Tuesday, 7 June 2011
Spent Convictions Bill 2011: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am happy to introduce the Second Stage debate on the Spent Convictions Bill 2011. The Bill is aimed at addressing a significant gap in our present arrangements. It takes account of an insightful report in 2007 from the Law Reform Commission on spent convictions. It is a replica of the Bill prepared by former Deputy Barry Andrews in the last Dáil, which reached Second Stage in the last Dáil and I wish to acknowledge his significant input.
I am sharing time with Deputies Dooley and Browne.
In producing its proposals for reform, the Law Reform Commission undertook a wide-ranging examination of the issues involved in this area, including a review of spent conviction arrangements in other jurisdictions. At present, the only mechanism available in this jurisdiction for the non-disclosure of previous convictions is that provided in section 258 of the Children Act 2001. That section provides for non-disclosure after a period of three years has elapsed in the case of certain convictions for offences committed before turning 18. Offences triable by the Central Criminal Court are excluded. In addition, the section can be availed of only if the person has not been dealt with for an offence in the previous three years. This Bill provides Members, therefore, with the means to put in place a structured system for not disclosing convictions. It is not a charter to avoid the consequences of a crime and I have been careful to include exclusions in the Bill in order to avoid such an unintended consequence.
All Members will agree that in general, people should be allowed to move on with their lives after completing a term of imprisonment or the payment of a fine. In the eyes of many in society, this is equally as legitimate an aspiration as the pursuit of the crime and the paying for its consequences in the first place. Unfortunately, however, practical and vocational experience demonstrates that the possibility of securing employment is greatly reduced once a prospective employer becomes aware of the existence of a criminal record and in the absence of any general statutory non-disclosure arrangement, the prospective employee often is obliged, when asked, to reveal the information recorded on Garda criminal records. The effect of the current position is that a person who was over 18 when an offence was committed must carry with him or her the consequences of even a minor offence long after the debt to society has been repaid. This Bill provides people who have a conviction for a minor offence the opportunity of not disclosing that conviction when seeking employment. It recognises that the most effective means of rehabilitation is through gainful employment.
Employment restores a person's self-esteem, enhances his or her status among family, friends and the wider community and, as has been shown many times, reduces considerably the likelihood of reoffending. Securing employment is a highly effective way of achieving the reintegration of convicted people into society. This Bill, however, also takes account of the wider interests of society and in particular the protection of vulnerable persons. It contains several limitations and exclusions in which disclosure will always be required, the most notable relating to employment in which there is access to children. This Bill does not seek to excuse crime in any way. If one does the crime, one will still do the time under this Bill's provisions. Moreover, it should not be seen as a sop and as a party, Fianna Fáil will continue to advocate, with I am sure the agreement of the House, that the full force of the law be applied to all those who are convicted of any offence.
I wish to cover some of the provisions of the Bill. The effect of a conviction being regarded as "spent" is set out in section 4. Where a conviction is "spent", the person will be treated as a person who has not committed, been charged with, prosecuted for, convicted of or sentenced for the offence in question. The Bill does not entail any deletion of criminal records held by the Garda Síochána. The record will continue to exist and the Bill will merely specify circumstances in which the details of that record are or are not to be disclosed. The Bill will apply only in cases in which a sentence of imprisonment not exceeding six months or a fine or other penalty has been imposed.
The Law Reform Commission report on spent convictions of 2007 gave detailed consideration to the sentence threshold and concluded, based on Irish sentencing policy and practice, that a six-month threshold was appropriate in our circumstances. The possibility of non-disclosure will arise only after seven years have passed without a further conviction when a sentence of imprisonment had been imposed or after five years in other cases. The Law Reform Commission's report also examined this issue carefully and recommended the periods now proposed. Moreover, it noted that a conviction-free period of ten years is required in New Zealand.
As I noted previously, this Bill is not a sop to crime and it sets out a number of exclusions in respect both of offences and certain employments. In the case of offences, convictions for sexual offences must always be disclosed. Similarly, convictions for offences reserved for trial by the Central Criminal Court must always be disclosed. These offences include rape and serious sexual assaults, as well as murder. As for excluded employments, the Bill provides it always should be necessary to declare convictions when seeking employment in specified areas of employment and section 5(2) of the Bill contains a wide-ranging list of such areas, which include employment in An Garda Síochána, the Civil Service and areas dealing with children. Apart from excluded employments, the Bill requires the disclosure of all convictions in certain other specified instances. For example, section 3 of the Bill outlines that a person convicted of fraud, deceit or an offence of dishonesty in respect of an insurance claim shall not be excused by the provisions of the Bill from admitting any such conviction on an insurance proposal or form. The Bill also outlines how previous convictions are to be disclosed at the sentencing stage in criminal proceedings. There are other circumstances in which disclosure may be required, including court proceedings relating to adoption and guardianship of children, as well as cases in which a court considers disclosure to be necessary to ensure justice is done.
The Bill proposes that the entitlement not to disclose a conviction should be automatic once the conditions relating to excluded offences and employments, the sentence thresholds and the conviction-free period have been observed. The case for such an approach has been well argued by the Law Reform Commission and is reflected in the Bill. Automatic application of the arrangements is preferable to other approaches that are more demanding of time and resources. An application system and in particular one that would entail applications to a court, also would present a real risk of drawing attention all over again to a conviction the person had hoped was behind him or her, thereby defeating the purpose of the Bill. The automatic system now proposed avoids such shortcomings and such a system also could be considered in other legislation. The Bill does not provide for any sanction from non-compliance. In general, such a sanction lies in the consequences of being found out, which may, for example, result in the loss of employment.
I look forward to the Minister's response and to the debate in general over the next two evenings. Since the Bill's publication some weeks ago, a current difficulty faced by young people on foot of not having spent conviction arrangements in this jurisdiction has been brought to my attention by colleagues in the House and elsewhere. I refer to those who are applying for employment in other jurisdictions and in Australia in particular. Because of our inability in this jurisdiction to deal with spent convictions, those applying for employment in other jurisdictions, particularly in Australia, are forced to reveal in their visa applications the most minor of offences, thereby excluding them from employment in many jurisdictions. As a consequence of our current economic situation, many of them are forced to look abroad for work and because of our inability to deal with such a minor matter, that employment option is being closed off to them.
This Bill is not perfect by any means. I hope improvements will be recommended and suggestions made during the course of the debate tonight and tomorrow night so that when this Bill is brought to Committee Stage - which I hope will be sooner rather than later - we can deal with any weaknesses identified in the debate on a cross-party basis.
