Monday, 28 June 2021
Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018: Report and Final Stages
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the House. It is a big day for me. I am truly delighted to welcome the Criminal Justice (Rehabilitative Periods) Bill 2018 back to the Seanad. It is a real privilege and an honour to see the Bill, hopefully, pass its Report and Final Stages in the House tonight, especially in the likelihood that it will shortly be taken up by our colleagues in the Dáil.
Much time has passed since November 2019 when the Seanad was last debated this Bill. It was a different Seanad that passed it through Committee Stage and we have had fresh elections, a new Government, and a very different Oireachtas in that time. The fact that the Bill has reached this point despite those changes speaks to its universality and power. It is not every day that a Private Members' Bill from an Opposition Senator makes it through the House. I thank all those who played a role in getting this crucial and life-changing legislation to this advanced Stage. This will be my last time formally speaking on the Bill, so I would be grateful for some latitude in order that I can mention everyone involved.
I first want to thank every person with direct experience of dealing with historic convictions who has contacted me in recent years, and since I was first elected in 2016, about the impact that it has had on their lives, their prospects and their opportunities. People have been honest, genuine and generous in sharing a sometimes difficult part of their past with me, in the hope of seeing change in their lived experiences, State policy and in the law. Every provision of this Bill is rooted in the sum total of all of those impossibly diverse personal experiences, which experiences made clear to me where our current laws are inadequate and where changes needed to be made. This Bill is for all of you and it has been forged from your lived experiences and desire to see change, for which I am forever grateful.
I started working not on this Bill, but the spent convictions Bill, when I worked in addiction services and we did not have spent convictions legislation. As someone who worked in addiction services trying to promote progress, abstinence or recovery and to encourage people to engage in education or the workforce I came to realise pretty quickly that we can try all we want to support people to progress in their lives, but if the law and society does not allow them to take up opportunities then each and every stage of that work is, for them, pointless. They use up a lot of energy trying to succeed only to be met with massive barriers.I always revert to the many letters I have received throughout my life, first from my friends in prison, then my family in prison, now people who write to me, as a legislator, from prison, and people who have been out of prison for a long time. The common theme is always, "When I get out, I am going to get a job" or "I never want to end up in this situation again." There are always aspirations and feelings about change. Listening to the authorities in the prison system, prisoners believe that if they just do certain key things, they will be able to rehabilitate their lives and become active members of society. We tell them that but when they leave prison, they are perpetually punished. The punishment never ends on leaving prison because it continues and follows them.
When I first became involved in politics as a legislator, people heralded me as a role model or somebody to look up to, or somebody who could help others find their way through the education system. However, one of the most depressing things I found at that time was that when the people I cared about most asked me about education, studying social work or becoming a midwife, or said they wanted to do what they had really wanted to do when growing up but did not do because they were too wild or young or made mistakes, I could not be such a role model if the structures, society, employers and education system did not allow people like me enter that space. I was very lucky that my convictions were before I was 18. Had they not been, I would not be here today to outline my lived experience. People like me would not be able to work in the Civil Service, study social work or medicine, or even volunteer. Now, for a person to volunteering with his or her child’s local football club, an issue arises. Men and women contact me saying how embarrassed they are to tell their local club what might have come up years into their past. It does not seem as if we have a forgiving society. We do not acknowledge to prisoners that when the judicial system punishes them and they serve their time, their punishment does not end there and it continues. We cannot have progress if we keep pinning someone to his or her past. None of us is the sum total of what we did in the past or experienced. We cannot have recovery and integration without the space for people to be able to find their purpose.
If we consider the people who end up in the prison system or with convictions, there is a significant class element. There are low levels of educational attainment within the community and there is a high level of poverty, including consistent poverty, but we cannot address poverty for those who are at most risk of it if, when they decide to enter the workforce to address it, they are excluded because of convictions. It is a wheel that continues to turn time and again. We all need purpose, to feel useful, to feel valued and to be active members of society. Why would there be legislation and policy that refuses citizenship at that level? We are not the sum of our mistakes, we are not the number of months we spend in prison, we are not the trauma we experience, and we are not the conviction on the page.
I thank Mr. Sebastian McAteer in my office for his advocacy and work on the Bill. I thank the Irish Penal Reform Trust and its director, Ms Fíona Ní Chinnéide, and all the trust's staff and researchers for providing us with the benefit of their long history of policy expertise in this area, for launching the Bill with my office and for their ongoing support in the years that followed.
