Seanad debates

Thursday, 9 February 2012

2:00 pm

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and regret that the Minister for Justice and Equality was unable to stay. I hope the Minister of State will highlight the issue I raise with the Minister. I propose to share time with Senator Catherine Zappone. I also welcome Ms Geraldine Rowley from Ruhama to the Visitors Gallery.

The Minister of State may have seen the "Prime Time" programme on prostitution which was broadcast on Tuesday last. The investigation highlighted the appalling circumstances experienced by women who are trafficked into this country and forced into prostitution. As Sarah Benson of Ruhama stated on the programme, prostitution is a market led trade and trafficking has become so prolific that so-called punters are able to order sex like they order takeaway food. Men pick up the telephone night after night and ask themselves whether they will have Chinese that night or if they will try Thai or Polish.

Pimps are making millions from this modern form of human slavery. Estimates put the value of the Irish sex industry at €250 million per annum. The nature of prostitution has changed dramatically, having moved from street corners, dark lanes and parked cars to anonymous apartments all over the country. Convicted pimps are continuing to operate without any fear of getting caught because the penalties are minuscule compared to the profits. We saw in the "Prime Time" programme Samantha Blandford who was convicted of organising prostitution some years ago and walked away with a fine of €6,500 and an 18 months suspended sentence. She was on the programme trying to recruit one of the "Prime Time" reporters as a prostitute, without any fear of getting caught.

The evidence from Sweden and Norway shows the best way to reduce prostitution is to criminalise supporters of sex. There is a growing coalition outside the House, under the umbrella of the Turn off the Red Light campaign for Irish laws to be changed in that respect. Last October, the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, in response to a Private Members' debate tabled by Senator Zappone and her colleagues said the issue is being considered by the Government. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, if he can provide an update in that regard, because the law needs to be changed as a matter of urgency. This has gone on for long enough.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House and Senator Power for raising the issue as an Adjournment matter and sharing her time. As Senator Power has identified, and as the Minister of State is aware, the Independent group tabled a motion on this issue in October 2011 to criminalise the purchase of sex in order to curb prostitution and trafficking for sexual exploitation.

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, whom the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, represents, has said that offences with regard to prostitution, as they exist on the Statute Book, can be committed by the prostitute, the client or a third party, for example, a pimp. It is also an offence to organise prostitution, coerce or compel a person to be a prostitute, knowingly live off the earnings of a prostitute, or keep or manage a brothel, yet we are faced with the graphic evidence, already referred to by Senator Power, on the RTÉ documentary "Profiting for Prostitution" that these laws are clearly inadequate. This documentary mirrors Irish research on the issue.

In response to the matter the Minister, Deputy Shatter, said he would hold a public consultation. I have been in touch with his office a couple of times. On 20 December he sent me a letter to say that he hoped to announce a consultation exercise as soon as possible in January and that his office had almost completed a paper on the consultation.

I have three questions I hope the Minister of State can answer. Like my colleague, Senator Power, does the Minister intend to bring forward legislation to criminalise the purchase of sex? What we really want to know is should it be the law, following which we can then consider the legal and constitutional implications? When will the consultation process begin on this issue? I also recall that the Attorney General has a legal opinion on legislating for the criminalising of the purchase of sex. Would the Minister, Deputy Shatter, consider making this information available? As Senator Power said, the status quo is not working. The policy of out of sight, out of mind - which underlines our current laws - is extremely damaging.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I thank Senators Power and Zappone for raising this matter. As the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, has said, he extends his apologies that he is unable to be present, therefore I speak on his behalf.

Before commenting on Sweden's legislative model which criminalises the purchase of sexual services I wish to outline the legislative measures in place to tackle the phenomena of human trafficking and organised prostitution. Ireland has strong legislation to combat the scourge of human trafficking for sexual exploitation. The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 gave effect to Ireland's obligations in various international instruments to criminalise human trafficking. The trafficking of persons for sexual exploitation, including prostitution, is a criminal offence and those convicted of such trafficking are liable to life imprisonment. In addition, it is an offence under the legislation for any person to knowingly solicit or importune a trafficked person, in any place, for the purpose of prostitution.

In the case of prostitution legislation, there are a number of offences directly aimed at protecting prostitutes from exploitation. Under the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 1993, it is an offence to organise prostitution, coerce or compel a person to be a prostitute, knowingly live off the earnings of a prostitute, or keep or manage a brothel. In addition, the solicitation offence in the legislation is targeted at buyers, sellers and third parties, such as pimps. Buyers as well as sellers are liable to prosecution and the same penalties apply.

The 1993 Act, as amended, provides that a person who solicits or importunes a child - whether or not for the purposes of prostitution - to commit an act which would constitute carnal knowledge or sexual assault is guilty of an offence. Moreover, in addition to being charged with such solicitation, a person who engages in a sexual act with the child could be charged with serious offences under sexual offences legislation. In these circumstances, consent to the sexual act is not a defence. Strong as the law is, there is always room for improvement and the law on prostitution is being reviewed with a view to enhancing the protection of vulnerable persons.