Given the commitment in the programme for Government and that the Minister, in response to a recent parliamentary question from Deputy John McGuinness, has indicated his proposal for a spent convictions Bill, it is unnecessary to divide the House at this stage as this Bill could be regarded as a priority for the incoming justice committee.
Deputy Andrews's Bill was side-tracked in the previous Dáil so it is incumbent on us in the early days of this Dáil to deal with this matter and to address it before the summer recess. I look forward to the debate and I am open to suggestions and recommendations on the Bill. I look forward to the Minister's response.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this Bill and I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Calleary, for re-initiating the Bill and for the work he has undertaken to ensure it is being debated on the floor of the House so early in this term.
The issue under discussion was raised by the previous Government in 2007 and a Bill was initiated and published at that time. It was referred to Committee on 18 December 2008. However, it has sat there since that time. All sides of the House allowed such important legislation to remain static and this is to be regretted.
Dáil reform has been a subject of discussion inside and outside the House. The Chief Whip has indicated publically that we will do our business differently, with more sitting days and Friday sittings and longer Dáil sessions. However, if Bills such as this are left to one side, we will show that Dáil reform is not what it has been made out to be. I would prefer to see a work programme being published by the Chief Whip rather than feeding this frenzy that there is a demand for more and longer sittings rather than addressing the substantive issue which is the programme of work of the House. The Chief Whip has outlined a reform of the committee structure which will involve fewer committees with different policy committees being condensed into one committee. This is a recipe for disaster and for even more Bills to be left aside which will ultimately lead to the next Dáil having to deal with Bills parked by this Dáil. I acknowledge this is not the Minister's intention and he has a reforming zeal. I hope the committee structure will have the capacity to deal with the legislation emanating from Departments. I urge the Minister to examine the proposed committee structure as it might not be adequate to meet the demands of this House.
My colleague, Deputy Calleary, has set out the details of the Bill. It provides that those who have committed minor offences will not be required to disclose those minor offences at a later stage, particularly in cases where people seek employment. We all know of instances in people's lives where they have found themselves on the wrong side of the law in a minor matter or perhaps in a more serious matter but which may be the only incident, the only black mark on an otherwise good character. It has been a source of much annoyance and frustration for many of those individuals and their families when this means they are not accepted in society or more particularly, they are prevented from taking up employment as a result of fear or prejudice in the mind of an employer. This is particularly of concern at this time of high unemployment and any little blemish on a person's record could be enough to make him or her unacceptable for employment.
I refer to the high number of examples of people who have had minor brushes with the law and find themselves excluded completely from then on. The cycle of unemployment must be broken. Statistics show that long term unemployment in a household can breed and propagate itself to the next generation. This Bill has the capacity to do something to repair that potential onward damage.
The Department of Justice and Equality has a tendency to be somewhat conservative in nature. However, in the past it has shown capacity to deal with similar issues. I refer to the programmes for restorative justice in Nenagh and Tallaght, administered by the probation and welfare service of the Department and in co-operation with local communities. This is a rehabilitation process for young offenders in which the individual offender is given the opportunity to face up to the harm he or she has caused and a chance to make good the damage. The victim is regarded as being at the centre of this process. I have seen the programme for restorative justice at work and I know it has been very helpful in assisting young people to get back on track by showing them the error of their ways and the impact of their offences on the community and on individuals and it has allowed for character development.
The Bill takes into consideration the impact on the wider community and the need for the protection of vulnerable persons in the context of the crimes of rape and murder in particular and other offences against children and minors and other vulnerable members of society. The protection of society and of vulnerable members of society must be juxtapositioned with the need for people to get on with their lives. As I said at the outset, it is vitally important that we give people an opportunity to get back into employment and ensure they have the capacity to live their own lives and manage their families in a way that one would want to see happen.
I welcome the chance to say a few words on the Spent Convictions Bill 2011. As has been stated, a number of years ago the former Deputy Barry Andrews introduced the Bill to the House and unfortunately the Government of the time did not proceed along the lines we expected. The Bill got lost or was put on the shelf somewhere along the way. It was introduced today by our spokesperson Deputy Calleary. It is a welcome Bill which gives us an opportunity to outline the reasons why we feel it should be given the priority it deserves.
All of us have come across cases where young people in their college days or during their exuberance at discos or on the street have a few jars and are fined or end up in court having been charged with a minor offence. They end up having the offence on their file for as long as it has to remain there. We have all heard of instances where people applied for jobs but once they disclose minor offences they find it very difficult to secure them.
All the Deputies on this side of the House have made cases for such people to employers and have asked them to take them on and give them a chance because it was only a minor offence, a number of years may have elapsed since the offence and the person had re-engaged with society and had no problems whatsoever. Many of the people concerned come from very decent families, but because they have a record they find it very difficult to secure a job.
I am aware of instances where people went to America or Australia. Recently a young man from my home town managed to pass through the US system in Dublin but when he arrived in JFK Airport he got no further. He was held by the police and his mother rang me to find out what was going on. I rang the airport and eventually got through to the people who were holding the young man. I was informed that he committed a felony back home. The young man could not understand why he had been arrested and would be deported back to Ireland. It turned out that he had been given the Probation Act for a minor row he was involved in during his college days in Waterford some ten or 12 years previously. He was sent back home but his girlfriend was allowed to remain in America. He will not be allowed back into the United States. It is more difficult to get into Australia for those who have committed minor offences.
This Bill provides a person with a conviction for a minor offence the opportunity of not disclosing the conviction when seeking employment. It also recognises, as Deputy Calleary said, that the most effective means of rehabilitation is through gainful employment. During the debate on the Social Welfare and Pensions Bill the Minister and all Deputies referred to the importance of getting back into the work environment and ethic and how it can restore people's self-esteem and enhance their status amongst family, friends and the wider community. It has been shown many times to reduce considerably the likelihood of people reoffending.
Securing employment is a very effective way of achieving the reintegration of convicted persons into society and as Deputies have said the Bill also takes into account the wider interests of society, especially the protection of honourable persons. Of course it is important to have limitations and exclusions and the most notable relates to employment where there is access to children. It is very important that Garda clearance would continue to be dealt with regardless of what Bill is passed.
