Dáil debates

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage


5:30 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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In accordance with the Standing Order of the Dáil of 28 April 2021, it is not necessary to agree an Order for Second Stage.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to bring the Bill before the House. This is an extremely important Bill ,which will enhance the monitoring of convicted sex offenders upon release from prison, leading to increased public safety. I have no doubt that every Member shares my commitment to keeping our communities, and particularly women and children, safe from the trauma caused by sexual violence. This Bill aims to do so by strengthening the powers that currently exist for monitoring sex offenders and to restrict their activities where that is necessary. We must strike a balance between monitoring and restricting offenders and support them in their rehabilitation. Reintegration is an important factor in reducing offending. This Bill aims to strike that balance by ensuring that monitoring and restrictions are informed by the risk posed in individual cases and that interventions and conditions can be targeted and can be varied by the courts to be as effective as possible.

The amendments to the Sex Offenders Act 2001 outlined in this Bill reflect the Government's commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in our society from harm. The Bill addresses the risks posed by sex offenders following their release, but it is only one strand of a much broader body of work my Department is undertaking to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and to keep communities safe. Combating this violence has been a priority for me since taking office. The way our system has historically treated victims of domestic and sexual violence has, quite simply, not been good enough. Victims do not feel supported and the system did not protect them from further trauma. It is not surprising that this has deterred people from coming forward. Working to change this is a priority for me and while we have made much progress in the past 18 months, our intensive efforts to make the system more responsive to the needs of victims will continue.

Supporting a Victim's Journey, when fully implemented, will create a victim-centred approach that protects and supports vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. We know, for example, that training in this area is crucial. Every person I meet stresses how important the training piece is. All the staff who engage with vulnerable victims will receive training on victim engagement and on understanding the victim's perspective. We have implemented significant reform in this area. This includes legislation for preliminary trial hearings, increased funding for NGOs providing court accompaniment and related information and support services and a review of grants for organisations supporting victims, which has identified gaps in service provision and is working with partners to try to address them. The first cohort of staff at a new sexual offences unit in the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, formally took up their roles in April and I am hearing that this is having a positive impact. The University of Limerick, UL, has been commissioned by the Department to develop the framework for the operation and training of intermediaries to work with those who need their support going through a trial process. The improved victims charter website which provides repository of information for victims has been updated and will continue to be updated and progressed.

Under budget 2022, a total of €13 million is being allocated to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and to support victims, an increase of €5 million on the previous year. Raising awareness and working to change the acceptance of what should be socially acceptable or unacceptable behaviour is another important area of work to combat all forms of sexual harassment and sexual violence. The No Excuses campaign being run by my Department raises awareness of sexual harassment and violence. The campaign aims to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviour and attitudes and to activate bystanders to intervene where it is safe to do so. Work is also under way on a national campaign on the meaning and importance of healthy consent in a sexual context. It is important to outline the wider context in which we consider the Bill, as I am very conscious that it addresses only one area of concern to victims of sexual offences, albeit a very important one.

I will outline what is proposed in it. The Sexual Offenders Act 2001 provides the legislative basis for the monitoring of convicted sex offenders in the State. This Bill aims simply to strengthen the Act. Part 1 is a standard Part, which gives the Title and definitions used in the Bill. Part 2 deals with the amendments to the Sex Offenders Act 2001. The Bill introduces new definitions into the Act of 2001. Of particular note is the substitution of "vulnerable person" for "mentally impaired" person to replace the outdated language of the 2001 Act. A significant feature of the Bill is the changes to the notification requirements, also known as the sex offenders register.

The 2001 Act requires those who are subject the Act to notify An Garda Síochána of any changes in address within seven days. It also required offenders to notify the Garda if they are outside the State or away from their home address for more than seven days. The Bill proposes to reduce the notification period to three days. If an offender leaves their home address for three days or more, they will need to inform the Garda in person of this change. This will ensure that the Garda has the most up-to-date information on the whereabouts of the convicted sex offenders.

Sex offenders will now also be required to notify the Garda every 12 months of their home address. For example, an offender, who has not moved house, left their home address for a qualifying period or travelled abroad, will now be required to notify their address to the Garda every 12 months. This requirement does not exist currently. If a member of the Garda is not satisfied that the offender making the notification has a home address, the Garda can require that person to notify every third day the place they intend to reside that night until the Garda is satisfied that a home address has been acquired.

The Bill also proposes changes to how an offender makes a notification. Currently they can notify the Garda in writing. This will be changed to reporting in person with notifying in writing only available to those who are outside the State for a period longer than intended. Provisions have has been made for those who cannot report in person due to disability. A person convicted outside the State who becomes a resident or who stays in Ireland for qualifying time will also have the notification period reduced to three days. These changes will bring the notification requirements in line with those in the Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Bill makes changes to the length of time an offender who is under the age of 18 will be subject to the notification requirements. This will now be determined by the courts and shall not exceed five years. The Bill proposes giving the Garda the power to take fingerprints palm prints and photographs of offenders. The purpose of these provisions is to verify the identity of a person who is making a notification and to assist in locating an offender if he or she absconds. It will be an offence to fail or refuse to give fingerprints, palm prints or photographs.