I should add that the law is being enforced. An Garda Síochána continually targets the individuals and criminal groups involved in prostitution and related activities. A number of individuals and criminal groups have been identified, arrested, prosecuted and convicted. The Garda carries out targeted operations to address crime in regard to prostitution, and these often encompass situations where it is suspected that women and girls have been trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation. This includes monitoring of websites associated with the advertising of prostitution, targeting the activities of criminal groups involved in organised prostitution, brothel keeping and money laundering offences. Given the involvement of organised crime gangs, such operations may be supported by specialist assistance provided by units such as the Criminal Assets Bureau the Garda National Immigration Bureau and the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation.

As part of the review I mentioned earlier, the Minister announced in October that he would be arranging a consultation process on the future direction of prostitution legislation. A detailed discussion document to facilitate the consultation process is being prepared. It will be appreciated that the discussion document, if it is to fully inform the public, needs to be prepared carefully. It is expected that the document will be ready in the coming weeks.

The Senators have asked for clarification as to whether it is the Government's intention to change Ireland's laws on prostitution to bring them into line with the Swedish approach, as advocated by the Turn off the Red Light coalition. The Government has not made any decision in this matter. When the review, including public consultation, is concluded, the Minister will bring any legislative proposals to Government in the normal way.

While no decisions have been taken with regard to legislative proposals, it is important to point out, as was already indicated in the Seanad debate last October, that any proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex within our legal framework raises complex issues. A provision in the substantially different constitutional framework of one jurisdiction cannot be simply transposed into another jurisdiction's constitutional and legal framework.

The Minister does not wish to appear to be dismissing the Swedish model out of hand. All options will be considered but it is important to mention that there are issues which require in-depth examination. The Swedish offence of purchasing sexual services would appear to be a strict liability offence. There are difficulties in this jurisdiction in establishing offences of strict and absolute liability arising from the Supreme Court decision in the CC case. If the Swedish approach were adopted here, one party only to a two-way transaction between consenting adults would be guilty of an offence. The buyer only would be culpable and subject to penalty, with all that entails. The buyer would have no defence in law and the seller would not commit any offence in respect of the receipt of a consideration for sexual services. Criminalising one party only in this manner, were it not clearly justifiable on objective grounds, could be open to constitutional challenge.

There would obviously be concerns too, at criminalising the sale of sex by exploited persons. In addition to legal concerns, there are different and genuinely held views on this matter. The Minister does not believe that the introduction of a Swedish style ban could be advanced here without a considered public debate.

This is an issue which affects individuals and communities. It is also a societal issue. Public debate should be open to the widest possible audience and the Minister wants to ensure that everyone who wishes to make a contribution to this important debate is given the opportunity to do so. That is the reason the Minister has decided on a consultation process before charting the way ahead. That is the reason the Minister has decided on a consultation process before charting the way ahead.

I would like to thank the Senators for raising this issue today. The Minister would like to reiterate that everything that can reasonably be done to combat prostitution will be done, and he looks forward to the outcome of the consultation process, which is expected to get under way shortly.

Photo of Averil PowerAveril Power (Fianna Fail)
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I would like to thank the Minister of State for filling in for the Minister for Justice and Equality. I agree that a public consultation is very important. It is important to have people informed about this issue before a major change is made. I am not reassured by the statement in the script given to the Minister of State that the Department of Justice and Equality is of the view that our current law is strong, or that it is being enforced. "Prime Time" clearly showed that is not the case and that is also the view of the likes of Ruhama, which is an organisation that works with women involved in prostitution.

I welcome the Minister of State's statement that the public consultation document should be ready in the next few weeks. I hope that we can then move forward.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I echo most of what Senator Power said. I thank the Minister of State for being here on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I find it difficult to welcome the fact that the consultation paper will be ready in the matter of a couple of weeks, as I got that same statement on 20 December from the Minister. So we wait and so the enslaved women wait. I would like the Minister of State to convey back to the Minister for Justice and Equality that I did not hear any different words or arguments being put forward today than those provided by the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, on behalf of the Minister when she was responding to our independent motion in October 2011. The same arguments were given to us then. I am not getting a sense that there is any sense or urgency from the Minister or from the Government on this at the moment.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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We must have due regard to what Senators Power and Zappone are saying. If such a statement was made in October 2011 and if they justifiably feel that no progress has been made on that issue, then I would like to assure them that I will speak to the Minister and that we need to make haste on it. I genuinely have regard to the statements that have been made.

As this is a cross-bench issue and affects all of us as a society, I hope that the Senators' views would have a major influence in the process and I hope that the Department would take seriously the views that have been expressed here today. I will talk directly with the Minister and try to move the process along.