The system of Garda clearance is very slow and is a major difficulty in this country. I and other Deputies have come across cases, in particular in the child care area where there are a lot of job opportunities, where it takes months to get Garda clearance. People are being denied the right to work in this area because of the slowness of the system. I argued with Fianna Fáil Ministers that it would be better to bring the system of Garda clearance back to each county or district division. A person might apply for Garda clearance in Tipperary, return to a garda at local level who has to do a report, which is only right, and he or she then has to send the report back to Tipperary. The report then has to be sent to the person involved. It would be far easier if the person seeking clearance in Castlebar or Wexford could go to his or her local Garda station where the gardaí would know him or her and get the clearance more quickly. The Minister is aware of the situation as he comes from the legal profession. He knows it is important that we make Garda clearance certificates available as quickly as possible to enable people to enter the work environment.
This Bill addresses a significant gap in our current arrangements. We currently have no means of regarding a conviction as spent, apart from the limited regime for non-disclosure available to minors under section 258 of Children's Act 2001. Therefore, the Bill provides us with the means to put a structured system in place for not disclosing convictions. In general, people should be allowed to move on with their lives after completing their term of imprisonment or the payment of a fine. It is an important line in the Bill. Unfortunately, experience has demonstrated that the possibility of securing employment is greatly reduced once an employer becomes aware of the existence of a criminal record or in the absence of any general statutory non-disclosure.
The effect of the current situation is that a person who was over 18 years of age when an offence was committed must carry with him or her the consequences of even a minor offence long after the debt to society has been repaid. This situation offends our view of what is proportionate, fair and reasonable. It is important that we examine this Bill in a magnanimous way.
The previous Government did not take on boards the views of Barry Andrews. There may have been drafting difficulties or whatever but the bones of the Bill from Barry Andrews's time and in its current form from Deputy Calleary is available for the Minister to take on board. I ask him to consider it as favourably as possible and accept that there is a need for it to be introduced.
I am sure the Minister, given that he comes from the legal profession, is aware of the points we are making. I am sure he is also aware of the need to change the legislation as quickly as possible. Therefore, I ask him to accept the Bill in the best interests of the people we are discussing. There is no other reason for us to debate it. Deputy Calleary spelled out very clearly the reasons for the Bill coming before the House and I ask the Minister to take them on board.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Spent Convictions Bill 2011. I am pleased that my party, in its new found role in Opposition, is producing constructive legislation.
Private Members' time is traditionally used to attack the Government on the basis of the most recent story in the national media or the latest protest outside the House. While it is important that the business of the House reflects the issues of the day and the views and difficulties of our citizens, a mature parliament such as the Oireachtas should have greater scope to debate Opposition legislation. It is pity Opposition parties must use the 90 minutes available to them on the Tuesday and Wednesday evening of every third week to introduce legislation. It would be preferable if the Government were to provide additional time to deal with legislation tabled by the Opposition. As part of proposals to reform the Dáil, time should be provided each week to allow Opposition parties to introduce Bills.
Private Members' time tends to become repetitive as it invariably features a motion condemning the Government and a Government amendment praising its role in a specific area. The Government of the day always wins when the House divides each Wednesday night. Private Members' time is, therefore, something of a charade because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. This detracts from the serious content of many of the debates held during Private Members' time.
I understand the Minister is generally supportive of the principle behind the Bill, which is welcome. As an Opposition Deputy, the Minister introduced some legislation which received general support from the Government of the day. It is good to note that this positive approach continues. That is not to detract, however, from the adversarial nature of national parliaments. When a Government has such a large majority it is vital that the Opposition, even where its numbers are relatively small compared to previous Oppositions, is focused on the issues of the day. Nevertheless, members of the public are mature and do not want the politicians to squabble constantly over various issues. They see members of the Government adopting positions that are diametrically opposed to the views they expressed while in Opposition. If the same can be said of my party in opposition, it is only to a limited extent because we are careful to ensure our approach remains consistent with the approach we adopted while in government. It is important that the Opposition uses Private Members' time to express its views on the issues of the day. Under Dáil reform it should also have an opportunity to debate legislation on issues such as that addressed in the Bill before us.
Many people will ask what is a spent conviction. To express the purpose of the Bill in layman's terms it proposes that, where it is fair, reasonable and proportionate to do so, a person's previous convictions for minor offences would not have to be disclosed after a certain number of years had elapsed. It does not provide for the expunging of criminal records as these would continue to be held by the Garda Síochána. It would no longer be necessary, however, to wear one's criminal record on one's sleeve.
The legislation seeks to address this matter in the context of a person's employment record. Many people with minor convictions want to be able to move on with their lives. A number of caveats must apply in this regard. A person seeking to have a conviction spent must first pay his or her debt to society, whether by paying a fine, completing community service or serving a prison sentence, and demonstrate good behaviour for several years thereafter. The legislation provides definitive exclusions for sexual and other serious offences or offences that attracted a prison sentence of greater than six months because such offences are, by and large, serious in nature and should be publicly known.
I congratulate Deputy Calleary on working with the former Minister of State, Mr. Barry Andrews, on another, related topic which is not specifically addressed in the legislation, namely, the possibility of applying non-disclosure of certain convictions in the area of local authority housing. All applications for local authority housing include a question on the applicant's previous record. If the Oireachtas adopts a position that a person, subject to the caveats I have cited, should not be required to wear a criminal record on his or her sleeve when applying for a job, a similar provision should apply to those seeking local authority housing. If we want to rehabilitate offenders we must help them to find employment and accommodation. For this reason, non-disclosure should apply in both respects.
The absence of legislation on the issue of spent convictions has caused difficulties for people that are wholly disproportionate to the transgressions of the law for which they were originally convicted. The Minister has spoken on many occasions of the need to make greater use of community service orders. Many people would welcome such a move as it would enable them to see offenders such as vandals pay their debt to society.
All Deputies will have been lobbied about the time required to obtain Garda clearance when people seek to take up employment. Difficulties have arisen in the Garda vetting unit as a result of the public sector recruitment embargo. The Minister has indicated in reply to parliamentary questions that the caseload of the unit in Templemore has increased significantly. His written answers repeatedly refer to the fact that a significant number of staff at the unit are on maternity leave and have not been replaced. I understand, however, that an additional ten staff members have moved to the unit.
I have written to the Minister directly on the issue of Garda clearance but his reply did not address the issue I raised. I refer specifically to circumstances in which one individual must obtain Garda clearance for a number of different activities. The Department has adopted the illogical position that clearance may be required for different purposes. If a person wishes must call to elderly people as part of a FÁS meals on wheels scheme, coach in a local GAA or soccer club and do voluntary work in a youth club or with the Boy Scouts, he or she must apply for clearance in respect of each of these activities. I am informed that the reason for requiring Garda clearance to work with elderly people as part of a FÁS scheme is different from the reason a person would require clearance to coach the local under 12 soccer team or work as a caretaker in a local community hall.
