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Criminal Law (Child Grooming) Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]

Friday, 10 July 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 886 No. 5

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  10 o’clock

Criminal Law (Child Grooming) Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy: Information on Marcella Corcoran Kennedy Zoom on Marcella Corcoran Kennedy I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome this opportunity to debate what I believe is a timely and important Bill. This legislation is the result of my previous work on the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and with front-line agencies supporting victims of abuse and exploitation. It is a short Bill which will create an offence of child grooming for sexual exploitation. Incredibly, Ireland does not have a specific child grooming offence.

Deputies may recall that such a proposal was unanimously supported by the members of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, as part of the review of the laws on prostitution a couple of years ago. The committee is very ably chaired by our colleague, Deputy David Stanton. This debate is timely as it is taking place just two weeks after the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child challenged Ireland to outline what measures are in place to protect children from sexual abuse and grooming. The committee set a four-month deadline for Ireland to respond.

I believe the creation of an offence with strong penalties will address the concerns of the United Nations committee and also ensure that Ireland is meeting its obligations under EU directives. In addition, as Deputies will be aware, this debate takes place as the Government is about to honour its commitment to publish a new criminal law (sexual offences) Bill which will include the wider recommendation of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality regarding laws targeting the buyers of sex. The time is now right for us to act to address shortfalls and weaknesses in our laws. In recent weeks I raised the need for the publication of the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill with the Taoiseach on the Order of Business. I was advised that it will be published in this Dáil term. I sincerely hope it is on that time schedule.

Deputies may notice that the Criminal Law (Child Grooming) Bill 2014 is a short Bill. However, that does not take away from its important content. We will all be aware of the significant levels of public concern last year about allegations of grooming on a large scale in Rotherham in England and in particular, the allegations that many of those responsible managed to evade justice. However, Deputies may not be aware of the number of children who, shockingly, are being moved around our own country to be sexually exploited. Thirty children were detected over a two-year period.

I believe that Members on all sides of the House will agree with me that we must ensure that the most robust laws possible are in place to combat these heinous crimes. The intention of this Bill is clear. Persons undertaking certain acts, including soliciting, requesting, counselling, encouraging, procuring or enticing a child to do any act, including meeting an adult, shall be guilty of an offence. Under the law a person under the age of 17 is considered to be a child. In addition, persons communicating with a child by whatever means, online or offline, with a view to gaining the trust of that child for the purpose of doing anything that would constitute sexual exploitation, shall be guilty of an offence.

In order to underline the seriousness of these crimes, on conviction such offences shall carry penalties not exceeding 14 years imprisonment. It is important to note that while some of the public commentary around my proposals have been about online grooming, these offences would also apply to offline grooming so as to protect children in the general community and not just when they surf the Internet.

Since placing this Bill in the public domain, I have been greatly encouraged by the number of people coming forward to support it and the endorsement it has received from front-line agencies, including the Immigrant Council of Ireland, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and Ruhama. I am delighted to see the strong representation from each of these organisations in the Gallery.

We now have an opportunity to ensure that those who seek to harm our children can find no hiding place in the law and cannot use legal confusion to escape justice. I am seeking the support of all Deputies for this Bill. The creation of the offence not only reflects the unanimous view of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, but will also bring us into line with European directives. I ask that, together, we build on the political consensus which has been achieved and it is my hope that we will move quickly to legislate to establish this offence and ensure that there is no escape for those who want to prey on our children.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Deputy Paul Kehoe): Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, who regrets that she is unable to attend today, I thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for bringing forward this Bill and raising this very important issue. Modern information and communications technology, in particular the Internet, offers all of us, including children, great opportunities. However, there are also risks and children can be exposed to inappropriate behaviour online. Educating children and their parents on Internet safety is the most effective way of recognising and avoiding this type of behaviour.

The office of Internet safety in the Department of Justice and Equality co-ordinates the EU safer Internet project in Ireland. This is a consortium of industry, education, child welfare and government partners which acts as a safer Internet centre in Ireland. The project promotes the safer use of electronic media and enhances the protection of children online. The office of Internet safety also provides information for both children and parents on safer Internet use. Understanding the risks and knowing how to avoid them is the best form of protection for all Internet users and children in particular.

None the less, children do make contact with people online whom they do not know. A 2012 project by EU Kids Online, funded by the EU and undertaken by the London School of Economics, surveyed more than 25,000 children across 25 countries. Although by no means affecting a majority of users, the statistics from that report and a subsequent update in 2014 show that online risks affect a significant minority of children. These would include exposure to sexual messaging and imagery. The Minister for Justice and Equality is bringing forward a number of proposals to target such risks. While sharing the aim of this Bill, these proposals deal with specific types of behaviour and actions which would fall under the category of child grooming. Where a child is identified by a potential abuser, a process of communicating with the child can begin. To a child, this conduct may be innocuous but to a reasonable person it may give cause for concern that a meeting with a child would be for a sexual purpose.

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