The Bill will place the existing sex offenders risk assessment and management multi-agency structure, known as SORAM, on a statutory basis, which is not the case currently. It provides for the establishment of assessment teams comprising the Garda, the Probation Service, the HSE, Tusla, the housing authorities and any other relevant agency to assess and to manage the risk posed by high-risk offenders. Providing a statutory basis for SORAM will ensure that the sharing of information to enable the assessment and management of risk of convicted sex offenders is legally sound; that it is compliant with the rights of offenders; and that it is limited to the information necessary while still meeting the justifiable public safety objective.

The Bill provides the Garda with the power to disclose information about a sex offender's previous convictions to a member or members of the public, but only where the person poses a risk of causing harm. I understand that disclosure of information to the public about sex offenders is a sensitive issue. Some would argue such information should be more widely available. However, if information on sex offenders is widely available to the public there is a general feeling that this would increase the risk of sex offenders going underground, which would, of course, hamper the ability of the Garda and the Probation Service to manage the risk posed by them.

I want offenders to engage with the services. Rehabilitation and reintegration are essential to reduce the risk of reoffending and to keep our communities safer. That is why disclosure is limited under the provisions of the Bill so that if the Garda believe a risk is posed to a member of the public by an offender, it will have discretion to disclose information about the offender. A clear example would be if an offender was convicted of offences against a child and perhaps they started a relationship with a person who had a child or children and it was felt that there was a risk.

Provision is also made for the sharing of relevant information about an offender with police services outside of the State. The legislation will also allow the Garda to publish information on an offender if the whereabouts of the offender is unknown to locate him or her again. This can only take place where there is risk to public safety.

The protection of children and the most vulnerable in our society is at the core of this legislation. With this in mind, it proposes to provide that a court can impose a prohibition on a convicted sex offender from working with children and vulnerable adults. I want to ensure this applies to volunteering as well as working. In considering whether to impose a prohibition, the court will have regard to the need to protect children or vulnerable persons from serious harm by the offender and the need to prevent the commission of subsequent sexual offences. Safeguards are built into the measure to ensure it is fair and proportionate. Non-compliance with prohibition will be an offence punishable on indictment by imprisonment for up to five years.

Under the 2001 Act, the Garda can apply to the court for a sex offender order to compel a person not to do certain things. The new legislation allows the Garda to apply to the court to discharge or vary the order. For example, if the offender has been ordered not to loiter in the vicinity of a school playground but is then found to be loitering in the vicinity of another place where children may congregate, the Garda can apply to the court to have him or her ordered away from this place as well as anywhere similar.

Another important proposal in this legislation is the introduction of electronic monitoring of sex offenders. Under the Bill, a court may order the electronic monitoring of a convicted sex offender who is subject to a post-release supervision order or a sex offender order that includes a condition restricting the offender's movement. It is important to acknowledge that while electronic monitoring is a complex area, there is evidence that electronic monitoring can be effective in respect of sex offenders when it is used for a short duration in tandem with other interventions, such as probation supervision. That is what is being proposed in this Bill.

The aim of the Bill is to provide our courts with a range of appropriate tools and interventions to monitor and reduce the risks posed by sex offenders, to facilitate rehabilitation and, most important, to protect every member of the public. Electronic monitoring is one way of doing that and that is why I want to give the courts that option.

The Bill contains important provisions that will enhance the monitoring and the management of sex offenders in the community. The provisions have been carefully designed to strike the right balance between the rights of the offender and the need to protect our community. I thank those in the House who have supported this Bill to date and I look forward to the debate this evening.

5:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Martin Kenny is sharing time with Deputy Pa Daly.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Bill before the House. In many ways, it long overdue. While parts of it are quite technical, given the subject matter that is probably to be expected. I wish to take the opportunity to look in detail at the provisions in the Bill. Members of the public will be shocked that many of the current practices relating to sex offenders have not had the proper legal standing until now.

The Bill proposes to provide a legal basis for the further monitoring of those on the State sex offenders register, including the ability to perform risk assessment on offenders. The approach to further monitoring includes changes to the current notification requirements; a provision for the courts to prohibit an offender from working with vulnerable people and children; and a provision for electronic monitoring or tagging to ensure post-release compliance by offenders who are subject to sex offender orders.

The amendments also finally empower the Garda to collect photographs, fingerprints and palm prints to identify offenders. It will allow a Garda inspector to apply for changes to or discharge from the sexual offender order. Currently, this can only be carried out by a chief superintendent. Furthermore, the amendments will allow the Garda to disclose information to the public related to the offender on the register in specific circumstances. I will return to that matter shortly, but I want to outline what is proposed in the Bill first.