Under the current system, a person may be required to produce three or four Garda clearance certificates. This is unnecessary duplication, as the Department is fully aware. It takes a narrow perspective in focusing on the various organisations in which a person may wish to become involved rather than on the individual seeking Garda clearance. It is individual who must be vetted. I ask the Minister to revisit this issue, which has come to prominence in the past year or two with the introduction of proper procedures for coaches, trainers and other volunteers who work with young people in sporting and voluntary bodies. The issue has only arisen in the past year or so because of the number of requirements concerning jobs in sporting and other voluntary bodies. The latter groups are rightly getting proper procedures in place for trainers and others who coach youngsters in a variety of activities. We welcome stronger measures to protect children, but they have led to a mushrooming of applications. We could deal with such applications better if we did not have some of the unnecessary duplication involved. I take the opportunity to make that point now that the Minister is in the House.
If people serve their time, pay their debts to society, are of good behaviour and do not re-offend, they should be allowed to move on with their lives. That is in everybody's interest. However, if people do not meet the aforementioned conditions they should not get any protection from the law.
The non-disclosure provision would arise after seven years have passed without further conviction when a sentence of imprisonment has been imposed, or after five years in other cases. We are not expunging the record, it is just an issue of non-disclosure. A number of excellent exclusions are listed in the Bill to ensure that the system is not abused. Overall, this proposal amounts to fair and balanced legislation.
The Government will not oppose this Bill on Second Stage. I say this for the obvious reason that in Opposition, the Government parties supported the principle of this Bill on Second Stage in December 2008. We support the principle of the Bill now also and therefore, in those circumstances, it would be completely inappropriate to oppose it. In addition, I want to encourage Opposition Deputies to publish legislation during the lifetime of this Dáil. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I intend to deal with them entirely differently to the manner in which such legislation was dealt with during the 14 years when Fianna Fáil was in Government. In particular, during the past seven years that party was in Government it automatically opposed every Private Members' Bill ever published by the Opposition and refused to engage in any constructive discussions of such measures.
That said, the Bill as published contains several shortcomings and omissions. It is curious that this Bill, which was originally published as a Private Members' Bill by the former Minister of State and Deputy, Barry Andrews, in 2007 - and was debated in 2008 - seemed to grind to a halt. In December 2008, the then Minister of State, former Deputy Barry Andrews, stated that it would be necessary to amend the Bill in several respects. In the course of that debate, he said he had already identified several matters requiring amendment. He went on to tell us that it might take a little while to finalise the Bill. That was in December 2008, but it is curious that 2009 and 2010 passed, yet the Bill was not seen again.
There are substantial difficulties with this Bill. Since taking office, I have been working on rectifying these problems because this measure should be enacted. I intend shortly to publish a new, improved criminal justice (spent convictions) Bill 2011. It will address issues the Bill before us has not addressed. I do not want to be difficult about this and I want to encourage Deputy Calleary and others to produce Bills. When they do so on issues the Government has not had an opportunity to address, and where an issue deserves to be dealt with, I will have no hesitation in taking on board such a Bill. I will take it to Committee Stage, if it is appropriate to do so. In the context of this Bill, however, it might have been better if Deputy Calleary had considered the development since 2007 when it was first published and had incorporated within the measure some of the many amendments required.
The Bill before us started life as part of the Law Reform Commission's "Report on Spent Convictions" in 2007. It was published as a Private Members' Bill in 2007 by the former Minister of State and Deputy, Barry Andrews, before being adopted as a Government Bill. It lapsed with the dissolution of the last Dáil in February this year. The 2007 Bill has been the subject of considerable debate and the considered contributions of a number of parties, including the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Irish Penal Reform Trust. Their contributions will ultimately be reflected in the Bill I intend to publish. As I have also said, former Deputy Barry Andrews acknowledged the Bill's shortcomings in 2008.
The failure to legislate on this issue has undoubtedly placed obstacles in the way of many ex-offenders who mended their ways and have been, or perceived themselves to be, prevented from accessing employment. Since taking office, I have been struck by the number of people who have written urging me to progress this legislation. These are people who were convicted of relatively minor offences many years ago and have had no contact with the criminal justice system since then. Some have moved on to good careers but, nevertheless, feel that their convictions are hanging over them like a Sword of Damocles. Others fear that if they try to move job, their past will play against them. These are not hardened criminals. In many cases they are people who, for whatever reason, at a particular time in their lives were convicted of relatively minor offences. They should not have to carry that burden with them for the rest of their days.
We are almost unique among European countries in having no provisions in our law in this area, where adults are concerned. Having said that, given where we are now, the priority must be to enact legislation in this area and to make sure that we get it right. What does getting it right mean in this context? All of us are agreed that certain principles should underpin this legislation. These can be summarised as follows:
1. that a person should, after a reasonable period, be able to move on and not have to declare the fact of a previous conviction for relatively minor offences, particularly when applying for employment;
2. that certain offences, such as sex offences, must always be disclosed, regardless of the length of sentence imposed or the subsequent conviction-free period; and
3. that certain sensitive employment - including those involving children and other vulnerable people, the administration of justice, and the security of the State - should be excluded from the ambit of the legislation.
The first principle goes to the heart of the rationale for legislating in this area. We must have a criminal justice system that prevents crime, detects crime, prosecutes offences, imposes penalties in the form of fines, imprisonment or community service, and provides mechanisms for other appropriate means of dealing with offenders. However, when a person pays his or her debt to society, it should not, in every case, follow them around for the rest of their lives. Rehabilitation into and participation in normal society must be an objective of our penal system and a spent-convictions regime has a role to play in this. Any such regime must balance the rehabilitative potential of such a regime with the interests of society in general. In so far as the absence of a spent-convictions regime militates against former offenders securing employment, it may increase the risk that they drift back into criminality.
Society can only benefit if offenders, having paid their debt to society, are reintegrated into their communities and do not re-offend. To the extent that a job assists in this, we should not put unnecessary obstacles in the way of offenders who disavow criminality and seek employment. However, this legitimate aspiration must be balanced against other societal concerns. Serious offences, particularly sexual offences or offences that attract long sentences, cannot be embraced by legislation designed to smooth the pathway to employment for offenders. No employer should be expected to operate in the dark and risk the reputation of his or her businesses, as a result of the introduction of legislation of this kind. Neither can it put vulnerable persons at risk.
