Dáil debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012 [Seanad]: Second Stage

 

7:00 pm

Photo of Alan ShatterAlan Shatter (Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Defence; Dublin South, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to present this important legislation to the House, the primary purpose of which is to close an existing loophole in the law. Under the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998, it is an offence to withhold information in respect of a serious criminal offence. However, that provision of the 1998 Act specifically excludes sexual offences. I am therefore bringing forward this Bill in order to ensure there is an obligation on persons who have knowledge of all serious offences, including sexual offences against children or vulnerable adults, to inform the Garda of same.

Members of this House will be well aware of the content of published reports such as the Ryan report, the Murphy report and, more recently, the Cloyne report. These reports provide a litany of quite shocking revelations concerning the sexual abuse of children and failure to respond to that abuse. More recently, further revelations concerning Fr. Brendan Smyth have emerged. It is clear from these revelations and the various reports published that, if those who had knowledge in the past of sexual offences committed against children had informed the Garda Síochána, many children who subsequently became the victims of abuse may have been protected from clerical sexual predators. I believe there is, therefore, a compelling argument for closing the current loophole in the law.

As Members of this House will also be aware, the full scale of abuse of children which has taken place in the past is still not fully known and new information is continuing to emerge. The problem is also not confined to offences against children. There have also been a number of equally serious cases of vulnerable adults in institutional care being subject to serious sexual and physical abuse. In drafting the Bill, however, I must also be mindful of the fact that the balance of evidence suggests that the majority of abuse of children or vulnerable adults takes place in the person's own home. It is, therefore, important to reaffirm that we are not just concerned with issues of sexual abuse by persons in authority, be they in the Catholic Church or in any other religious group, or institutional settings. I must emphasise that this Bill applies to all persons, all organisations and all sectors of society. It is important that we produce legislation that affords protection from abuse to children or vulnerable persons, in any scenario or in any location. That is essentially what this Bill is about.

Members of this House have already been very supportive of the Bill when contributing to the consideration of the draft scheme of the Bill at hearings by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The Bill before us today has been drafted to include provisions to take account of the issues raised by the joint committee in its deliberations. Under the provisions of this Bill, it will be an offence to fail to disclose to the Garda Síochána, without reasonable excuse, information concerning certain serious criminal offences where such offences are committed against a child or a vulnerable adult. These "serious offences" are listed in the Schedules to the Bill. These offences all carry a penalty of imprisonment of five years or more. They include most sexual offences and offences such as assault causing harm, causing serious harm, cruelty to a child, abduction of a child, manslaughter and murder. The Bill also establishes some limited defences for persons charged under it, such as a parent, guardian or medical professional who is acting in the interests of the health and well-being of the child or vulnerable person.

I would like to outline for the House the key provisions contained in the Bill. Section 1 is a standard interpretation section which defines the terms used in the Bill. Section 2 creates the offence of withholding information on serious offences against children. I wish to draw the attention of the House to a number of key provisions in this section. First, it is only an offence to withhold information where the person knows or believes that an offence has been committed, and the person has information which he or she knows or believes might be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of the offender. This means that a person is not under any obligation to inform the Garda regarding any kind of vague rumours, innuendo or suspicions. He or she only commits an offence if he or she has substantive information regarding an offence and fails, without reasonable excuse, to disclose that information to the Garda. This reflects similar offences contained in other Acts, such as the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998. I also want to highlight the fact that section 2(2) provides that the Bill will only apply to information that a person receives, or becomes aware of, after the Bill becomes law.

Following consultation with the Attorney General, it was decided that it would not be feasible to make it an offence to withhold information where that information had been received before the Bill was enacted. There are potential legal concerns in regard to applying the provisions of the Bill to confidential information received prior to this law coming into force. There are also practical issues. I am mindful of the fact that most abuse happens within families, and in many cases the facts of the abuse would be known by siblings or other family members who were not themselves the perpetrators. Making the law retrospective and applicable to information received by a family member, or to a person who provided support to a victim many years ago, would in many instances be unjust. It would potentially criminalise individuals who had in good faith decided that it was not appropriate to report an offence to the Garda at the time they became aware of it, but who would not be able to show that their decision meets the revised standard now required in this Bill. The new law will, therefore, apply to non-disclosure of information received after the Bill is passed, although it may relate to something that happened before enactment. This ensures that in regard to future actions, behaviours and responsibilities there is certainty and clarity in the law.