I thank my colleagues in the Civil Engagement Group, both current and former Senators, for co-sponsoring the Bill with me in 2018 and for their ever-helpful assistance and advice in progressing it through the Seanad. I am grateful to all my colleagues in the previous Seanad and the current one for their near-unanimous support and encouragement. I thank the Office of Parliamentary Legal Advisers, including Ms Sinead Dullaghan, barrister at law, and her colleagues, for drafting the legislation and for their work on subsequent amendments on Committee Stage.
I thank the various Ministers, advisers and departmental staff who have worked on this Bill with me over the three years, including Minister without Portfolio, Deputy Helen McEntee, and former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Charles Flanagan, for the support and the momentum they provided to make these changes to our law. I also thank the members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality for engaging with stakeholders during an extremely worthwhile session in July 2019 on spent convictions reform more broadly and for an excellent report and set of recommendations on how to strengthen the proposed changes to our law.
I am grateful to the then Minister for Justice for meeting me to discuss the Bill in October and to her Department for holding public consultation in November and for meeting me again earlier this year to discuss its results. I am delighted that we are now assembled here this evening to pass the Bill with the support of the Government during Government time. I am grateful to the Minister and Leader for facilitating this. It is the kind of cross-party, cross-Chamber law-making that I am always proud to be a part of and that demonstrates the role of the Seanad as a source of necessary legislative reform.
Taken together and passed into law, I truly believe the provisions of the Bill could revolutionise criminal justice and penal policy in this area. I am aware that considerable work has been done in the Department since I introduced the Bill, particularly since the public consultation closed before Christmas. I am grateful to Deputy McEntee and her officials for the presentation I was given on the shape of the proposals she intends to see passed to law. While I welcome their overall thrust, I am concerned that certain amendments to the legislation that the Government may make will unfortunately limit and narrow the scope of what I have set out to achieve. However, there was considerable unanimity among the various stakeholders in the consultation process, to which, of course, I contributed.
I implore the Minister of State to consider any amendments with caution and to ensure the recommendations of the major stakeholders are reflected in the process as progress is made. The Oireachtas may not see fit to return to this area for many years and, therefore, the shape of what we agree over the coming months could have long-lasting consequences. None of us wants to return in another five years to amend an overly conservative Act, as we are currently doing, to fix what could and should have been foreseen. This Bill, in its current constitution, represents real and tangible reform in this area. I urge the Minister of State and her officials to take an holistic approach in the Dáil and ensure the provisions of this legislation are fair and generous and offer tangible support to former offenders to reintegrate into society after periods of offending. I urge her to keep the legislation as close to its current form as possible. I thank her for her support. I hope to continue to support my colleagues in the Dáil and officials in the Department as we see the Bill progress through the Dáil. I commend the Bill to the House.
I warmly congratulate Senator Ruane. The Bill is a great personal achievement. She has every reason to be very proud of it. It is important, reforming legislation. I salute the Senator for taking the initiative. She is a great exemplar of what the Seanad can achieve. Well done to her.
I feel like a bit of an imposter because I am so late to the party. I want to mark the occasion by congratulating Senator Ruane. The Bill is a very fine piece of work and it is very much needed. I congratulate all those who have been involved, including those in the previous Seanad. I have no doubt all in the Civil Engagement Group played their part very well in supporting the Senator on the Bill.
Wearing my employment lawyer and data protection officer hat, I have advised employers on Garda vetting and its implementation, particularly in the recruitment industry, which might supply carers and employees to many industries. In this regard, I have always advised employers to ensure they have a policy that responds to Garda vetting and that it is not acceptable to decide that because there is something on a disclosure they receive, the person in question is now excluded from work. I have always found that deeply offensive. Way back, when I worked in the YMCA, the notion of Garda vetting first came in. The City of Dublin Youth Service Board introduced it and I was one of the sponsors sitting on it. I recall thinking at the time that we were employing many people who had come to us through community employment schemes who would have complete heart attacks when told we were going to vet them. That was 20 years ago. At the time, we had to write a policy to state that unless paedophilia or something serious concerning children emerged, it would be okay, because the organisation had, at its very heart, a rehabilitative, restorative justice ethos. We believe that if we said that was our ethos, we would have to back it up with our policies and encourage employers in that regard. I used to find it frustrating to come against a brick wall of employers. More recently, as a barrister advising, my attitude has been to ask whether a disclosure is relevant to the role.Unless someone has been involved in fraud or something really horrendous, it is okay for that person to be forgiven. A person's age and the seriousness of the offence have to be considered. We do not say "because you are employed you cannot...". I give a breakfast briefing on this whole area once a month. I say every month that if one is writing policy one has to respond. However, we now have it in law. There is a provision, albeit limited, already in there that former Minister, Alan Shatter, brought in but we needed to go further. Certainly, all I see now is that we are becoming more competitive and looking for ways of being more competitive. If someone is in California, their vetting is out. This does not go through the Garda or the police. One can Google someone and get their convictions. We will probably have to broaden areas and industries where vetting is absolutely necessary. This is all the more reason we should protect those who are going to be most vulnerable as a result of it. I commend Senator Ruane. This is a fine example of us, as legislators, making a difference in people's lives. Very well done and congratulations.