The Bill before us recognises, as will the Government's Bill, that vulnerable persons cannot be put at risk and that extra safeguards are required where people with a criminal past wish to work directly or indirectly with vulnerable persons, be they adults or children. This includes working directly or indirectly with such persons.
Equally, the State has a direct interest as a major employer in this issue. From my Department and the various agencies involved in the administration of justice, to the Health Service Executive with its responsibility for children and other vulnerable persons, the State clearly has a major responsibility to ensure that those it employs in sensitive areas are suitable in every respect.
This brings me to the parallel but connected issue of vetting, which some Deputies have mentioned. The public should be assured that the proposals on spent convictions do not cut across the legitimate requirement that those who wish to work for the State in sensitive roles, or for the providers of care to young or other vulnerable persons, will still be subject to vetting. I intend that the Government Bill will explicitly provide that An Garda Síochána may disclose spent convictions where information is requested by an employer in respect of any excluded employment. This Bill does not provide for a wiping of the slate or the expunging of offences. The offences will remain on the record. Instead those who benefit from its provisions will not have to disclose the fact of a conviction. I believe that this strikes a fair balance that addresses the competing interests of the offender and of society.
As well as employing people, the State issues licences to people. These licences are valuable and permit people to carry on certain activities and businesses. Deputy Calleary's Bill makes no provision in regard to the granting of licences. This is a significant oversight that I intend to remedy in the Bill which will be published later this year. For example, it is my view that those applying for licences to operate taxis or to enter the private security business should have to disclose any past convictions. These self-disclosures are an integral part of the system, providing a first layer of accountability, backed up by Garda clearance, as required.
I would like to turn to the other principles that I listed earlier. Again, while we are broadly in agreement, there are a number of aspects of the Bill which I consider deficient. The Bill, which contains six sections, has the quality of brevity but lacks the level of specificity that such legislation requires. In essence, the approach in the Bill, is to exclude certain categories of sentences - "excluded sentences" as they are termed, and by default to include everything else. While I can agree that sentences imposed for sexual offences and those imposed in respect of offences reserved for trial by the Central Criminal Court should be excluded, and while I also tend towards the exclusion of prison sentences greater than six months, I am still considering whether the threshold should be extended further as recommended by the Human Rights Commission. In the same way, we need to make provision for suspended sentences, no mention of which is made in this Bill.
Having dealt briefly with the question of the sentences and other penalties to be covered by the legislation, there then arises the question of how long a person needs to be what is termed "conviction-free" before he or she can avail of the reliefs in the Bill. This Bill proposes a two-tier approach with custodial sentences of six months or less attracting a seven-year rehabilitation period, and non-custodial sentences attracting a five-year period. When the Bill was last debated in this Chamber, all sides were agreed that these periods needed to be looked at again, if the incentives in the Bill were to have any useful application. The Human Rights Commission also made this point.
The more nuanced approach that I will be proposing in regard to the range of sentences to which the Bill will apply should be mirrored in the rehabilitation periods that will have to be served. While I have not reached a definitive view on the matter yet, I am minded to have shorter rehabilitation periods for the range of sentences mentioned earlier. No doubt there will be many different views on this issue. My own view, which reflects that of the Human Rights Commission, is that a minimum five years rehabilitation period is too long.
For the avoidance of doubt, I want to reiterate that people convicted of sexual offences will not benefit from the provisions of this Bill, regardless as to the nature of their offence, the sentence they received, or the length of time since conviction. There will be no change in this regard, nor can there be, and the Government's Bill will make this abundantly clear, without equivocation.
The Bill is fundamentally about people with convictions accessing employment. I pointed out earlier that, of necessity, certain employments must be excluded from the provisions of the Bill, and that people seeking employment in those areas will continue to be required to disclose past convictions. In the Bill, these are called "excluded employments". The view was expressed when this Bill was debated in the House in 2008, and by the Human Rights Commission, that the list was excessive and in view of this I believe we need to reflect further on this issue. The formulation in this Bill would exclude most, if not all, of the civil and public service.
There are obviously areas of the public service that must by their nature be excluded. However, I want to see a provision that is flexible enough to exclude those civil and public service employments that warrant exclusion while avoiding a blanket exclusion. I say this because I am not sure that it is reasonable to say to a private sector employer that the State is in favour of a spent convictions regime where he or she is concerned but that there is no job of any nature in the civil or public service to which he or she should apply. This is completely illogical. It is relatively simple and easy to identify jobs in the public service to which a spent convictions Bill can quite properly apply. As I mentioned, any prospective employee seeking employment that could bring him or her into contact directly or indirectly with children or vulnerable adults will still need to disclose his or her convictions.
On this issue of excluded employments requiring disclosure, I want to say that this should not mean that somebody convicted of an offence that would otherwise be spent should be debarred from that employment. Reasonable employers should consider if the conviction is relevant to the job on offer and where it is not they should not allow it to influence their decision. Prospective employers have a key role to play in the rehabilitation of offenders, including their integration into the workforce. A number of employers have played such a role in the past.
Deputy Calleary's Bill makes no mention of the number of convictions that can be spent. I believe that the limit should be two. This legislation cannot be to the benefit of the repeat offender with multiple convictions. This is not and cannot be a charter for re-offending. However, a particular issue may arise in regard to persons who, as young people, had a multiple series of convictions and who now in their adult years are clearly free of the criminal justice system and are responsible members of the community. This is an area to be factored into consideration. Within our children's law provisions, there are already provisions addressing issues relating to young people who offended during their minority. The example given by Deputy Browne particularly calls to mind the type of difficulty a young person with a conviction, perhaps incurred during his or her teenage years, may experience some ten or 15 years later unexpectedly in circumstances in which he or she is clearly a law-abiding citizen of this State and in which he or she should not be in any way impaired in travelling to the United States or elsewhere. There are a range of issues relevant to the consideration that needs to be factored into this measure and I hope these are all issues that will be adequately and comprehensively addressed in the new Bill that will be published.
