his life. We remember him today as we recall his immense contribution not just to the work of this Board but to many others as well.
Finally, I want to thank the staff of the Board. You provide an efficient and effective secretariat to the Parole Board. I wish the Board well in its continued deliberations. Your contribution is much appreciated and I look forward to working with you during the coming years.
27 June 2007