Section 2 of the Bill also provides that the victim cannot themselves be guilty of any offence if he or she chooses not to disclose the offence against him or her. This exclusion was welcomed during the consideration of the Bill by the Oireachtas joint committee. Subsection (3) of this section confirms that the victim of any offence covered by the Bill cannot be guilty of the offence of withholding information where he or she does not report the offence to the Garda. Subsection (4) provides that the Bill is without prejudice to any right or privilege that is recognised in law. In that regard, this provision is simply to allow the courts to use their normal discretion in considering issues of privilege. There has been a lot of media comment suggesting that this Bill has an effect on the "seal of confession" or sacerdotal privilege, although there has been less agreement within that commentary as to what the exact impact or effect will be. One report suggested that the entire clergy of the Catholic Church are exempt from the requirements of the Bill. Another stated that the clergy is bound by the Bill, and that I am persecuting the church. Let me repeat my earlier comment: this Bill applies to all persons, to all organisations and to all sectors of society. No one is exempt from prosecution. A person charged may claim any defence that he or she so wishes but it will be a matter for a court to determine, in the circumstances of a particular case, the extent to which that defence does or does not exist.

It must also be borne in mind that existing provisions in the criminal law for the protection of children continue to apply. Current provisions in the criminal law have frequently been ignored in media reports on this Bill. These include section 176 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006, which makes it an offence for a person with authority or control over a child or abuser to intentionally or recklessly endanger a child by causing or permitting a child to be placed or left in a situation which creates a substantial risk to the child of being a victim of serious harm or sexual abuse. It is also an offence to fail to take reasonable steps to protect a child from such risk while knowing that a child is in such a situation.

On the subject of privilege, I point out that the issue of confession does not arise in regard to the many cases of criminal offences identified in the Ryan, Murphy or Cloyne reports. These reports all relate to complaints of abuse made to the church authorities by the victims or by family members or by members of the public. Nor, as far we know, is it an issue with regard to the reprehensible activities of the late Fr. Brendan Smyth and many of the other priests who have during the past two decades been convicted and sentenced in this State for child abuse. The provisions of this Bill will ensure that in the future those who have knowledge of similar crimes against children or vulnerable persons and who fail to disclose that information to the Garda Síochána can be prosecuted and convicted for that failure.

Section 3 creates the offence of withholding information on certain offences against vulnerable adults. It has the same structure and provisions as apply in section 2 in regard to withholding information concerning offences against children.

Section 4 provides for a range of defences for persons who are acting in the interests of the health and welfare of the victim. It is important to note that nothing in the Bill will impede any victim, or any other person, at any time from going to the Garda to report an offence. The defences in the Bill solely relate to circumstances where the victim chooses not to do this, or does not have the capacity to do this. As I have already mentioned, subsection (3) of sections 2 and 3 provides that the victim of any offence covered by the Bill cannot be guilty of the offence of withholding information where they do not report the offence to the Garda. It follows from this provision that a person who does not report an offence, at the request of the victim, also has a legitimate defence. This is set out in section 4(1).

In submissions to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, reference was also made to the difficulty which arises where the victim does not have the capacity either to report the offence or to make a decision as to whether they want another person to report it on their behalf. Many victims of abuse do not have the capacity to report offences against them either owing to their age or some other vulnerability. Such victims should be able to rely on another person to act on their behalf. The Bill provides that where the victim does not have the capacity to form a view as to whether the commission of the offence should be disclosed to the Garda, and the offender is not a family member, then the parent or guardian can make known, on behalf of the victim, that the victim does not want the offence to be so reported. An important safeguard in this circumstance is that the parent or guardian concerned must have reasonable grounds for acting on behalf of the child or vulnerable adult and must show that in doing so, they are acting in the best interests of the child or vulnerable adult.

They must also show that they had regard to the wishes of the child.

Members will also note that there is a presumption in section 4(2) of the Bill that a child under 14 years of age does not have the capacity to decide whether to report an offence and might wonder why this age has been chosen. It is important to state that a child of any age can, if he or she wishes, choose to report an offence. Nothing in the Bill prevents this. The reference to the age of 14 in the Bill is to allow the parent or guardian to act on behalf of the child, where the child is below that age limit. The age of under 14 has been chosen because a child of 14 years or over is, under the provisions of the Criminal Evidence Act 1992 considered legally competent to give evidence on oath or affirmation. Having considered the options, the Government agreed that under 14 years is the most appropriate age. The law would be inconsistent if it allowed a person of 14 years or over to give evidence under oath but did not recognise him as her as having the capacity to determine whether information in relation to an offence against him or her should be disclosed.