The Bill will provide a statutory footing for the SORAM multi-agency process. After reading through the Bill, I do not understand why many of these measures were not in place and why it took so long to introduce them. The original legislation, which is being amended here, is the Sex Offenders Act 2001. Here we are 20 years later introducing many of these necessary amendments to it. Many of these amendments are years overdue, as I think the Minister will accept.

One of the main examples is section 20 ,which inserts a new Part 4A that explicitly prohibits anyone, subject to a sex offender order, working with children or vulnerable people. I would have expected that to have been in place as standard. As it currently stands, the onus is on the Judiciary to include this restriction in a sex offender order and the only responsibility on the offender is to inform their employer of that order. It is disgraceful that was not dealt with before now. This provision should have been contained in the 2001 Act and it is mind-boggling that it has taken 20 years to sort this out.

As part of shaping any policy, my colleagues and I will meet with relevant stakeholders, especially in cases of legislation governing subjects such as sex crimes and domestic violence.

We are always led by the front-line workers and those who deal with the victims of these crimes, as well as victim organisations and support groups. Sinn Féin has specific policy on these crimes and amendments such as this were dealt with by my colleagues in the North a number of years ago. The stance came directly as a result of stakeholder engagement.

Sexual crimes are particularly serious, life-disturbing and grave crimes. It is probably difficult for me to find the words to describe the enormous and long-standing impact that these sexual crimes have on their victims, families, friends and the wider community. Many people I have met have told me this. These amendments need to be victim-focused, and for the most part they probably are, although many are years overdue. I note the statement released by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre yesterday, which welcomed the amendments but cautioned that these changes must be followed with adequate resourcing.

The most obvious example of this relates to the proposals on electronic monitoring or tagging by anyone subject to a sex offender's order. We support the use of electronic monitoring but I am also quite concerned about the ability of the Garda information and communications technology, ICT, system to support this. I know from conversations I have had with members of An Garda Síochána that its current ICT system is long overdue an overhaul. The last thing people want is that when an electronic monitoring system is introduced, it could collapse under the pressure. Will the Minister outline if the electronic monitoring will be in line with the Council of Europe recommendations on such monitoring?

I urge caution on the amendment allowing gardaí to disclose the identity of an offender in specific circumstances where there is an immediate and serious risk to the community and where the offender is living. The last thing we want to see is an offender being identified, which could, in turn, inadvertently identify the victim as well. It is something about which we must be especially careful and I trust the Department will introduce strict circumstances for the disclosure of that type of information.

My colleagues and I support the legislation and I am hopeful the Minister has taken note of the concerns we have around some parts of it. When it goes to Committee Stage, we might consider amendments for particular matters. The message is we need to manage and restrict offenders but we must also offer support and reassurance to victims and survivors. We must put the recovery of victims at the centre of the legislation in this way.

5:50 pm

Photo of Pa DalyPa Daly (Kerry, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister for her statement and I agree with many of her comments. It is a very important matter and a serious topic. As has been outlined by my colleague, Deputy Kenny, it is a complicated matter and it is not black and white. It is important for the victims of sexual violence and only this week we saw members of one family in the North speak out about violence they suffered. This took immense bravery and we must do all we can to support victims.

We should look at the recommendations of Supporting a Victim's Journey and ensure the justice system can become more hospitable to those who have suffered while maintaining a proper balance between their need for justice and the rights we need to afford to defendants for a fair trial. At the same time, we must be mindful that resources and measures such as those proposed in the Bill are not sufficient by themselves and some of these crimes relate to a lack of social care or social work in many cases. We must provide resources for the Garda and others. The Minister mentioned reintegration into society, with which I will deal in a moment.

I note Adult Safeguarding Day is this week and it is important to acknowledge that vulnerable people are at a far higher risk of becoming victims of sexual offences. As the Minister outlined, this Bill attempts to strengthen the legal basis to allow courts to ban convicted offenders from working with children and vulnerable adults, for example, which is important, given the risks outlined.

In a similar vein, I have been examining possible amendments to the Garda vetting system that would improve its function. We saw one of the flaws in the current vetting system with recent attempts by hospitals to hire workers who have not been seen as Garda-vetted, leading to delays of six weeks, despite the people in question being Garda-vetted for sports organisations and clubs and given a clean record. Another flaw in the current vetting system is a lack of any proactive requirement on gardaí to inform employers where an individual may be in contact with vulnerable people when a conviction occurs after the vetting has concluded. I hope to introduce a Bill that would go some way to addressing that matter.

Placing the SORAM programme on a statutory footing is also a good idea, as the Minister mentioned. The SORAM currently operates on a non-statutory basis, as she outlined, but the information shared between the various agencies will only be as good as the resources provided to them. Tusla, in particular, is struggling to recruit qualified staff and this must be addressed.

There is also a matter to be addressed within the wider criminal justice system relating to these crimes and although the register contains largely only the most serious of sexual crimes, its expansion should be considered carefully. It is important to get the legislation right and although we are happy to support it through to the next Stage, some provisions may need to be addressed.

