Seanad debates

Friday, 18 December 2020

Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Second Stage


10:00 am

Photo of James BrowneJames Browne (Wexford, Fianna Fail) | Oireachtas source

I again thank Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party for bringing forward this Bill. The Government has consulted with the Labour Party the entire way through the passage of this Bill. It has been a very positive and constructive engagement and I hope to see more of that happening. I met Jackie Fox numerous times, especially as the Opposition spokesperson for mental health. I first met her outside the gates of Leinster House and then met her several times inside, and had the pleasure to meet with her again a couple of months ago. I have had numerous contacts with Jackie and I am very glad that a method has been found to enable this legislation to be referred to as Coco's Law. I know that Jackie is very happy with the resolution to this issue and it pays tribute to Jackie, Nicole and the other victims whose experiences have led to the necessity for this legislation. To this day, there is ongoing bullying and harassment with which parents must deal both as the guardians of children who are being bullied but also as parents of the bullies themselves. They have very important to educate themselves and their children as to the sheer damage that has been done to those victims of bullying.

The Bill establishes a robust legal framework. It does not address every issue of concern around bullying, online harassment and other issues of abuse but it does establish that framework, which is hugely important. There will be other opportunities to address the other issues of concern. As Deputy Howlin said, is not the final word but it will be built on.

The criminal law miscellaneous Bill will be published next year and some other areas that need to be addressed can be addressed within that legislation. To be clear, however, this Bill is not flawed and does not need to be amended. It was established and brought forward by the Labour Party based on the Law Reform Commission recommendations. It is a robust Bill that is strong and well crafted and drafted. A number of amendments were brought into it, in consultation with the Labour Party and other Deputies and Senators, so I am very confident in this Bill. It is important that the message does not go out that this Bill is somewhat flawed. The message that needs to go out is that the sharing of intimate images is a criminal offence.

The issues of education programmes and awareness are of great importance. The Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, has undertaken, with Jackie Fox, to bring in a plan of awareness in education to highlight the importance of the consequences of what people may be doing in terms of bullying and harassment, as well as the existence of this Bill and its importance and to raise that bar in education and awareness. The Garda is also updating its schools programme to reflect the law in this area.

Senator Boylan referred to Garda resources. Significant funding for the Garda National Cyber Crime Bureau was announced this year. It will be established with four divisional hubs dealing with cybercrime. In addition, I refer to the roll-out the divisional protection services units that deal with domestic and sexual crimes. Significant investment is under way that will help to address the issues dealt with within this Bill.

I acknowledge Senator Ruane's very personal strength in coming in here. She is correct that this is about a cultural change and is not simply about passing legislation. We need to address the underlying issues whereby people feel free to carry on in some of the ways they do. It is about information and education on consent and on harmful communications. I acknowledge the Senator's comments in that regard.

On section 4, Senator McDowell suggested the inclusion of "grossly offensive" might be overreach. It is deliberately constructed in order that it does not simply address intimate images or sexual offences and that it does actually address grossly offensive messages in and of themselves. Senator Ruane referred to the incident involving Jackie Griffin on the M50 and mentioned her family. I would hope that such activity would be covered under this section. It is deliberately crafted in that manner and in that sense.

Senator Mullen raised an issue whereby section 2 did not mention recording. That is because the penalty so high and the issue there is one of proportionality. It is in section 3. On medical harm, I note that the sharing of images by a medical professional, if it is within the consent of the patient, will not be an offence. If it is outside of the outside of the consent of the patient, then it will be an offence.

Senator Mullen raised the saver for the Garda Síochána in section 3.That is there because "intention" is not a requirement for that offence, and so will not affect An Garda Síochána in dealing with that issue.

In some ways, these issues should have been addressed long before now. There has been much discussion and consideration given to this. Jackie Fox was determined to address the issues that significantly impacted on her daughter Nicole. I met Jackie several times over the past number of years. I met her in October in the Department of Justice and the senior Minister, Deputy McEntee, met her on a separate occasion. No parent should ever have to bury a child. My parents did and many parents have had to unfortunately, but when one loses a child in the circumstances that Jackie Fox did, this can only compound that grief. When a person loses someone who is very close to him or her, he or she never gets over it but learns to live with that grief. One thing, in particular, that Jackie said to me, and it stuck with me, was that she had not allowed herself to even begin to grieve and that she would not allow herself to do so until this Bill had passed into law. I certainly hope that if this Bill does go through today, Jackie can allow herself to begin to grieve for the loss of Nicole.


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