This Bill is different to most other criminal law proposals directed at detection and prosecution of crime. It is approaching the criminal justice system from the other end, after the process has been completed, people have served their sentences and, in most cases, want to get on with their lives. It is for that reason the Government is not opposing the Bill. I reiterate we accept the principle of the Bill. Having said that, it is one thing to agree on the objectives of the Bill and its principles, but it is another to turn them into a legislative proposal that is clear, unambiguous and that achieves its objectives. The Spent Convictions Bill 2011 is what its predecessor Bill was - a good start. It is not, however, a Bill that could be put on the Statute Book without such significant amendment as to render it unrecognisable. It is for that reason the Government will be publishing its own criminal justice (spent convictions) Bill as soon as a small number of outstanding issues have been resolved. I am sure I will be able to rely on the co-operation of Members opposite at that time with the early enactment of what will be very important legislation.
In the context of issues raised in respect of vetting by two contributors, I was concerned, when on the other side of the House, at the delays that were being experienced in that respect. The vetting bureau in Thurles, which I visited some time ago, does an extraordinary job with great efficiency and by a flexitime system that ensures the maximum possible number of vetting applications are dealt with.
However, with the large number of organisations and employers which now use that facility, it is clear that it was seriously understaffed for a long period. Ten additional employees have been recruited to the vetting agency and I hope in the not too distant future to make an announcement with regard to additional assistance that will be made available to it. It is my objective to get to a point in this respect but it will take a little time before this occurs. I say that to Deputy Calleary who no doubt with great enthusiasm will table a Dáil question on this matter in a few weeks. It is my objective to get to a point where all vetting applications, except where there are exceptional circumstances, are dealt with within a period of three to four weeks and that we can fast-track applications where there is an immediate job available to an individual to facilitate him or her being dealt with more quickly where it is appropriate but it will take some months to bring about that position. It is regrettable that the previous Government did not provide the vetting bureau with the resources it requires.
Deputy Dooley referred to the delay in progressing this Bill as being a criticism of both sides of the House.
I do not want to be partisan, but taking such a comment seriously is difficult when Deputy Dooley's party was in government in 2007 when the then Deputy Barry Andrews published the legislation as a Private Members' Bill and when the same Deputy dealt with that Bill on Second Stage in December 2008 as a Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. He obviously did not give his own Bill sufficient priority as a Minister of State to get it through the House. If there is any blame for the Bill's lack of progress through the House, it attaches to my predecessors.
I appreciate Deputy Calleary's good intentions in publishing the Bill and I support the principle of the Bill. I must look somewhat askance at Deputy Dooley's suggestion that, were more Oireachtas committees appointed by the Government, the Bill would travel more quickly. I am open to correction, but the total number of committees to be appointed by the Government is 13. My recollection is that, under the auspices of the last Government, there were 24 committees. Clearly, they did not add any great speed or haste to the enactment of this particular measure. I do not quite know how many additional committees Deputy Dooley believes we need, but it was a somewhat facile argument. That said, I appreciate Deputy Calleary's good intentions in tabling the measure and look forward to co-operating with him in our processing, hopefully with some speed, of the new Bill to be published in the not too distant future.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the reintroduction of the Bill by Deputy Calleary. I note the significant work done by his former colleague, Mr. Barry Andrews, during the latter's time as a Member of the House. I commend the Minister, Deputy Shatter, on the constructive manner of his engagement in this debate. I hope it is a sign of things to come. More than most, the Minister knows what it is like to be a Front Bench Opposition spokesperson and a Government backbencher desperately trying to get Governments to take various Bills seriously. That he as a member of the Cabinet is engaging in a constructive manner is a welcome development.
No discussion of the Bill can reasonably take place without an acknowledgement of the topical elephant in the room, that is, the condition of our prisons. When the Bill was first before the House in December 2008, my party colleague, Deputy Charles Flanagan, spoke on the Second Stage debate and expressed his concern that more than 4,000 people were incarcerated in our prisons. In just over two years, this number has escalated rapidly and, for the first time in the history of the State, more than 5,000 people are serving prison sentences. Our prisons are not equipped to cope with these numbers, a situation that is attracting embarrassing international attention. Yesterday, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed its concern at the level of overcrowding in our prisons and at the inhuman and degrading practice of slopping out. In this context, reform of our penal system is vital to prevent the undue incarceration of offenders whose relatively minor offences do not warrant prison sentences and to address habitual criminality. Beyond this, we must also work to ensure those who are convicted and serve their time are not needlessly deterred when trying to return to gainful employment.
In terms of our criminal justice system, it is also important we redress a ridiculous imbalance in our country. Through the introduction of legislation on white collar crime, the Minister has set about this process. It is ridiculous that one can almost bankrupt a country and not face criminal charges whereas one can serve a prison sentence for not paying a television licence.
There must be a balance between the societal imperative to reintegrate former offenders into society and the need to protect our most vulnerable members. While I welcome the principles underpinning the Bill, a number of its provisions warrant further consideration and substantial amendments will be required to ensure it is fit for purpose and achieves what Deputy Calleary is aiming for.
The Bill is aimed at offenders whose convictions are for minor and non-violent offences. It is proposed that these convictions would be spent after a blanket period of rehabilitation during which time no further offences were committed. The practical effect of this would be that ex-offenders would no longer be legally required to disclose their convictions in certain situations, such as job interviews. This is a welcome measure. It is proposed that the rehabilitation period would be five years for a non-custodial sentence and seven years where a custodial sentence is imposed. These periods may be overly long, given the relatively minor offences covered by the Bill, which applies only where sentences of no more than six months imprisonment or a fine were imposed. The Irish Penal Reform Trust, IPRT, and the Irish Human Rights Commission, IHRC, have argued that the principle of proportionality should be taken into consideration in connection with the rehabilitation period, as occurs in sentencing. The Minister touched on this subject. I hope that, when published, the Government Bill will address the issue and take on board the suggestions of the IPRT and IHRC. I welcome the Minister's categoric assurance to the public that this legislation and the Government's Bill will in no way, shape or form go towards allowing sexual offences to be spent, for want of a better word.
The Minister mentioned that the ceiling of six months must also be examined. Similar legislation has been in place in the UK since 1974 and covers sentences of up to 30 months. This provision would significantly extend the scope of the scheme and achieve the Bill's purpose, namely, to promote the rehabilitation and reintegration of a much broader range of offenders while ensuring the provisions are limited to a certain minor offence. In terms of the ceiling, the Bill will achieve more in its attempt to address the issue of habitual criminals.
Legislating on spent convictions will make a significant difference to many people and merits further consideration. I welcome the Minister's engagement and thank Deputy Calleary for the constructive way in which he and his party have spent Private Members' time. I look forward to further constructive suggestions and to the Minister's Bill.