The proposed section 14B(2) indicates a representative of a housing authority may be included in the panel of risk assessment but it does not mention what qualifications that person must have in such an important role. The proposed section indicates any member of the team can share information with his or her own organisation or body to effectively assess and manage the offender and risk of harm to the community afterwards, which seems quite loose to me. The provision may need to be strengthened. The team, as constituted, should have to make that decision to share information and there should be conditions for doing so. It looks quite informal and subjective, lacking in transparency or having sufficient reasons to do so in individual cases.

With regard to the proposed section 14E, it is always important to maintain proper records for any type of system where there are severe consequences for somebody's liberty. For example, if a person is arrested for questioning in a Garda station and the period is extended by 12 hours, a proper record must be kept. The proposed section 14E refers to an inspector disclosing information but that should be a superintendent. He or she should have to record the decision in writing, just as is done when detention is being extended. There is an overall lack of record keeping in the legislation and the relevant parties should certify if they decide to do something and the grounds used. Any garda giving such a direction should be required to send a notification to the Garda Commissioner and a report on the use of this section should be required every year. The lack of such record keeping in a central repository could be troublesome in years to come if it were used in the wrong way. We are sometimes only a High Court case away from a system collapsing so it is important to get it right.

The proposed section 14F allows a person to make a submission against the proposed disclosure but it only gives five days to do so. I am intrigued as to why the seven-day period was reduced. Is this just to bring it in line with British legislation or were there complaints from An Garda Síochána that led to the period being reduced to three days? It gives five days to make a submission against the proposed disclosure but there is no provision for legal assistance. The period allowed seems quite short.

The proposed section 16C in the principal Act refers to contractual arrangements being put in place to monitor compliance, but what type of contractual arrangements does the Minister envisage? Some other provisions can be dealt with on Committee Stage but it is important we get this right. Reckless law making could mean a victim could eventually suffer if some provisions were struck down as unconstitutional.

As I indicated earlier, there are also some problems with addressing the rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners. Having spoken with prison governors over the years, I know many, if not most, people who have been convicted of sexual offences do not engage with counselling programmes in prisons. If they did, it would prevent repeat offending and keep communities safe. Difficult decisions may have to be taken to ensure more of them engage to keep communities safe. Sexual offenders are correctly seen as offenders who are different from others but the integrity of the wider criminal rehabilitative system must be maintained. I look forward to examining the Bill further on Committee Stage.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister back to the Chamber as this is my first opportunity to do so. I wish her well. As my colleagues have stated, we support this Bill. Some of the changes in the Bill are welcome and some are not before their time.

For example, sex offenders will have to notify gardaí within three days rather than the current seven days if they have a change of address. This would enable gardaí to track where the sex offender is. However, the sex offender should be required to notify gardaí immediately on or even prior to a change of address. What if the sex offender's new home was beside a school or playschool? This needs to be taken into account. The provision of notice after a person moves could lead to a reactive approach rather than proactive approach. It would help if notice was given before the move.

As I have said, to manage the movements of sex offenders properly we also need to increase spending on Garda ICT to support the roll-out of the amendments fully. Garda ICT services have received little funding since they were first introduced in the late 1990s. While some funding was announced in budget 2022, we are unsure how exactly and where it will be spent. While the introduction by the Government of new powers to tackle sex offenders is welcome, the Garda must be properly resourced to enforce them. While bans on working with children or vulnerable people have been made in the courts in the past, the Bill will now provide explicit powers for that. As Deputy Martin Kenny said earlier, putting these explicit powers in place is long overdue. As a society, we should never be in a position where a person convicted of a sexual offence against a child is permitted to work with children or vulnerable people, or volunteer in a place where children are.

The Bill makes provision for the electronic monitoring of sex offenders to assist in ensuring offenders comply with a sex offender order or a post-release supervision order. Electronic monitoring will only work if sufficient resources are available to ensure the monitoring really happens. If there is a breach, for instance, someone goes into a banned space, resources must be available to follow up and investigate that matter. Collating changes in addresses of sex offenders will only work if the Garda have the proper ICT equipment in place.

We also need to put in place measures that ensure survivors of sexual crimes are better supported before, during and after their trial. This should include measures regarding anonymity, court representation and other general support services, which for the most part are offered by the rape crisis centres throughout the country that do tremendous work despite surviving on very thin budgets. Justice delayed is often justice denied. Challenges are caused by court adjournments, when survivors prepare themselves for trial on a certain date and find out that it is postponed to a later date, which may be several months away. This has significant consequences for survivors who prepare themselves emotionally for the trial process as well as make the practical arrangements for time off work, childcare, or travel and accommodation when the trial is due to take place outside their locality.

The media also has a part to play on how it reports instances of rape. There seems to be a culture of survivor blaming. I use the word "victim" as this is often used when the media portray these crimes. Reports state that the victim was drunk, the victim was alone, or the victim left with the perpetrator willingly. I can go on. Let me be clear on one point: there is only one cause of rape and that is the rapist. Rape is not caused by decisions victims make. Rape is caused by an individual who decides to perpetrate a sexual crime on another person. The cause of rape is the perpetrator of that crime. The cause of rape is the rapist.