The Bill must give separate consideration as to what provisions are appropriate if the victim does not have the capacity to report the offence and the offender is a family member. In these circumstances, it is considered that it is not appropriate for the parent or guardian to act on behalf of the child because of the potential conflict of loyalties within the family. The Bill, therefore, provides in section 4(8) that in these circumstances a designated professional, who is providing services to the child or vulnerable person in respect of the harm or injury caused by the offence, may make it known that in his or her view the information relating to that offence should not be disclosed, provided that he or she can show that he or she is acting for the purpose of protecting the health and welfare of the child.

The Bill provides that designated professionals are doctors, nurses, psychologists and social workers. In making these provisions, I am trying to ensure that the Bill will not discourage a victim from seeking appropriate treatment at a time when required and when he or she is too traumatised by what has happened to go through the additional trauma of making a report to the Gardaí. In cases where the victim is very severely traumatised, a medical professional, who is treating him or her, should be able to decide that it is not in the interests of the victim's health and welfare to report the offence at that time. It is important to note that the medical professional will under the Children First Guidelines which are to be placed on a statutory footing by the Children First Bill, still be under an obligation to notify the HSE of any abuse of a child. The draft scheme of the Children First Bill has been published by my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and is currently under consideration by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. This separate obligation to notify the HSE, contained in the Children First Bill, is important to ensure that even where an offence is not reported to the Gardaí under this Bill, the victim is given the appropriate supports, treatment, monitoring and protection. I anticipate that the number of cases where it is appropriate for a medical professional to decide on behalf of the victim that a report should not be made to the Gardaí will be limited in number. In cases where the victim is very severely affected by the offence, this provision will be vital in order to provide the most appropriate protection for the health and well-being of the victim.

This Bill also provides in subsections (12) and (13) for persons providing counselling services to have similar defences to those available to a medical professional who is treating the victims. Under the Bill, these are referred to as "prescribed persons" who are employed or otherwise engaged by "prescribed organisations". A number of organisations, which provide counselling and support services to victims of sexual abuse, made the point in submissions to the Oireachtas committee that they often have to work with victims over an extended period of time before the victim can reach a decision on whether to report an offence to the Gardaí. I am anxious to ensure that victims are not discouraged from accessing supports which they need because of concerns that the seeking of such supports will immediately require a reporting of the crime to the Gardaí for the purposes of a criminal investigation or subsequent prosecution. As with all of the defences in the Bill, the priority is the protection of the health and welfare of the victim.

Sections 5 and 6 set out the manner in which an organisation may seek to be prescribed for the purpose of the Bill. It will also be the responsibility of such organisations to apply for persons within that organisation to be prescribed for the purpose of defence under section 4. Applications under sections 5 and 6 must be accompanied by information concerning the type of services provided, the training, expertise and qualifications of the persons concerned, the procedures for ensuring compliance with this Act and the arrangements for assessing the quality of services.

Section 7 sets out the penalties for persons guilty of an offence under this Bill. It provides for penalties, which vary from a class A fine and up to 12 months in prison to a sentence of up to ten years in prison, depending on the seriousness of the offence against a child or vulnerable adult, regarding which information has been withheld. The ten year penalty would apply in the most serious cases, such as the withholding of information concerning the murder of a child.

Section 8 provides for the amendment of the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 in order to ensure that there is no overlap or duplication between the provisions of that Act and this Bill. Section 9 was introduced by way of amendment in the Seanad and corrects a minor oversight in the Criminal Justice (Female Genital Mutilation) Act 2012. Sections 10, 11 and 12 are standard provisions concerning the making of orders, expenses and commencement.

Schedule 1of the Bill sets out in detail the offences against children which must be reported to the Gardaí.Schedule 2sets out in detail the offences against vulnerable persons which must also be reported to the Gardaí. The offences are being listed individually in order to provide complete clarity as regards to the type of offences that constitute "serious offences" which must be reported under the law. Members of the House will be aware that this Bill is one element of a suite of legislation, namely, the Children First Bill and National Vetting Bureau Bill, to protect children and vulnerable persons, to which the Government is committed. In particular, this Bill has been drafted to complement the operation of the Children First Bill.