Like my colleagues, I congratulate the Deputy opposite on introducing a constructive suggestion rather than a so-called knocking motion, as we are used to. I recognise the fact that the Minister is not opposing the legislation. Debating legislation on Second Stage is interesting, but debating it on Committee Stage is even more interesting in that one goes into the nitty gritty and the detail.
While I commend the Deputy opposite on introducing the Bill, I am disappointed he has not done more homework on it. When an identical Bill was before the House in 2008, problems were highlighted, yet the Deputy opposite has made no effort to change this Bill. Since legislation is on the pink list, that is to say, the Government will publish a spent convictions Bill, it shows the importance we attribute to the issue.
Under the current disclosure policy, details of all convictions or prosecutions or both, successful or not, pending or completed, in the State or elsewhere, and as the case may be, are disclosed to the authorised liaison person in the registered organisation. The Data Protection Commissioner has problems in this regard and pointed out in April 2010 that this requirement puts citizens in Ireland in an unfair position compared with citizens convicted of the same offences in other EU member states. As stated by Deputy Harris, the UK has had legislation on spent convictions since 1974.
I read about an interesting structure in place in Scotland, entitled Disclosure Scotland. There are three levels of disclosure - basic, standard and enhanced. The Scottish Government has set up an executive agency to deal with disclosures. When the Minister's Bill is on Committee Stage, it might be useful to examine what has been done in Scotland. An enhanced disclosure contains all conviction information whereas a basic disclosure only contains convictions considered unspent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, which the Deputy opposite is trying for with this Bill. A standard disclosure contains all conviction information, spent and unspent, including cautions.
Debating on Second Stage is fine, but when we get into the nitty gritty, we need to be able to consider practices in countries that are way ahead of us in this area if we are to determine the best practice to be incorporated in our legislation. Our people are at a disadvantage. The sword of Damocles should not hang over people's heads, punishing them for the rest of their lives because of, for example, minor offences they committed when they were young. Certain offences will be excluded from the Bill's provisions, including sexual offences. Interestingly, employers in Scotland have access to disclosure on-line, in respect of which there are safeguards. The Garda vetting bureau in Ireland also has similar safeguards in place. Much of this information is sensitive and we must ensure it is treated with confidentiality. We must also ensure the information provided is correct. I am aware of a case where information given in respect of a person was incorrect, causing many problems for the person concerned. We must ensure the information provided is correct and is treated with confidentiality.
I note that many organisations and groups have already commented on this issue, including the Data Protection Commissioner. The Law Reform Commission produced a report on this issue and, as already mentioned, the Irish Human Rights Commission has commented on it. The Irish Penal Reform Trust commented on it as far back as November 2008 and made six recommendations. I look forward to the publication of the Government Bill. It is important we discuss general points here. The bringing forward of this proposal during Private Members' time is a useful and positive exercise.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important legislation. The issue of spent convictions has been long spoken about inside and outside this Chamber but has not been matched by the same level of action as conversation. I do not believe any one can question the urgent need to put in place legislation dealing with this issue given Ireland is the only remaining jurisdiction in the EU which does not have in place appropriate legislation to deal with the expunging of criminal convictions. Like many other Members from all sides of the political divide I have read many reports outlining the far-reaching consequences for those convicted of minor criminal offences, be it discrimination in obtaining a visa or clearance for work in the area of security, for a tax licence or accessing employment, education and training. The difficulties experienced by many ex-prisoners in obtaining insurance has resulted in further difficulties for them when applying for mortgages, thus denying them the basic right to own their own home.
The National Economic and Social Forum found in 2002 that only 52% of employers would employ an ex-offender. A similar survey carried out by the Small Firms Association in 2007 found that between 76% and 87% of firms would not employ an ex-offender. When one takes into consideration that the largest proportion of people sentenced in this State receive short-term prison sentences, fines or community based sanctions for non-violent offences, it is all the more shameful that we have not addressed this issue. When an individual is sentenced following a conviction he or she has the right to expect that the sentence imposed will not adversely affect him or her beyond the timeframe set down at sentence. A sentence is time limited as it defines the start and maximum end date. Effective post-release reintegration of offenders into their families and communities once a custodial sentence has been served is essential for prevention of further re-offending and, therefore, community safety. This is in everyone's best interests and is the fundamental reason a minor conviction should not hang over a person for the remainder of his or her life.
One of the primary objectives of any custodial sentence should be to rehabilitate so as to prevent future crime. If that is the case, then part of the emphasis must be on incentives to create crime free lifestyles by ensuring access to gainful employment, education and training for ex-prisoners. Unwarranted barriers and discrimination, whether in law or in policy, must be proactively removed. The extent of this discrimination should not be underestimated. Far from effectively protecting the public, these barriers serve to increase Ireland's already high rate of repeat offending.
Sinn Féin supports a spent convictions regime for non-disclosure of criminal records in order to facilitate post-release reintegration through the measures I outlined earlier. While this Bill attempts to do this, it falls short of what will adequately address the issue. In my opinion, it is conservative and does not actually address the core principle in regard to spent convictions. However, while the Bill falls short of what Sinn Féin would like to see enacted, we will be supporting the Bill as it at least starts the process, which is important. Our concerns in relation to the Bill as drafted can be adequately dealt with at future Stages. For this reason, we will not oppose its progression through the House.
Before outlining where we differ from the current proposal it is only fair for me to highlight the sections of the Bill with which we agree. We welcome the provisions contained in section 3(2)(b) and (c) which deal with offenders complying with any conditions set down at sentencing. We also welcome section 3(3)(b) which excludes those convicted of offences of a sexual nature from availing from the provisions contained in this Bill. However, we do not agree with the proposal contained in section 3(3)(c) which states that an excluded offence is deemed to be "a sentence for a term exceeding six months". That is too narrow and too restrictive. We should, as a starting point, be considering a period of at least 12 months. One might well ask why 12 months and not 18 months, two years or three years. The Criminal Justice (Community Service) (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill 2011 will make it obligatory on judges to consider community service orders as an alternative to custodial sentences, in respect of which a sentence of up to and including 12 months would normally apply. One of the provisions of that Bill is the setting of a time limit for community service orders, which have been extended from six to 12 months. It makes sense, therefore, to ensure all legislation currently before the House deals with custodial sentences in the same manner. If the limit is not extended to 12 months at a minimum we could have the ludicrous situation whereby a person sentenced to a community service order of between and six and 12 months would not be able to have his or her conviction expunged. In other words, such person would always have to disclose he or she had been the subject of a community service order.