6:00 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I welcome this legislation. In recent years, we have come to a much better understanding of the nature of and enormous damage done by sex offenders. After decades of weak or ineffective legislation, we have incrementally moved to strengthen our laws and to develop supports for victims. It is an ongoing process as our understanding and knowledge deepens and we still have a long way to go, particularly in providing proper supports.

Building a legal framework is critically important, but building a community support is more important than anything else. The network of rape crisis centres now available is an invaluable resource. In my home town of Wexford, there is a brand new rape crisis centre funded by Government that is about to be officially opened. It is an invaluable resource and has great voluntary and professional support groups. As society learns more about things that were unsaid and undone, unnoticed and unacted upon in the past, we have a greater understanding of things now.

The depressing array of reports and investigations of sexual abuse cast an ugly light on Irish society over many decades. It has taken us a long time to come to terms with the way we were and, of course, the way we still are in many instances because it is a process of education. We learned about the institutional abuse in State sponsored, if not State run, institutions, and how generations of Irish people were horrendously abused. We learned of ongoing abuse in the domestic setting, which was a taboo area for decades. What went on within the family setting was to be uncommented upon and was certainly not to be interfered with. Women in particular suffered terrible abuse. One of the most striking events I recall from my experience as a Deputy was relatively early on when I was visited in one of my clinics in County Wexford by a woman in her sixties who had the first conversation she had ever had with anybody. She felt she could come and talk. She told me that her life had been a torment, that she had been abused by her husband for decades and had reared a family whose children abused her in turn because that was the pattern. These were shocking things that often went unreported in our society for a very long time.

There are different types of abuse now. There is online abuse where lives are destroyed by the commentary made online. I thank the Minister for her and her Department's very strong support for Coco's law, which I was pleased to introduce some years ago, that was eventually passed through the Oireachtas with the support of all Deputies in this House and was enacted into law of the land. That was an important bulwark in itself, but was only yet another brick in the wall we need to build to protect people.

We need to have rape crisis centres and make them accessible. We need to make counselling available, which is not always available, in a timely fashion to people. We need to have helplines available for all vulnerable people - men and women - who need to reach out to somebody to be able to have that conversation which has been suppressed, often for years if not decades. I truly believe that the Minister has a deep understanding of these issues and is determined to make a substantial difference. Labour Party Members, from our benches, will strongly support her in that endeavour.

The establishment of a sex offenders register in 2001 was a most important measure, although its initial version needed very substantial improvement. It was a written register - literally a ledger - in its first iteration, with extraordinarily limited effectiveness. It was the idea of having a register which people understood they could check somebody's past record. Deputies have said that sex offenders are different. They are different in a number of ways. Usually, when someone is convicted of a crime, the courts pass an appropriate sentence. Once that sentence is served, that person is free to rejoin society in an completely open way.

We have to regard sex offenders differently because we have to protect people from reoffending. Deputy Daly made a very strong point with regard to the number of people who are in prison, having been convicted of what are sometimes very serious sexual offences, and who refuse, as they are entitled to, to engage in any form of treatment or support. They are often still in denial, even after a court case and conviction, and lack an appreciation or understanding of the nature of the harm they have inflicted. I do not have a solution to that. I do not know how a requirement for some form of mandatory treatment could be introduced. However, it is a fact that, statistically, sex offenders are at a real risk of reoffending after release. It is for that reason we established a sex offenders register 20 years ago and that such offenders are required to be subject to ongoing monitoring and so on.

I would be interested in a proper briefing on the effectiveness of the current register at some stage. I was dismayed to hear how ineffective its original iteration was. However, it continues to be an important measure. We need to improve it. In the legislation before the House, the Minister has set out a number of significant improvements to an array of legislation in light of our deepening understanding of sex offenders and sex offences. The requirement to notify An Garda Síochána of a change of address within three days rather than the existing seven days is important. There is merit to it even on the basis of putting it in sync with what happens in the United Kingdom. That is a good thing in and of itself. Three days is a reasonable period of time. If anybody who is on the sex offenders register is going to be in a different place for longer than that, he or she will be required to notify An Garda Síochána of his or her new locale to allow for monitoring and an understanding of the situation.

In respect of the specific powers to allow courts to prohibit sex offenders from working with children and vulnerable adults, I agree with other Deputies who have spoken. It is a surprising addition at this stage. One would have imagined it would have been open to the courts to make such a determination in the past rather than only requiring that an employer or potential employer be informed of the offence record of an individual who might potentially have access to vulnerable people or children. I strongly welcome the coming into effect of this provision.

Specific powers for An Garda Síochána to take fingerprints, palm prints and photographs to confirm identity is also something one would have imagined was already there. Is such a provision not available under general criminal legislation in any event? If it needs to be made specific and strengthened in this Bill, I will strongly support it.