It might be helpful to the House if I elaborate further on how the Bill is to harmonise with the proposed Children First Bill, the scheme of which is currently under consideration by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The Government is bringing these two separate and distinct measures in recognition of the very separate and distinct roles of the Garda Síochána and the HSE with regard to the protection of children and vulnerable persons. The Garda Síochána is responsible for the investigation of criminal offences. The HSE is responsible for providing the necessary supports and monitoring for children at risk. This Bill focuses on the role of the Garda Síochána and requires those with information relating to a serious criminal offence to provide the Gardaí with that information so that they can investigate the alleged crime. The Children First Bill will address the role of the HSE. It requires that relevant persons in a position to assess children at risk of abuse must provide the HSE with the information necessary to monitor and provide supports to a child who may have been abused. Any criminal investigation will be conducted in a parallel investigation by the Garda.

The obligation under this Bill to disclose information is in addition to and, not in substitution for, any other reporting requirements. This recognises that the requirement to report information to the Garda Síochána and to the HSE are separate and distinct measures, which are necessary to protect children and vulnerable persons. I am pleased to inform the House that I will shortly publish the Bill to place the vetting of persons working with children and vulnerable adults on a statutory basis.

I thank Members of this House who have already provided support for this Bill in their contributions to the hearings by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on the draft heads of the Bill. I thank them also for their suggestions during those hearings on how the Bill as published could be improved. I am sure the debate on the Bill in this House will be informed and constructive. I look forward to that debate. I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his opening remarks on the Bill. I also thank him for allowing for a discussion at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on the Heads of the Bill, which was an informative process attended by various interested groups. I believe this part of the debate will be far more informed as a result of that process. I acknowledge the changes made by the Minister to the heads of the Bill based on that discussion and take this opportunity to compliment the Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, Deputy David Stanton and committee secretariat, who facilitated the attendance of the various groups at those hearings. This process has been repeated on a number of occasions in relation to other pieces of legislation. I acknowledge the Minister's role in ensuring that happened.

It is almost a year since the Cloyne report was published. Also, the report by Mr. Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons was recently published. I welcome that we are now putting in place robust legislation to ensure that the type of incidents reported in those reports will not happen again and that there can be no defence of ignorance in the future. On that basis, Fianna Fáil will be supporting this legislation. Fianna Fáil welcomes any legislation that genuinely strengthens child protection in Ireland. The Minister has been at pains to emphasise the legal side of this, which was the theme of much discussion at the hearings on the Bill. Many of the support groups were concerned that people who engaged with them would feel they had to make a legal claim. The Minister has made appropriate allocation for this situation. We would hate to think people would deny themselves the supports available for fear of having to go through the criminal law process. I welcome the fact the Minister improved the heads of the Bill to do this.

The big challenge with regard to the legislation is probably not with the Minister's Department but with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, in ensuring the resources the legislation will require are in place. She made comments over the weekend on her intention to pursue the Shannon and Gibbons report and I believe all of us will support her on this. On the passage of this legislation and the Children First legislation a very comprehensive information campaign will be necessary with regard to people's rights and responsibilities. This Bill and the Children First legislation mark a new era in the maintenance of information and the treatment of child protection complaints in this country. I know the Minister will agree, given his strong track record in this area, that we cannot have somebody claiming ignorance of the new legislation or regime in a weakened defence.

With such an information campaign it is probably inevitable to expect we will share the experiences of many other jurisdictions with regard to a surge in cases being reported. In the course of his summing up I ask the Minister to clarify what is meant by the reference in the Bill to knowledge previously available but not provided. Will this prevent the situation which happened in other jurisdictions whereby there was a huge increase in the number of complaints, some of which were vexatious? The difficulty with such an increase is that unless we ramp up the system some of the more serious complaints will get lost. When mandatory reporting was introduced in New South Wales it resulted in a 600% increase. Such an increase would be unbearable unless the appropriate resources are put in place.

The number of available social workers was increased on the basis of the Ryan report. However this pool was reduced through retirements last February and we need to ensure their replacements are found as quickly as possible. This is one of the difficulties and challenges facing the Minister and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. It is not the role of the Minister to put in place the budget for this but will he give us a guarantee or assurance that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, are aware of the potential consequences of this Bill in terms of their resources and that we will not have a situation whereby cases may get lost or delayed in the avalanche and victims may not get the justice they should expect to receive under the legislation? With regard to the expectations that are being created, many people did not have access to this type of legislation. Some people did not have the opportunity to access the legislation on the various redress schemes and we owe it to those who will now have such an opportunity that if they make a proper complaint it will not be lost in the avalanche of complaints that will arise out of this.