I appreciate the Senator's comments. There is a great positivity and a sense of achievement for Senator Ruane. There is mutual happiness among us all. I am cognisant of the fact that we finish at 7.15 p.m. at the latest and that we want the Minister to have an opportunity to speak. Before I hand over to Senator O’Loughlin, it is my great pleasure to call my constituency colleague, Senator Gallagher, who comes with a professional background to this discussion. It will be enlightening because he has a knowledge in this area.
Go raibh maith agat. First, I commend my colleague Senator Lynn Ruane, not just in this Seanad term, but indeed in the last one, on all of her work in this area. This is a proud night for her. I know the term “life changing” can be thrown out occasionally but in this particular instance, it is apt. She and her group should be proud of what they have achieved. This life-changing piece of legislation will have far-reaching consequences, hopefully quickly, for many people.
As Senator Ruane outlined, we should encourage people to travel another road. Unfortunately for some, that road is blocked, before the journey even commences. Hopefully, this piece of legislation that the Senator has introduced will unblock that road for many people. Past indiscretions or convictions should not be an anchor to a person’s future. This legislation is real reform. I am delighted, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, to be associated with this, not just this evening, but in the previous term. I commend Senator Ruane again. It is a proud night. She should be proud of what she has achieved with this piece of legislation.
I was not expecting to be able to speak. I will be brief, as spokespeople will want to speak. I want to express how proud I am of my colleague, Senator Ruane, and of this important legislation. As a member of the civil engagement group, I am glad to support it. It will create new possibilities for people in their lives. It is good for society. It means that society will gain and benefit from people who have previously been precluded. It is not just about the person who cannot do social work, just as one example. The fact is that social work loses out on somebody who may bring incredible insight and understanding into that work. Society gains by not having measures that serve as arbitrary blocks to stop us from benefiting from all that people have to offer, such as those who may have past convictions of the kinds covered in this Bill.
I echo the comments of others to the Minister. As much as we want everyone to be ambitious in their lives, I hope that we can retain that sense of ambition in the legislation. We should recognise that, for example, where there are convictions, there may be a cluster of convictions. We should not have a situation whereby we create further barriers. I encourage the Minister to keep the sense of ambition in the Bill, as it passes through the Dáil. On the issue of employment equality, I hope the Bill sends a strong message to employers. It is a signal that we, as legislators, value people and their contributions, as well as the important protections that are there in the employment equality provision. It is good that people now have the experience of the law protecting them, rather than the law being something with which they are in a permanent adversarial relationship. In fact, the law is something that can protect them. That is a positive signal to send. Again, I am delighted to see this Bill move to its next stage.
The Green Party is delighted to support this Bill. It was part of the programme for Government negotiations. I commend Senator Ruane. I am sure she is the first to admit that it is a positive, progressive step forward. She would probably like the sentencing thresholds to be even higher and to assist even greater r-integration. However, it is now on the Statute Book and we can always move amendments at a later date. Running through the veins of this Bill is a basic respect,to show dignity to everyone.
I remember, as a young barrister, when I was anxious to bring students to the prisons, I was met by the then Governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan. I was really impressed. He told the students at the talks: “we do not judge prisoners in here because a jury has already passed a judgment”. In the tours he was very strict. No young student could peer in a window during a prisoner's private time. They were told to stay away from the enclosed, private accommodation areas. We introduced an examination for prisoners. I believe that, at the time, it is was the first one. There was one rule when the barristers would come in for tuition. It was to stay away from their own case. We let prisoners know that there is a world out there apart from criminal law. We gave them tuition in family law for the first time, and in employment law. We eventually got to the stage where there was a graduation. I invited the late Mr. Justice Paul Kearney, who was a formidable, brilliant judge in the Central Criminal Court for many years. He corrected the essays for me that went with the multiple-choice questions. He presented the first prize in the class to a student, a prisoner who found herself in custody, to whom he had handed down a life sentence. That was amazing. There was a photograph of that private graduation proudly adorning Mr. Justice Kearney’s chambers for the rest of his career as a judge. He was so proud to see that. That goes to the very heart of what we are talking about tonight.
