Wednesday, 23 May 2018
36. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality the steps he is taking to protect against social media platforms being used for cyberbullying; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22693/18]
The cyberbully knows no boundaries. I have spoken to many parents in my area who are very concerned about the safety of their children because the cyberbully can follow them home from school and reach all the way into the bedroom. It is relentless. They need to know action is being taken to support families and to protect children. What action is the Government taking to support people who are being bullied online?
I assure the Deputy that the Government recognises the importance of integrated actions across all relevant Departments to address online safety, including in order to tackle cyberbullying.
Together with my colleagues, the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs, Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Education and Skills, Deputies Zappone, Denis Naughten and Bruton, I appeared before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs as part of its examination of cybersecurity for children and young adults. In March, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment hosted an open policy debate with a wide range of stakeholders to consider future actions in this area.
On foot of this, all relevant Departments with responsibility in this area are working together to develop a whole-of-Government approach in the form of an integrated action plan. This work is being taken forward under the auspices of the relevant Cabinet committee.
It is important to remember that many forms of harmful online content and behaviours, including cyberbullying, are not necessarily criminal in nature. There is a general consensus that the appropriate response to addressing such online issues is one that encompasses educational and awareness-raising campaigns, as well as effective actions and policies on the part of Internet companies.
A number of initiatives are under way across Government to promote Internet safety, particularly where children are concerned. My Department, for example, operates the Office for Internet Safety, which provides information and guidance on various aspects of Internet safety, principally in the form of online material on subjects such as filtering, using social media and the vexed question of cyberbullying. Similarly, Webwise, which operates under the aegis of the Department of Education and Skills, develops guidance on internet safety for use in the education sector.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, my primary responsibilities in this area relate to the development of effective responses under the criminal law. An important consideration is that the criminal law targets behaviour that is illegal, whether online or offline.
The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs published a comprehensive report in March which contains recommendations on various issues of concern to families and outlines some practical steps to make children safer online. Those recommendations include: the establishment of a digital safety commissioner; and the updating of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 to include the specific offences of harassment and stalking. What action has been taken to implement the recommendations? These are clear and measurable actions that can be taken by the Government. The Minister referred briefly to a new action plan for Internet safety which is due to be launched in June. Is that on target? If it is not, why is that the case? We need to see greater urgency in respect of this matter. Many of these issues have been highlighted previously, some as long ago as 2014.
I accept that there is an urgency here and that this is extremely important. The Deputy will appreciate that the best means by which this issue is addressed is through a whole-of-Government approach. That is why my colleagues, the Ministers for Children and Youth Affairs, Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Education and Skills share responsibility in this area. From my perspective, the Department of Justice and Equality has been working to bring forward additional legislation on foot of the report of the Law Reform Commission, LRC, on harmful communications and digital safety published in September 2016.
As Minister for Justice and Equality, I am committed to working with colleagues across politics to ensure that we make the rapid progress that Deputy Aindrias Moynihan feels is essential. I agree with him that progress is essential and I would be happy to hear from all and any Deputies who are in a position to work with me on this. I recently accepted a Labour Party Private Member's Bill along broadly similar lines to the legislation that was in the course of being drafted in my Department. This Bill has now progressed through Second Stage in the Dáil and I look forward to working on its further development as part of the overall integrated approach we are putting in place across Government to tackle these important issues.
The Minister and I both referred to the Oireachtas committee's report and the specifics with regard to updating legislation. What action has been taken by the Department on updating the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act? The specific offence of stalking must be provided for in legislation and this was highlighted in 2016. The Minister did not refer to a digital safety commissioner at all in his reply. The recommendation in that regard is that a digital safety commissioner would implement existing safety measures, support parents with information and education and inform the Minister in respect of policy. What action has been taken on the recommendation regarding a digital safety commissioner? The setting up of such an office is one step that could happen quite quickly while we wait for the aforementioned legislative measures.
This issue was raised yesterday in the audiovisual room of Leinster House, where the mother of a young girl who took her own life gave a very powerful and telling presentation on what her daughter endured as a result of physical bullying and cyberbullying. She spoke of the impact of her daughter's suicide on herself and on her 14 year old son who found his sister hanging from a dog lead in the hallway of their house. She called for a review of and an amendment to the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, as referred to by Deputy Andrias Moynihan. The bullying had been known about for a long time and gardaí had been involved but they felt powerless to act. I was really taken by that lady's presentation yesterday and I ask the Minister to consider meeting her. That would add a sense of urgency to where we go with this issue.
I received a detailed briefing from my colleague, Deputy Neville, on that meeting yesterday, which was very much in line with what Deputy Curran has described. I would say to both Deputies that what we are seeing here is a whole-of-Government approach to this issue. A senior officials' group, convened by the Department of the Taoiseach, is working on the development of an appropriate action plan and feedback from the recent open policy seminar has informed the development of that plan. This work is being taken forward under the auspices of an appropriate Cabinet committee.
I assure the Deputies that I am very mindful of the need to urgently review the body of relevant legislation. I refer Deputies to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which amended the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 and significantly strengthened the criminal law in the matter of combating child exploitation. We are working on a whole-of-Government response. My responsibility, in the context of criminal law, is to feed into the legislative process and I hope to bring forward amending legislation shortly along the lines recommended in the LRC's report, with the assistance of Bills already drafted by other Members of this House.