The national review panel stated its workload was virtually impossible to carry out because of the number and breadth of inquiries. Since March 2010, 35 children or young adults in HSE care or known to child protection services have died. This is in addition to those on which the report was issued last week. The national review panel highlighted several deficiencies in our current child protection system, several breaches of the Children First guidelines, inadequate supervision of HSE practices and an absence of a standardised method of assessing the needs of children and young people who came to the attention of social services. I know the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, is seeking to address all of this with the new children's agency. I ask the Minister to clarify whether the implementation of this legislation will be housed in the Department of Justice and Law Reform or the new children's agency? Which Department will be responsible for monitoring the legislation? Will it be the Department of Justice and Law Reform or the Department of Children and Youth Affairs?

It would be appropriate a year after the implementation of the legislation to have a report to the committee to examine whether a surge of complaints has been created, how such surges are managed, and whether the required resources for the implementation of the legislation are in place. This would be of assistance to everybody.

Mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse was never policy in any part of the UK and the Munro review there did not recommend it. However, given our history in this very small jurisdiction we must go down this road. We must give confidence that protection is available and that people's stories will be heard properly. We cannot avoid this. The safeguards to be put in place through this legislation will eventually weed out vexatious claims and gossip, as the Minister mentioned, and they are the last thing we need.

The biggest challenge we face is to ensure the resources are in place. We need to ensure when the new agency is being established that nothing gets lost in the transfer of responsibilities from the HSE to the new agency, as otherwise the legislation will be considerably weakened. There must be joint planning between the Minister for Justice and Law Reform and the Minister of Children and Youth Affairs in the coming weeks and months on the establishment of the new agency and ensuring the legislation is co-ordinated between the two Departments and the Department of Health and, most importantly, that a service delivery plan is co-ordinated with an appropriate budget in place and that we do not have the situation, as often arises, that one Department blames another if something does not happen. We can avoid this if the three Ministers, or people in their offices, take a share of the implementation and we have a joint implementation body, so that nobody can blame a crack in the system for the lack of implementing the legislation.

Those who are survivors of abuse may have mixed feelings about today. The Oireachtas is sending out a message that we are drawing a line under what happened previously and that there will be no hiding place for those who have information and will not share it. One will no longer be able to legally justify - and in my opinion one could never have justified it morally - hiding information on the abuse of a child regardless of the role one has. We will now have the power of the law behind this. It is being done in a way to dissuade gossip, messers and people with alternative agendas other than the interests of a child and it is to be welcomed. The committee debate on the heads of the Bill was constructive and I hope this constructive debate continues on Second Stage. We are due to take Committee Stage next week so it will not be a challenge for us to implement this and have it signed into law prior to the summer recess.

Photo of Jonathan O'BrienJonathan O'Brien (Cork North Central, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the fact that the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality had an opportunity to discuss the heads of the Bill. This has been done on a number of occasions and in this case we are seeing the benefits of it in how the Bill has been presented and the changes made since the heads of the Bill were first published.

Deputy Calleary touched on many of the issues on which I was going to speak so I will not go into detail on them. There is an obvious need to ensure the related Bills coming before the House, including this Bill, the Children First Bill, the national vetting bureau Bill and the mental capacity Bill, compliment each other. The Ombudsman for Children has already indicated we need to be very aware that various pieces of legislation are being brought forward. Some people would have liked to have seen this Bill and the Children First Bill streamlined. I agree with the analysis the Minister outlined in his closing remarks. I think having two separate Bills was the prudent way to go about it. We can see the benefits of that in the Bill that has been published. Obviously, we will have much more discussion on Committee Stage next week. The Sinn Féin office is drafting a number of minor amendments to try to improve and strengthen this legislation. We hope the Minister will be able to take them on board.

Deputy Calleary made an important point about resources. He said that when this Bill is finally enacted, there will have to be a public information and awareness campaign focusing on what is contained in this Bill and on the responsibilities of individuals and organisations. We cannot allow anyone to use ignorance as an excuse for their failure to report a suspected case of child abuse. It is important for a broad public information campaign to be financed.

