I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate and compliment Deputy Naughton on bringing forward this legislation. Given the horrific events of recent weeks and the disturbing facts in the Rape Crisis report and CARI annual report it is quite timely that we have this debate today. The government need to take strong legislative measures to protect vulnerable children & families from sexual predators. The Minister has confirmed that the Government will not oppose second stage while in the same breath indicated that they will bring forward their own proposals. It remains to be seen how similar Minister Shatter’s proposals will be.
If I was to be cynical I would add that I find minister Shatters leaking of his intention to publish a bill similar to this bill, to the press this week more than coincidental! Minister Shatter knew that he should have been quicker off the mark and wanted to pre-empt Deputy Naughten’s bill. I hope that the government response is forthcoming quickly and not merely a knee jerk reaction to Deputy Naughton’s work on this issue.
There are a number of broader issues I will raise today around the area of child protection that we should discuss in dealing with this specific legislation if we are to take a coherent approach to safeguarding our young.
The independent rapporteur on Child protection in his 2007 report called for similar changes to this bill to be made to the legislation while at the same time exercising caution to ensure any legislation would be compatible with our constitution. This in itself identifies the need for having an implementation plan / strategy for these reports. Yesterday the rape crisis support network report called on the Government to introduce legislation that would protect therapy records of child sexual abuse victims in legal proceeding (This was also identified in both the 2010 & 2012 rapporteur reports)
This is currently acting as a powerful disincentive for victims to report their abuse and something which needs to be addressed. If abuse is not reported then a register of offenders will not be comprehensive.
People have to be encouraged to report any allegation or observation of abuse whether they are a member of the family a friend or a member of their community. There has to be zero tolerance to any form of abuse being ignored.
The other area where we will have to tackle very soon in this house is potential targeting of children on the Internet by predators. Not enough is being done in this area and we have to learn and replicate legislation in other jurisdictions. The grooming of children on-line is a deeply disturbing development and represents a growing threat to vulnerable children. The proliferation of the internet and its global reach means this requires a broader level of international co-operation to tackle. Alongside strengthening vetting procedures this is one of the most important areas we need to confront in order to protect families from the prospect of child abuse.
The specifics of this bill strike a fair balance between the issue of human rights, privacy and the threat of vigilantism on one side with the non-negotiable rights and inherent moral responsibility of parents to protect their children. In years to come we do not want to face the sad vista of having failed to provide parents with a safe and fair framework to identify real threats to their loved ones.
The heart of the bill is ultimately about safeguarding and protecting children from predators. It enables parents, guardians or any third party to make an application to find out if there is information they need to know in order to protect children in their care. This bill will establish the information on child sex offenders scheme (ICSO Scheme) which will enable parents and guardians to enquire whether persons coming into contact with their child or vulnerable adult have been convicted of a sexual offence or otherwise pose a serious danger to children. It also provides similar entitlement for persons in authority in schools or clubs.
Research shows and we are all aware in the house of previous child sec abuse scandals that occurred in schools or clubs. These are areas where sexual predators target either by becoming an employee or an activist. That is why Garda clearance was introduced a few years ago to ensure as much as possible that all possible avenues for predators are cut off.
It is extremely important that we do not create a situation whereby we force predators underground where in my opinion would pose a far greater risk to society as no one would know of their past. And no doubt Minister Shatter will take cognisance of that in his own bill. The number one priority without question is the safety and well-being of our children.
This bill would obviously have resource implications and perhaps Minister could address this in his concluding remarks. These resources involve the operation of the system itself and the logistical impact it has upon the Gardaí. It also raises the investment we put into rehabilitating convicted offenders to ensure they do not commit such heinous crimes again once their debt to society is paid. The Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Investigation Unit of the Gardaí leads the way in confronting this type of criminality. I trust that it will be fully protected from constraints on Garda resources in the upcoming budget if the government is fully committed to tackling child sexual abuse.
There are areas that have to be given priority and this is one of those. We do not need other cases like the shocking one in Athlone last week that horrified parents across Ireland.
This discussion today brings into sharp focus the need for those in possession of information on child predators to provide that information to the appropriate authorities. During the Dáil debate on the Cloyne report various members from the Taoiseach down rightly expressed the outrage of a historical practise whereby information on known predators / abusers were not passed on to the relevant authorities. Instead the report chronicled the woefully inadequate and immoral response of moving the abuser from parish to parish or club to club or school to school.
In the past week the CARI and the Rape Crises network annual report identified that most child abuse occurs within the family or by persons known to the family. There is moral obligation and responsibility on everybody regardless of who you or what your position is to conform to these standards. The institution can never come first at the expense of children.
It is regrettable that Minister Fitzgerald despite identifying this as her main priority on assuming office 2.5yrs ago has yet to publish the long awaited children’s first bill which would make it a criminal offence not to provide such information to the relevant authorities. This legislation should be given priority by her department if we are serious about challenging this problem.
I re-iterate that this legislation can’t be looked at in isolation – Register Registration of offenders can only happen if we have a proper vetting system. Last year the Oireachtas passed Minister Shatters National vetting bureau children & vulnerable persons act 2012. Over 8 months since the passing of this legislation we are still awaiting Minister Shatter to sign the Ministerial order to give this effect.
Absence of vetting legislation in relation to soft information seriously compromises our child protection system – we all remember the circumstances which lead to the death of Holly Wells & Jessica Chapman at the hands if Ian Huntley. In this case there was a vast amount of soft information available which if acted upon, the authorities at the time would have prevented this beast from being appointed care taker of a school in Soham.
As a result of this horrific crime the UK introduced legislation in 2005. Surely we do not have to wait for such crime to have our legislation enacted. At the moment HSE dealing with soft information without any statutory backup. A number of recent judicial decisions both at high court and Supreme Court level highlighted the absence of such legislation. Perhaps Minister could indicate today what the delay is in commencing this legislation? It is quite obviously a priority from a child protection prospective but yet to commence.
The on-going difficulties with waiting times in vetting applications are a further reminder of the need for adequate resources to be deployed in this area.
For our part in Fianna Fáil we will support this bill which as Deputy Naughton describes as it being based on “Sarah’s Law” in the UK. The successful road-testing of the legislation there since 2008 gives a good indication of its effectiveness.
We cannot underestimate the scale of the problem.
The annual average number of persons convicted of a Scheduled Offence under the Sex Offenders Act 2001 is 130. At any one time there are approximately 300 convicted sex offenders in custody. More than 50% have been imprisoned for the offence of rape and up to half have been imprisoned for offences that involved children as victims. Just over 1,000 persons are monitored by the Gardaí on an on-going basis. But the current system of keeping track of sex offenders’ locations is under severe pressure. In 2008, the CSO records indicate that 16 sex offenders breached their notification requirements—that figure rose to 24 in 2009, to over double that in 2010 at 50 such breaches, and in 2011, 61 breaches were recorded.
The facts are striking and are a clear call for new measures.
This bill and I hope the government’s response to it, offers a safeguard for worried parents and a legal framework for them to protect their children. We can further discuss the practical and resource consequences at committee stage with a view to strengthening it.
But the fundamental principle underpinning the bill, the principle of safeguarding those most vulnerable in our society from its most predatory elements is sound. We need to take strong action to protect our children and as legislators we are obliged to provide a framework to do so.
I welcome the bill and look forward to Minister Shatter’s forthcoming response to it. But it only forms one part of what must be a co-ordinated response touching on a number of issues that I have raised here today. The government must recognise that and act accordingly.