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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 Niall Collins: Information on Niall Collins Zoom on Niall Collins] Everybody is on the same page regarding that legislation and everybody in this House supports it fully. I cannot understand why it has not been brought forward to date. We should take every opportunity, even on these Friday sittings, to take legislation like that and, if necessary, pass All Stages.

We agree with the provision in the proposed legislation that persons undertaking acts that include soliciting, requesting, counselling, encouraging, procuring or enticing a child under the age of 17 to carry out any act, including meeting an adult, shall be guilty of an offence. We agree also that persons communicating with a child by whatever means with a view to gaining his or her trust for the purpose of doing anything that would constitute sexual exploitation shall be guilty of an offence. To underline the seriousness of the crimes involved, Fianna Fáil and I agree that a conviction should carry a sentence of imprisonment for up to 14 years. This sends out a strong message.

We agree with the rationale for the Bill. Unfortunately, there are many new tools and software that have been used to exploit children for sex abuse. The adoption of modern communications technology has resulted in a significant step change in the sexual abuse of children in many ways. The online spheres, referred to by previous speakers, carry with them perceived anonymity. This goes all the way towards emboldening the offenders because they can hide behind a veil of secrecy. Persons interested in child sexual abuse feel their online behaviour is less risky because they have this anonymity. This encourages them to offend more and seek more graphic and violent content than would be found offline. We know all this material is available online. There is a worldwide community of like-minded individuals who are able to speak to each other and act as a network over the Internet in order to organise themselves to engage in child grooming, which ultimately leads to the commission of sexual offences.

With regard to the word "grooming", the online sphere facilitates grooming and the solicitation of children for the purpose of sexual abuse and exploitation. It involves getting close to the children and gaining their trust. We have all heard so many stories or read accounts of how children have got sucked into the online sphere in the belief they are conversing with a person of their own age. They do not know that, behind the cloak of secrecy, there is in many cases an adult or older child.

It is high time we took on this issue. We are living in the information and technology age. We must be as firm in dealing with the problem as we are in dealing with other offences scourging our land. There is a major problem with burglary in the country and the Minister for Justice and Equality has brought forward proposals in that regard. My party and I have done so also. It is a question of sending out a robust message and strong response. The message in the legislation before the House, that a person can be imprisoned for up to 14 years, is very robust.

My main point concerns the fact that the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill has been stagnant for too long. While the Bill before us is to discuss child grooming, we know the main intent of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill is to criminalise the purchaser of sex. As part of our deliberations on this, the joint committee met sex workers or people involved in prostitution. They give themselves different titles. Many of them gave us some very harrowing accounts of how they became involved and the experiences they had when they worked in the industry. The point that really struck home for me was the fact that the younger the sex worker, the more in demand she was. This proves the point that there is a great desire among some very sick people in our communities to get their hands on children for the purpose of sexual exploitation. That is why we need a robust response in our criminal law. It is regrettable that it has not been achieved before now.

I pay tribute to all the people who came forward to speak to the committee. We met them also in Buswells Hotel in a private briefing session run by Ruhama and representatives of the Turn Off the Red Light campaign. I publicly acknowledge the work of the campaigners in this regard. The meeting went a long way towards educating me and other legislators on the need to protect children from grooming and women who get sucked into prostitution. Behind prostitution and child grooming is a very well organised criminal network. The workers are being trafficked by criminals to make illicit profit.

Our legislation has to catch up and be fit for purpose so as to address the activity of the criminals. One way of dealing with the problem is by tackling the demand. International studies have shown this. The committee visited the Scandinavian region and examined outcomes there based on the authorities' approach to tackling demand for sexual services and prostitution services. One will never eradicate the practice completely. Society in Ireland has to move on and we must tackle the demand. The glib old response that prostitution is the oldest trade in the world - fellows have a laugh about it and there is a bit of brouhaha - is not good enough at all. Behind prostitution are men, women, boys and girls who have been trafficked and who are being sexually exploited so criminal gangs can make profit. That is not good enough.

Deputy Sandra McLellan: Information on Sandra McLellan Zoom on Sandra McLellan I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and thank Deputy Corcoran Kennedy for bringing it before the House and allowing this discussion to take place. The Government's delay in making progress on the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill is unacceptable. Both Houses of the Oireachtas have for a number of years been debating Private Members' Bills such as this one only to be told by Ministers time and again that such Bills are unnecessary because a more comprehensive Bill is on its way. We are coming to the end of this Dáil term and there is still no sign of a comprehensive Bill to reform this area of law. If the Government knew there would be a delay like this, it should have accepted Private Members' Bills and enacted them so that, at the very least, some reform would have been legislated for and some adequate protection would have been afforded to citizens.

I welcome Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's Bill. It is an important one and it is comprehensive and logical. It is in keeping with international best practice and Sinn Féin will support its passage to Committee Stage. It is a shame that the general scheme of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill that was published by the Minister for Justice and Equality late last year has not seen progress since. There is a pressing need to address all the law in this area.

Sexual violence is probably the most pervasive crime in Irish society, yet it remains under-reported, under-investigated and under-prosecuted. Conviction rates are low and criminal sentences rarely reflect the devastating impact of the crime on its victims.

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