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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 Sandra McLellan: Information on Sandra McLellan Zoom on Sandra McLellan] For their part, policy-makers and policing services consistently fail to afford this crime the focus or resources it deserves. Sinn Féin believes that safeguarding the well-being of children and young people to protect them from physical, sexual and emotional harm and neglect should be a priority in law and policy. In all matters concerning the child, the welfare and protection of the young person must be paramount. Every child has the right to be protected from all forms of abuse.

Sinn Féin acknowledges that most child victims are abused by members of their families, but there are a growing number of offenders who are using the Internet and social media. I agree with the statement made by the Deputy in the explanatory memorandum to the effect that in this time of information and communications technology it is possible for non-contact sexual abuse to occur even without a face-to-face meeting. In that context, measures such as sex offender registers and vetting in isolation will not stop abhorrent crimes of sexual abuse occurring. Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's initiative is to be welcomed as an additional measure to give reassurance to parents, guardians and so forth. The widening of the offence is a common-sense way to combat the growing rate of such abhorrent offences.

It is indeed necessary to further strengthen the child protection framework of criminal law by removing the offence of meeting a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation and replacing it with an offence of grooming a child for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The law must recognise that sexual offences against children are emerging from the building of relationships with children. The dangers posed by the Internet in this regard must be tackled. Education on online safety must continue.

My colleague, Sinn Féin's justice spokesperson Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, has raised the challenges faced by the computer crime investigation unit of An Garda Síochána previously. There have been numerous reports of resource shortages and apparently a poor level of modern technology to keep up with the changes. This has led to backlogs in the reporting and monitoring systems. There is significant concern in child protection sectors that anyone allegedly looking at level five child pornography could get off because of resource issues. We need urgent assurance from the Minister that the technology, which apparently is antiquated, will be brought up to the required specification as soon as possible and that the necessary personnel resources will be deployed. We cannot have a situation in which persons inclined to view the most heinous type of child pornography have a sense that they might get off due to resource or technology issues.

In this regard, it is important to address an issue that must be dealt with in the Minister's Bill when it is finally brought forward. It must be clear that only An Garda Síochána can take part in sting operations against paedophiles. I do not want to see a situation in which vigilantes target paedophiles of their own accord through sting operations online. I am rather concerned that this would be done by people who are not trained, or delegated by society, to do it. The focus for the Minister, though, must be to give An Garda Síochána the information technology equipment and human resources that it needs. We have to give the Garda every angle the force needs, and I hope this will be teased through in the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.

Sinn Féin is calling for greater cross-Border co-operation between the Six Counties Assembly and the Twenty-six County Government, as well as the Garda Síochána and the PSNI, in dealing with predatory sex offenders. We are seeking greater cross-jurisdictional co-operation throughout the European Union and on the part of agencies such as Interpol in this regard. Furthermore, Sinn Féin is seeking the establishment of an all-Ireland policy on sex offenders - especially those who offend against children - to ensure congruence in sentencing and monitoring in order that neither jurisdiction will offer a safe haven for such individuals to escape justice or cause further suffering. We call for all-Ireland standards and protocols on the treatment of sex offenders and for the introduction of an effective all-Ireland register of sex offenders. The latter should include an in-built effectiveness review every five years.

I welcome the fact that Deputy Corcoran Kennedy has submitted a Bill to deal with this issue. The Government should have sought to introduce the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill far more quickly, and I hope that the debate in the House today will help in moving the Government Bill along. Sinn Féin will support this Bill to Committee Stage. This Bill deals with a pressing and dangerous issue that must be acted upon for the safety of children in this State.

Deputy Mary Mitchell O'Connor: Information on Mary Mitchell O'Connor Zoom on Mary Mitchell O'Connor As a mother, a daughter and a former school principal, I wholeheartedly welcome this Bill. However, I am saddened that this is the reality we live in, a reality in which we have to protect our innocent children from sexual exploitation and depraved individuals. This Bill responds to the concerns not only of the United Nations committee but of Irish parents who need to be sure in the knowledge that we are doing our utmost to protect their children from sexual exploitation.

I am a strong advocate for children's rights and against cyberbullying. Recently, I chaired an online national cyberbullying conference. I have seen how the Internet has become a dark place, with bullies, predators and the depraved people who prey on innocent children. Head 8 of the criminal justice (sexual offences) Bill 2014 addresses two particular activities. The first relates to a person who, particularly via the Internet, directly contacts a child to facilitate the sexual exploitation of that child. A second proposed offence relates to sending sexually explicit material to a child using communications technology. These offences will target the use of modern technologies for the purpose of sexually grooming a child, and I strongly welcome the measures.

Parents need to be vigilant at all times. Online activity of their children needs to be monitored. Parents should make no mistake about it: there are depraved individuals surfing the Internet and social media with the intent of corrupting and soliciting their children to be involved in sexually depraved acts. I encourage parents to monitor their children's online behaviour at all times. No responsible parent would allow her child to wander down O'Connell Street or a street in any city without supervision. Yet parents seem to believe it is safe for children to surf the Internet and online chat rooms.

I have had occasion in the recent past to visit a school where second year students, aged 14, were being advised about the dangers of cyberbullying. During the course of the class a number of boys reported that they had visited sites where men were attempting to entice them to meet. The boys told me that they responded to the men for the craic because they were bored. Parents should realise that this is what is happening in their homes. I advise that parents cannot be careful enough. It is their responsibility to know what is happening in their homes. Legislators, politicians and police have a responsibility, but it is also incumbent on parents to ensure their children's safety.

I commend my hard-working colleague and friend, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy, on ensuring that this legislation is moved forward.

Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach (Deputy Paul Kehoe): Information on Paul Kehoe Zoom on Paul Kehoe I thank all the contributors to the debate. On behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, I express my gratitude specifically to Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy for raising this important issue. As I said earlier, this Bill reflects the policy that the Department of Justice and Equality has been developing, which will form the basis of a number of provisions in the criminal law (sexual offences) Bill.

The shared goal of Deputy Corcoran Kennedy's Bill and the forthcoming criminal law (sexual offences) Bill is to ensure there is no gap in the law that can be exploited by those who would prey on children for the purpose of sexually exploiting or corrupting them.

When it comes to the online world, the most effective way of protecting children is to ensure they can protect themselves through safe Internet use. Projects such as the EU Safer Internet programme in Ireland promote the safer use of electronic and online media.

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