Friday, 18 December 2020
Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017: Committee and Remaining Stages
I do not propose to speak at length on any amendments but just want to make a point on this group. To follow on from what the Minister of State said at the end of Second Stage, he was right to emphasise that the Bill is not flawed and does not require amendment. That is the view of the Labour Party which initiated this Bill and in the view of my colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, who steered through First and Second Stages through the Dáil. Second Stage was taken in the Dáil three years ago. I have his original draft with me. Deputy Howlin and the Labour Party group drew up the legislation on the basis of the report produced by the Law Reform Commission. There had already been extensive deliberation by the Law Reform Commission. The definition of an intimate image that was used in the initial version was then subject to redrafting in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General and the officials in the Department of Justice, whom I thank, and in consultation with Deputy Howlin who is the instigator of the Bill. It is on that basis that the Bill comes before us. I am conscious that Committee Stage was debated in the Dáil on 1 December and that Report Stage was debated yesterday.
There has been a good deal of debate on the definition of an intimate image and those offences are dealt with in sections 2 and 3. Obviously the intimate image definition is central to those offences but not to the later provisions in sections 4 and 10 on the more general points on the new offences of online harassment and abuse. The definition has been debated and has evolved over the course of the parliamentary process. All of us are conscious that it is a difficult area to get the balance right. There is clearly a concern about potential over reach. There is also a concern that we all have about ensuring that we legislate sufficiently to cover all relevant abusive behaviour. We must also be mindful that this Bill cannot do everything. It does not regulate online content more generally. It does not address the civil law aspect which requires a separate legislation. The report by the Law Reform Commission dealt with both criminal and civil aspects. This Bill only deals with the criminal aspects and it does not address other issues around the spread of misinformation by online communication. It does not address hate speech. We know there is separate legislation. Again, it is difficult to strike a balance around that or child sexual abuse imagery about which we already have legislation. I am cognisant of all that when debating these and other amendments.
The Labour Party and Deputy Howlin are happy with the Bill as it stands. As Deputy Howlin said, we recognise this is an evolving area and technology moves on. We are happy that there is a three-year review built into section 12. That should offer reassurance to colleagues and the NGOs which have concerns and which engaged so constructively with all of us. I have already paid tribute to the work of Women's Aid, Safe Ireland and others. With all of that in mind, we are happy to see the definition of intimate image in section 1. We are also happy with the provisions on the offences in sections 2 to 4, inclusive, and 10, and with the safeguards that are built in.
I do not propose to speak on individual amendments or groupings but I have make a general and crucial point about the amendment. We want to see a robust legal framework put in place before Christmas and I think that is what the NGOs want. It is certainly what Jackie Fox wants and what the campaigners who we have dealt with would like to see, and what my colleague, Deputy Howlin, has sought.
Other colleagues have made important points about the role social media platforms should play and the need to ensure there is a stricter regulation of their behaviour, and that they need to be doing more in this area. We are all cognisant of the importance of protecting victims against image-based sexual abuse, and against online bullying and harassment, both of which this Bill seeks to do. The Labour Party is happy with the Bill as it stands.