Deputy Calleary mentioned some statistics which reveal that the number of cases being reported in other jurisdictions increased when legislation of this nature was introduced. We have to be aware that additional resources are required in such circumstances. In the brief period since I was elected to this House, I have seen how this problem has arisen with regard to legislation that was enacted before I became a Deputy. Problems arise when legislation is enacted but the necessary resources and finances are not provided to ensure the legislation does what it is supposed to do. In this case, it is important for us quickly to identify and put in place the resources that will be necessary. We cannot use our economic circumstances in any way to lessen the provision of the resources that will be needed to deal with the increase in the number of reported cases. When the Fines Act 2010 was introduced, we failed to provide the resources required to implement it. As a result, well-intentioned legislation that was passed by this House became redundant. We cannot allow that to happen in this instance.

I agree that the operation of the legislation before the House should be reviewed after 12 months. I suggest that a report should be submitted to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality or the Joint Committee on Health and Children to enable us to ascertain whether the resources which will be necessary to deal with the likely increase in the number of reported cases are being put place. In such circumstances, we will be able to identify any gaps that exist. We will also be able to specify where additional resources are needed and ensure they are provided. I concur with what has been said about the need for clear lines of communication. When this Bill has been enacted, we will have to make it clear who will monitor this legislation.

The Minister touched on the contents of section 2(4), which deals with the issue of privilege. I welcome his comment that this legislation will apply to every individual and every organisation, regardless of who or what they are. I echo those comments because no individual should have any opportunity, following the enactment of this legislation, to be under the illusion that he or she does not have a legal responsibility, in addition to his or her moral and legal responsibility, to act. If such a person fails to act, he or she will be guilty of a criminal offence. I welcome that because it is important.

Some groups that addressed the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality expressed concern about how the practical aspects of the legislation will work out. There was a fear that if the legislation was too robust, it might deter victims from coming forward. Some victims might not be ready to report cases of abuse. That has been addressed to some extent. We will have to examine it much more closely on Committee Stage next week. The Minister mentioned that this matter is dealt with in section 4(8) of the Bill. That will alleviate some of the concerns that exist. We will discuss it in much more detail on Committee Stage. We must ensure that victims who need support services are not apprehensive about coming forward because of a fear that they might be held liable under this legislation if they do not report cases. Equally, such people might be afraid that those to whom they wish to speak might be obliged to report what they say. The Minister touched on such issues. We will consider them further.

I look forward to next week's Committee Stage debate. My party will facilitate the quickest possible passage of this legislation through the House. However, we have to be careful not to rush it. We need to get it right. I expect to table a number of amendments on Committee Stage next week. I hope they can be discussed in detail and thrashed out. When Committee Stage has been completed, I hope the Bill can be passed before the summer recess. We cannot afford to delay it. The quicker we can put in place the collective legislation in this regard - this Bill, the Children First Bill, the vetting Bill and the legal capacity Bill, all of which will complement each other - the better it will be for all concerned.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary South, Independent)
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I am delighted to speak on the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012. I welcome some of the comments that have been made by the Minister. The report that was published last week, like the other reports of recent years, reminds us that we cannot leave any stone unturned as we try to ensure there is no ambiguity about the fact that those who might wish to evade prosecution, having failed to pass on certain information, cannot be allowed to find a hiding place in this country. Regardless of how slight one might think that information is, one must understand that one has a clear responsibility to pass it on. If one does not do so, one will be open to being questioned, charged, arraigned and brought to court - if not necessarily found guilty - and it will be up to the court to determine whether one had the right or privilege to withhold the information in question. If charges of any kind are brought, one cannot be under any illusions about what one failed to do.

Many reports have been produced over the past decade or more. As public representatives, we often hear harrowing tales when we meet victims, families and support groups. Some people are not members of support groups and are not looking for any financial compensation. I was interested - perhaps that is the wrong word - to meet a non-aligned group of people from several denominations last week. They made it clear to me that this is not confined to the Catholic Church. Many people, including me, were or are of the opinion that it is confined to the Catholic Church. I was told by the group that made the submission in question that this is far from the truth. We know now that it crosses all divides, religious or otherwise. There is evidence of that throughout the world. That does not lessen or make easier the horrific acts perpetrated against juveniles and against the human being. No effort should be spared to deal with such cases. In that context, I commend the Government for bringing forward this legislation.

Debate adjourned.