There will also be specific authorisation to disclose information about a sexual offender in limited circumstances. This is something we have to consider because it is a difficult and fraught area. Anyone who has looked at the international experience will understand why. We certainly do not want vigilantism. We have seen a case in Wales where someone with a similar name to an offender became the focus of public ire and, worse, public violence. There is a balance to be struck. It is to be hoped sex offenders who have been through treatment and the prison system can be rehabilitated. They cannot be excluded from all society forevermore. There would be heightened concern if there was to be general access to the register. In many societies the right to know is enshrined in law, particularly in individual states of the United States. What happens is that either the individuals involved go underground and create an alternative persona for themselves, which is illegal and puts them outside the law again, or they simply cannot live because of the focus upon them. These are very difficult areas because the countervailing point is that, if you were raising your family and an especially grievous sex offender was moving onto your street or next to you, by God you would want to know. You would think you had the right to know and would be dismayed at not knowing. As I have said, I do not have an answer for that.

The formula of words the Minister has used in setting out these provisions limits their use to exceptional circumstances where there is a potential to do harm to prevent that harm, but we need to tease out exactly what that means and in what circumstances they apply because we have seen individual cases in the United Kingdom in very recent times where members of the police force took photographs and released them, which did terrible harm to the family of a victim of crime. It is something the Minister has obviously given a great deal of consideration to but I would like to hear about the specific international analysis that has been done, what is best practice internationally and how we can arrive at a balance that ensures people can have a right to know while making it possible for released prisoners who have served their sentences to have some life and existence.

Specific teams have been established for some time. I refer to the sex offender risk assessment and management, SORAM, teams consisting of gardaí, Probation Service personnel, Tusla officers and, as the Minister has indicated, perhaps even Housing Authority personnel. Again, we might consider this matter and have some conversation about it. Obviously, these teams have to manage and consider risk, but we need to know who is making those evaluations and how that is being done. We need to ensure some level of consistency across the jurisdiction in respect of these matters because each group established will consist of different individuals who may have different perspectives. We need to have standard guidelines, understandings and monitoring to ensure they operate well. I am conscious they are already operating but we are now giving them legislative underpinning. In that legislative underpinning, we might also want to ensure consistency, objectivity and oversight of the decision-making process and the specific decisions arrived at. I make that point now.

The discharge or variation of a sex offender order is provided for in the legislation before the House. This is again something that has merit. The Minister spoke about youth offenders having an automatic right of discharge after a period of time. Very grievous harms have been done by individuals who are under 18 and therefore children under our legislation. We have seen that in other jurisdictions as well. The overarching principle that must underpin this legislation, and all legislation in this area, is the prevention of further harm. As I have said, we cannot impose permanent preventative custody. I am not suggesting that for a second, but when sex offender orders are discharged or varied, this must be done following criteria we understand and in a consistent way.

There is now co-ordination among the courts, with the new courts bodies that were set up to ensure there is consistency in that regard. There should be the power to vary an order over time where a person has demonstrably changed. Particularly where an offence happens when someone is very young, there has to be a possibility of his or her rehabilitation and of getting on with life. I imagine once someone is registered as a sex offender, his or her life chances and opportunities to move and live in society generally are rather restricted. I support that, therefore, but if it is in a way that is better explained as to how it will operate and be managed.

Finally, the issue of the electronic monitoring of sex offenders is something we have talked about for a long time, since the 2001 Act was enacted. I recall a technical briefing many years ago on the deficiencies in electronic monitoring, but I wonder how much the technology has advanced. One of the previous speakers commented we have not spent any money on ICT in An Garda Síochána in recent times, but I sincerely hope we have because I allocated €220 million to it. Unless somebody was spending that money on something else, I hope the ICT system within An Garda Síochána has been greatly improved over the past five or six years, although there is much more to be done. I refer in particular to the specifics of electronic tagging. I recall a view presented by experts who appeared before an Oireachtas committee on justice many years ago regarding the limitations of electronic tagging in terms of geography, where they indicated it was not foolproof. Have those technical limitations been overcome and is there now an effective tagging system? If so, that is something that should be deployed an awful lot more.

These are just some of the points I wanted to make on this Stage regarding the intentions of the Minister and what has been set out in what I regard as a series of significant improvements to the panoply of our laws to protect citizens, especially people we have not been good at protecting over decades in our State. Obviously, all this has to be against the backdrop of the protection of the innocent. I can think of no more serious crime than rape or sexual abuse.

Equally, I can think of no more serious charge if the accused were innocent. We have to strike that balance always because we have come across such cases. Once someone has been accused of a crime in this area, it is probably impossible to get on with life. The accused is fatally wounded as a person and that is why we have to be so careful in crafting legislation in this area, with the overarching aim to protect the most vulnerable, whom we have significantly failed in the past. We need a deepening of our understanding of the types of hurt and harm done by sexual offenders in all sorts of settings, such as in domestic circumstances, in relationships and online. As best we can as legislators, we must shape an appropriate, and always evolving, legislative landscape to protect them.