I could say more but I am conscious that the Minister is in the building. I do not want to take the Minister’s time. I will just say well done to all concerned. On another day, I would say that there is another cohort of people we want to consider, namely people who get acquittals. They might get an acquittal after a weak case collapses. They are not forgotten at the moment in Ireland. Unless it is relevant and unless there are good public policy reasons for it, why does it have to be dragged up many years later? They have the right to deny the arrest, charge, caution, and the whole trial, when they walked away with the presumption of innocence intact. Their lives can be turned upside down by it constantly being regurgitated, as innocent people they always were. This really hits home.
Senator Ruane makes all the Seanad proud. This translates words into action. We are delivering for some of the most vulnerable people. Everyone is entitled to a fresh start and a new beginning. This will help in substance. It is so vitally important. We 100% commend and support Senator Ruane in her initiative.
I say "Well done" to Senator Ruane. She is feeling the love. Senator Martin mentioned John Lonergan, who had a very enlightened view with regard to how we treat crime and prisoners. We need more voices such as his and, indeed, that of Senator Ruane.
I congratulate Senator Ruane and her co-sponsors on introducing this important Bill and managing it through this House to the point where it has reached its Final Stage in the Seanad today. I know that Senator Ruane and her team have put a significant amount of work into the Bill and, on behalf of the Government, I credit them all for doing so. Senator Ruane engaged very constructively with the former Minister for Justice, Deputy Flanagan, on the earlier Stages of the Bill and I know she met the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, earlier this year to discuss how we in the Government can support the Bill in moving forward.
In that regard, the House will be aware that the current programme for Government contains a commitment to review the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions and Certain Disclosures) Act 2016 to broaden the range of convictions that can be considered spent. This important commitment is designed to move us toward a safer society and safer communities by making sure that those who make mistakes or stray into minor crime at one point in their lives have a very strong incentive to stop offending and get their lives back on track. A system that writes people off for minor offences, makes them unemployable and, in fact, incentivises them to believe that the only course available to them is to pursue a life of crime is not a safe system for anyone.
While recognising that there are crimes that are too serious to be spent - this Bill recognises that - there is a clear need to catch people at the early stages of offending and to support them in gaining employment and connections back into society so that they become reformed and do not re-offend. In that regard, my Department's recently published Working to Change - Social Enterprise and Employment Strategy 2021-23 sets out that "people with education and training, who are in work, are less likely to offend and are more likely to make good citizens". The strategy makes clear how a criminal record which remains long after the person has paid his or her debt to society and ceased to offend can frustrate the person's chances of finding employment and act as a barrier to his or her rehabilitation. As such, there is a clear link between gainful employment and reductions in offending.
Overall, in principle, the Government and the Minister are very supportive of the Bill and I note that this support is shared by all sides in this House. I believe the public also understands this - a public consultation launched by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in October 2020 was very supportive. I point out that the Minister does intend to bring some amendments to the Bill when it moves to Dåil Éireann in order to ensure that the Bill is as robust and workable as possible. My Department is considering all of the available evidence, the submissions in the consultation and the academic research in this area to inform our policy decisions in this regard.
However, there is no doubt that the firm purpose of our penal system and the criminal sanctions within it is to make Ireland safer by reducing crime and the harm it causes. An overly punitive criminal justice system which does not offer realistic and accessible opportunities for those with convictions to reform and move past their offending is inherently self-defeating and undermines the important goal of reducing offending.
While recognising that we need to proceed cautiously and that there are genuine concerns about broadening the benefits of the spent convictions regime, the position of the Minister, based on the preponderance of available evidence and with particular regard to the situation in other jurisdictions, is that the benefits of a more liberal spent convictions regime outweigh the risks and that society as a whole is better served with a meaningful and fair spent convictions regime. I emphasise most strongly that the more serious offences demanding of lengthier custodial sentences are not and will not be eligible to be considered spent in our legislation. It is in this spirit that the Minister will continue to collaborate with Senator Ruane and others in progressing the Bill. I again offer Senator Ruane my hearty congratulations and thank her for all her hard work to date in getting the Bill to where it is today.