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Department of Justice criticised for 'failing' to tackle TB outbreak concerns in prisons

The Department of Justice has been criticised for "failing" to fully tackle tuberculosis outbreak concerns in prisons until eight years after the issue emerged.

Dáil public accounts committee chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming made the claim at the latest meeting of the group this morning, saying the delay has put public money and prisoner health at risk.

As revealed in Thursday's Irish Examiner, the State Claims Agency has warned the State will have to pay the bulk of €5m in compensation to almost 100 prison officers and prisoners infected by tuberculosis after a major outbreak at an Irish prison.

In a letter to the PAC, SCA director Ciaran Breen said there has been a significant financial cost to the taxpayer due to a major TB outbreak at Cloverhill prison at the start of the decade.

Mr Breen said 99 prison officers, prisoners and ex-prisoners have been infected, with the State and insurers facing a total €5m compensation bill to people hospitalised.

"As of May 8, 99 claims have been received from current and former prisoners and prison officers alleging testing positive for and/or contracting TB arising from the Cloverhill prison outbreak," the letter read.

Of these, 71 claims have been settled or discontinued while 28 are ongoing. To date, a total of €2.3m has been paid in settlements and costs in respect of all these claims, while there is a further estimated outstanding liability of €2.7m.

"The SCA has reached an apportionment agreement with a medical defence organisation under which that organisation has agreed to contribute 60% of the plaintiffs' settlements and costs in the majority of cases.

"The figures set out above are, as you will appreciate, commercially sensitive and I would request that the committee does not publish the information," Mr Breen wrote, adding no confidentiality deals exist with those affected.

Raising the matter this morning, Mr Fleming said it is "worrying it took eight years for them [the Department of Justice] to have a TB prevention programme in place in prisons".

That to me shows there was no learning at all going on in the intervening period. Eight years after the event they are now implementing a policy. That is utterly unacceptable.

Social Democrats TD and PAC member Catherine Murphy agreed, saying while "prisons are a unique environment, quite a few people have gone to court or have been hospitalised" as a result of the outbreak.

Similarly, unaligned Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the response has "left a lot to be desired".

The Cloverhill prison outbreak has been a source of considerable concern since it emerged at the start of the decade.

TB - a potentially fatal lung disease - has been largely eradicated in Ireland, with cases dropping from 7,000 a year in the 1950s to the low 300s today.

However, the Cloverhill outbreak gave rise to prison safety and health concerns.