6:20 pm

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I welcome the legislation introduced by the Minister, whom I thank for her introductory remarks. All of us in the House agree the legislation is welcome but, sadly, it is very late in coming. That should not take away from its importance and the ongoing commitment of the Minister to righting so many wrongs of the past in this State where, as other Deputies mentioned, we have consistently failed the victims of sexual offences over so many years.

It is welcome the legislation will bring Ireland into line with that of the UK in regard to notification periods for changes of address. That change would have been welcome many years ago, but that should not take from the fact it is coming now. We should bear in mind reducing the period from seven to three days will provide the authorities in the area with that much-needed information and with peace of mind for many, regardless of the information they have. Notwithstanding the law's coming into line with that of the UK, what are the rules throughout the European Union and beyond and how that will impact on the legislation?

The issue of the database is tied in to that. The information on sex offenders being retained locally is one thing, and the national database is welcome, but how can we ensure it will be a EU-wide database and that it will be thorough? More important, how will we maintain databases with the United Kingdom? What other legislative tools need to be realised to ensure that peace of mind and security, not just for victims but for communities beyond our borders, will be maintained? What strengths will be given in this legislation and what else will need to be introduced in that regard? While those improvements in this jurisdiction are welcome, we cannot limit ourselves to that.

One area referred to by previous speakers and others relates to the tools that will be available to An Garda Síochána to monitor registrations and the much-talked about electronic tagging. I welcome them but, in the context of all these initiatives and the introduction of the legislative cover, are we ensuring that will be met by resources and tools for An Garda Síochána and State agencies to ensure this legislation will be implemented correctly, efficiently, fairly and in the interests of all people in society?

I welcome the additional funding given consistently over recent budgets to An Garda Síochána to allow it to improve its ICT in particular, moving beyond just the operational use of ICT to the ability to research and monitor. Nevertheless, we have to ensure gardaí will be trained properly in this area and that resources will not be simply allocated to something. We must invest time in members of An Garda Síochána becoming expert at this, whereby the body of knowledge they are in a position to build up will be retained and consistently improved on, whether through a continuing professional development system or whatever else. It cannot just be a case of us having drafted the legislation and providing some resources. There must be a consistent application of resources, with ring-fencing if necessary, and weatherproofing, in order that this legislation will not just be on the Statute Book. Rather, it must be something the Garda can reach into, and the Garda must always be trained and in a position to ensure it can enforce it in the best manner possible.

I do not want to dwell on the Bill because many Deputies will make the same points during this debate and the Minister made lengthy introductory remarks. I commend her on her consistent proactivity on this issue throughout her time as Minister. I ask that she ensure this law will be applied throughout the system. It must underline the work not just of the Department of Justice but also of the Departments of Education, Health and Social Protection in order that we will have a fully joined-up system that meets the needs of the victims of these gross acts and ensures there will be many fewer victims in future.

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister back to the House. I congratulate her and wish her and her family the very best for the future.

The Bill is a welcome development and is long overdue. It will introduce a number of reforms that will help to make our children and communities feel safer. The most recent statistics show more than 1,700 people are subject to the reporting requirement under the 2001 Act, 319 of whom are supervised by the Probation Service while 192 are under post-release supervision in the community. A total of 433 people who have been convicted of a sex offence are currently in prison. On the enactment of this Bill, sex offenders will be required to notify changes in their address within three days instead of seven days, which I welcome. I was amazed to learn the current law does not explicitly allow courts to prohibit a sex offender from working with children and vulnerable adults, and this change is welcome also.

The Bill also provides powers to An Garda Síochána to take fingerprints, palm prints and photographs to confirm a person’s identity. It creates a legal basis for the assessment and management of risk posed by sex offenders by teams involving probation officers, gardaí and personnel from Tusla, which I was again surprised to learn was not already the case.

Another welcome development in this Bill allows An Garda Síochána to disclose information relating to persons on the sex offenders register in some circumstances, for example, where there is a serious threat to public safety. It allows for the electronic monitoring of sex offenders to assist in ensuring an offender’s compliance with a sex offender order or post-release supervision order. The Bill also places the current sex offenders risk assessment and management monitoring process for high-risk offenders on a statutory footing. All these changes are to be welcomed. We can pass all the laws we like, however, but they will not mean a thing if they are not backed up by money. I ask the Government to ensure that the required investment is made to ensure these measures get the best possible start.

Media outlets covering crimes of a sexual nature must also think twice before reporting on these crimes. Other Deputies spoke about this aspect as well. A headline I saw last week referred to a woman having been assaulted by two men after drinking with them all day. It should have read, "Woman raped by two men”. It is irrelevant what she was doing. She was raped, and no means no. There must be no excuses offered for offenders. In addition, reports of child pornography should refer to images of child sexual abuse. Call it what it is. Pornography implies some level of consent. A child cannot consent to sexual contact and we must ensure that the language we use reflects the brutalities of the crime.

