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

Friday, 10 July 2015

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 886 No. 5

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Paul Kehoe: Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe] This conduct and type of communication is grooming. They are the initial steps which are likely or intended to lead to the sexual exploitation of a child. As the Deputy identifies rightly in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill, the existing offence of sexual exploitation of a child under section 3 of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 includes inducing the child to engage in or observe a sexual act as well as inducing the child to engage in prostitution or the production of child pornography. These offences would address a range of conduct under the heading "sexual grooming". However, not all conduct that would constitute grooming is included. The Minister for Justice and Equality agrees with the Deputy in this regard. The process of child grooming can be gradual. Seemingly innocent contact via information and communication technology such as social media, messaging apps or online forums may hide a sinister motive.

To combat what may appear to be innocent behaviour, the Minister for Justice and Equality will propose new offences which will specifically address online grooming and will be included in the forthcoming criminal law (sexual offences) Bill. The first offence will criminalise persons who contact children either online or through mobile communications such as text messaging for the purpose of sexually exploiting the child. The offence is targeted at the initial stages of grooming and does not require physical contact or a meeting between the adult and child. The offence does not necessarily require the communication to contain a sexual advance or to include sexual material as these are not generally features of sophisticated grooming but it does require that the communication is to facilitate the sexual exploitation of the child. The penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment reflects the serious nature and intent behind the communication.

It will be a separate offence to send a child sexually explicit material by means of information and communications technology. Familiarising a child with such material is a classic grooming technique which seeks to desensitise a child to sexual activity. These offences specifically address online grooming. However, the sexual offences Bill will also address other forms of child sexual grooming. While the provisions are being finalised for publication, I would like to outline for the House the very specific conduct which will be targeted.

As I have mentioned, familiarising a child with sexually explicit material is a classic grooming technique. Under the sexual offences Bill, a person who, for the purpose of corrupting or depraving a child, causes the child to witness or watch sexual activity or view sexually explicit material will commit an offence. It will also be an offence for a person, for their own sexual gratification, to cause a child to witness or watch sexual activity. The sexual offences Bill will also address meeting a child for the purpose of the sexual exploitation of that child. While initial meetings may be for the purpose of advancing the grooming of the child, ultimately this conduct is intent on an act of sexual abuse against the child. This is also an element of the offence set out in the Bill before us.

A version of this offence exists under current law. Under section 3(2A) of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, it is an offence to meet a child or travel with the intention of meeting a child having met or communicated with the child on two or more previous occasions. This offence is to be replaced in the new sexual offences legislation. First, a single prior communication is sufficient rather than the current requirement for two such communications. Second, the offence will be triggered simply by making the arrangements to travel to meet a child. Again, this is directed at behaviour initiating and encouraging a relationship between an adult and child for the purpose of sexually exploiting that child.

Like Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, the Minister for Justice and Equality is also concerned that persons who travel outside the State to commit the offences covered by the new legislation can be prosecuted. Under existing legislation, there is an offence of travelling abroad for the purpose of sexually exploiting a child. That offence will also be broadened along the lines of the domestic offence to include making arrangements to travel abroad as an element of the offence.

There will be an offence under the new legislation of soliciting or importuning a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Similar provisions are contained in Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's Bill. The new offence includes paying, giving, offering to pay or give money or some other consideration for the purpose of sexually exploiting a child. The offence will be worded to include circumstances where non-monetary remuneration, such as a computer game, is offered or given to a child.

All of the new offences related to child grooming will also be included in the new jurisdiction provisions to be included in the sexual offences Bill so that it will be an offence for a person to commit any of those offences against a child in a place outside the State.

While there is an understandable focus on the risks posed to children by online predators, it is a fact that children can be at risk in both the virtual and real worlds. The sexual exploitation of children has devastating effects. The impact on the child, its health, relationships, families and opportunities can stretch lifelong. The special vulnerability of children requires that we ensure every protection is available. Being able to effectively target those who prey on children before an act of abuse or exploitation occurs is therefore crucial. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy targets this behaviour through her Bill. However, while it is not proposed to oppose this Bill, the Minister for Justice and Equality intends to pursue grooming behaviours through the sexual offences Bill. In addition to the number of offences relating to child grooming I have outlined to the House, it will also address a wide range of other matters relating to sexual offences and offending. In doing so, it extends and strengthens our sexual offences law and more fully reflects the provisions of a number of international instruments including the EU Directive on combatting child sexual exploitation and child sexual abuse.

On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, I thank again Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for bringing this Bill forward. Protecting children from predatory behaviour is a priority. Educating children on internet safety is the most effective means of protection. Such protection is supported by the criminal law which must target those who would target children. The Deputy's Bill reflects the policy developments in the Department of Justice and Equality and I look forward to hearing all of the contributions to today's debate.

Deputy Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins I am glad of the opportunity to speak on this Bill and congratulate Deputy Corcoran Kennedy on producing it and thank her for doing so. She is a loss to the Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Bringing this Bill forward has given us another opportunity to deal with what is a very sinister part of our society and the world we live in today and something we have to face up in a robust fashion. Fianna Fáil supports the Bill and extending the criminalisation of the grooming of children for sexual exploitation. Currently, numerous pieces of legislation are used to protect minors from sexual offences. The offences, as currently constituted, include most acts which would include grooming of a child. The proposed legislation extends current offences to include activities geared towards building a relationship with a child so that a meeting and-or sexual exploitation will subsequently occur.

The Garda estimates that it had approximately 30 detections of what could be classified as child exploitation or trafficking of people for child exploitation or grooming during the 2013 to 2014 period. The criminal law (sexual offences) Bill, published by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, has been mentioned. The heads of the Bill were published in November 2014 and have been under consideration for a long time. The Bill will form a necessary part in the implementation of the EU directive. It is clear an EU-wide response is urgently required to the situation given trafficking transverses our borders and does not recognise or respect them.

Not wishing to be partisan in this debate, it is regrettable that the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill has not been brought forward before now.

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