It can be argued that the 12 month time limit is not adequate. A recent review of the British Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 found that the current time limit of 13 months is too restrictive. I am aware the Irish Penal Reform Trust has recommended a 13 month time limit in relation to this legislation. It may be necessary to consider the introduction of legislation establishing an independent board to deal on a case by case basis with ex-offenders sentenced beyond the current limit set in this Bill. Sinn Féin also has concerns in regard to section 3(4)(a) and (b). Subsection (4)(a) states that a person who is convicted and has imposed on him or her a custodial sentence not exceeding six months must wait seven years before having that conviction spent. Subsection (4)(c) states that a person in receipt of a non-custodial sentence not exceeding six months must wait five years before having that conviction spent. Under this proposal an individual aged between 18 and 20 years sentenced to six months and one day would be aged between 25 and 27 years before being able to have his or her conviction spent. This goes against everything the Bill attempts to address. For young persons to be faced with employment related discrimination during these crucial years could have life long consequences.
I want to touch briefly on section 5, which deals with excluded employment. While I agree completely that work involving substantial access to children or vulnerable adults be afforded special protection, the list of excluded employments where a person still has to declare a conviction are too broad. For example, under the current proposal before us, anyone who wishes to become a traffic warden would have to declare their conviction and could not avail of the provisions under the Bill. I welcome the Minister's comments in terms of possibly reviewing the range of excluded employments.
In conclusion, I want to focus on one sector of society for which the Bill does not cater, namely, former political prisoners. We are almost two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement and former political prisoners still suffer from discrimination in a wide range of areas. Many of these prisoners are staunch supporters of the peace process and continue to work on its behalf. Given all the advances since the Good Friday Agreement, it is fair to say that the political nature of the conflict in Ireland has now been widely recognised by all. This recognition must be formally extended to ex-political prisoners and discrimination against them needs to end. It is our position that the records of all former political prisoners should be expunged to enable them to participate in all aspects of economic and social life without discrimination. While there is no scope to include this category of individuals in the Bill before us, the introduction of separate legislation consistent with the Good Friday Agreement obligations to deal with this distinct situation of ex-prisoners needs to be considered.
I agree with the essence of the Bill. If our criminal justice system is meant to have anything to do with transforming and rehabilitating people, it is essential that once they have served their sentence, they be given the opportunity to participate fully in the world. When I stood up in my local council chamber, if I had a vested interest on any issue, I was meant to state it, so I might as well state my vested interest here. I have a criminal record in regard to three occasions of possession of cannabis and I also have a criminal record under the Litter Pollution Act 1997. However, it is not for myself that I want to see a change because, strangely, there is no bar on my being a Member of Dáil Éireann because of my criminal record, although there would be on my being a lollipop lady - or man, even.
The essence of the Bill is positive and it is essential that we do this. However, if the idea is to help people participate more in society and to get a job, the list of excluded employments is ridiculous. What job can a person do when almost every State job is excluded under the Bill? What is the danger of someone going on to become a traffic warden if at the age of 18 the person, rather stupidly, decided to knock on someone's door, then ran away and ended up with a criminal record under some public order Act? The list of employments needs to be changed because, otherwise, this part of the Bill is pointless and does not achieve anything. Many people have come to me with the complaint that it had not entered their head a criminal record would cause a problem if, for example, they wanted to go to Australia to work or that they would be disbarred from getting a decent job. This is in nobody's interest.
I remind some of the Members of the House, when they are deciding what should be included or excluded, that they are lucky not to have criminal records because members of the Garda Síochána did not have enough resources and the world is not perfect so they could not prosecute some of the Members who have admitted to the crime I have been tried for, namely, the possession and use of cannabis. The people who have admitted this in publications such as Hot Press should remember it when they vote on the Bill. If they were not quite so lucky, they too would no longer be allowed to work in any of these jobs. Whatever the law was attempting to do for them in the first place, I do not believe the intention was that their whole life would be ruined and they would never again be able to contribute to society. Given that, they must support the Bill because, otherwise, they will be hypocrites.
The essence of the Bill is good and it is essential we do this, although much of the detail needs to be changed. In addition to his point on the excluded employments, many good points were raised by Deputy Jonathan O'Brien as to the length of the sentence and the contradictory nature of the length of the community service period, which goes to 12 months. While much needs to be changed, I hope we can do that on Committee Stage.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I compliment Deputy Calleary on bringing it forward. I was delighted to hear the Minister promise he will bring in his own Bill which will go further in some areas while being restrictive in other areas. As Deputy Jonathan O'Brien said, we should consider the community service legislation which was recently discussed in the House, in particular, the sensible proposal in regard to the 12-month period whereby a judge must consider community service rather than over-crowding the prisons by sending people to prison when their sentences would be better served in the community.
Lack of legislation in this area means that people with criminal records face barriers to employment, travel restrictions and difficulty in taking out mortgages and in many other areas of life. The list of areas included in the Bill is too restrictive. As Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan said, a person would be barred from becoming a traffic warden or undertaking any form of State employment. Those who have committed crimes of sexual nature would have to live with that, particularly if they are dealing with sensitive areas such as the care of children or other people. Such people have to go through a rigorous Garda vetting process at present, an area which is still too unwieldy and lacking in detailed knowledge, thereby allowing some people to slip through the process.
The barriers to successful integration and rehabilitation into our society is the area on which we must focus. Goodness knows, society has enough problems and serious offences will obviously not be included in order that there is no threat to public safety. We must always take cognisance of this but we must aim to get the person back into society through restorative justice. No matter what happened when a person was young, in the fullness of time, when the person has matured fully and wants to play a part in public service or service to the community, he or she should be allowed to do so and should not have this blemish on his or her character for ever more. As I said, serious offences such as sex offences are an exception to this and none of us wants to change that.
Before the Minister, Deputy Shatter, introduces his Bill, he should align it with the community service Bill to create a level playing field, encourage fairness and responsibility, encourage citizens to play a meaningful part in society and give them an opportunity to display the fact they made a mistake, paid a price and are willing, ready and able to play any part they may be required to play in everyday society. I hope there could be cross-party agreement in this regard. Given the Minister said he was in favour of many aspects of the Bill before us, I hope the Government side will not oppose it. If he must bring in his own amendments, he should do so and we will get the best of the views of all parties in rectifying the Bill.