6:30 pm

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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By and large, this Bill is welcome and has been a long time coming. The Sex Offenders Act 2001 has not been updated since its introduction. This legislation has been promised since 2018 and it largely comes from committee recommendations, some dating back to 2006. A 15-year wait for recommendations to become legislation is, fortunately, not common but it is also unacceptable. Wider protections have long been needed for victims. While we are all aware that much more needs to be done regarding the prevention of sexual assault, many of the measures contained in this Bill will go a long way towards protecting victims.

A reduction in the notification period from seven days to three days, as others have mentioned, allowing for risk assessments of sex offenders by probation officers, gardaí and expert groups and providing a power for a court to prohibit a sex offender from working with children are all welcome measures. While this Bill deals with how we treat convicted sex offenders, we must first acknowledge the low rate of reporting and conviction of sex crimes. The 2020 annual report of the Sexual Violence Centre Cork, SVCC, found that only one-third of survivors had reported attacks to the Garda, while two-thirds of those contacting the centre for support had not. This indicates a lack of belief among victims of sexual violence in the Garda and, ultimately, in the legal system. So many are reaching out for other forms of support, but see the legal route as pointless or potentially harmful to them.

The latest information from the Central Statistics Office, CSO, indicates that only 10% of sex crimes reported to the Garda in 2020 have been detected, meaning that a suspected offender has been issued with a summons and faces prosecution. We must keep in mind that as little as one third of crimes, and most likely much less, were even reported in the first instance. Since 2019, the United States' National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, NCMEC, has alerted the Garda to 13,612 suspected cases of online child abuse. That was a 4.5% increase in tip-offs to the Garda in 2020 compared to 2019, but the force lacked the resources to process them in a timely way. In most cases, once the Garda gets tips, suspects must be arrested and their devices seized for forensic examination. In its report on An Garda Síochána for 2020, the Policing Authority noted that there was roughly a two-year backlog for examination of devices by the Garda. The result has been a delay of five years or more in the prosecution of some online child abusers. We must be doing everything we can to prosecute these cases and to give survivors an avenue to justice. I recognise the commitment and passion of the Minister in this area and I think she would also agree that we need to do more. This Bill is welcome, but we must be continually examining this situation. Legislation is only one part of this context and a variety of other things must be done. That is why regulatory impact assessments, RIAs, and similar mechanisms can be useful in the context of legislation.

At the annual conference of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, earlier this month, Sergeant Michael Bracken "called for training immediately for all members of the new Divisional Protective Services Units, (DPSUs), which have been established to investigate sexual and domestic crimes". He stated that: "Their training hasn’t really rolled out yet despite what the Minister says". I ask the Minister to respond and to give some sort of timeframe in this regard. It is important to have these units in place, but they need proper training. The purpose of having these units was to have trained gardaí available to deal with victims appropriately and with care, and to repeat no longer the mistakes of the past where gardaí were not equipped to handle cases of sexual assault and victims often faced a retraumatisation when they reported crimes.

Moving on to some specific points of the Bill, I draw the Minister’s attention to the proposed new section 14B(7) to be inserted in a new Part of the principal Act, which concerns the risk assessment and management teams. It states that:

The risk assessment and management team may, for the purposes of the performance of its functions, consult with such persons as appear to it to be expert or knowledgeable in the assessment and management of the risk of harm posed by relevant offenders or by the relevant offender concerned.

Will this proposed new section apply to consultation with victims or victims' groups? The list of expert bodies which can be consulted by the new risk assessment and management teams is welcome, but it seems like there should be an avenue for victims to come forward with concerns or information about offenders. It is no secret that the justice system is, by and large, a cold house for victims of sex crimes. Many lose faith in the system throughout the legal process and often for good reasons. Therefore, we cannot just assume that the local gardaí or a probation officer will know every detail about the dangers that a victim can face from an offender. For instance, threats could have been made but not reported and that would be vital information in the context of a case and keeping a person safe.

The proposed new section 14E to be inserted in a new Part of the principal Act relates to the disclosure of identifying information about an offender and stipulates that there are conditions in which information will not be disclosed, namely, where there is deemed to be a significant risk in respect of the offender in question, including public disorder, physical harm to a person, damage to property, intimidation of, or threats to, a person. However, in an instance where a member of the public is at a greater risk than in the context of any of those matters listed, disclosure of the information is permitted.

I fully recognise that there are instances where the disclosure of identifying details is necessary in circumstances where threats have been made and when the individual is deemed to be at very high risk in a certain situation or where the individual is evading law enforcement, for example. It is hard to imagine, however, many cases where releasing the name, address and crimes of the sexual offender will not result in threats being made against him or her. A great deal of discretion is being given to the Garda in respect of quantifying the degree of risk faced by a possible victim and to weigh that against the risks that come with identifying a sex offender publicly.

6:40 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Ceann Comhairle; Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I apologise to the Deputy but I will be interrupting her shortly.

Photo of Catherine MurphyCatherine Murphy (Kildare North, Social Democrats)
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Is there an intention of providing guidance for the Garda? That is important.

Debate adjourned.