Deputy Connaughton ended on a very definite note.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members' Bill. The Bill published by Fine Gael and my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, is timely and necessary. What we are doing in Fine Gael is addressing the need to create a comprehensive system whereby a register of all sentences handed down will be created. This will allow much greater ease of comparison by all involved in our criminal justice system and will be the definitive database.
This Bill will also allow people to assess the trends in sentencing policy and will help ensure greater consistency in sentencing by relying on real and factual information. No individual will be singled out under Fine Gael's proposal, which addresses a legitimate query raised by Deputy Cuffe. Rather, cases will be recorded by a case number. The information is already there but we are attempting to collate it in a single resource. Deputy Jim O'Keeffe has already dealt with the key provisions of the Bill and I do not propose to repeat what he said. I am not surprised at the comments of Deputy Ó Snodaigh. He appears to want the criminal justice system to rely only on media records of sentencing, saying they cover all cases. The media does not cover all cases.
I do not know what amount of time Deputy Ó Snodaigh and his colleagues have spent in the criminal justice system. In my previous career as a solicitor, I did a certain amount of court work. In many of those courts, the media was not present. Regardless of this, the media tends to choose the juicier story and whatever will sell a newspaper. Very often these can be the cases that have no bearing on the consistency of sentencing. Justice must be seen to be done. We, as legislators, have a duty to ensure that happens. No names would be used in the register. It is clear the Deputy does not understand the Bill.
The events of the past week show the need for the Fine Gael Party's proposal. However, this measure is not reactive legislation but was discussed and debated at our Ard-Fheis earlier this month. Last week the Fine Gael leader, Deputy Kenny, asked the Taoiseach how many people were in prison under the law that the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional. The Taoiseach could not answer the question. Instead he told the House the Prison Service was checking records and warrants and he hoped to have a clearer picture by lunchtime that day. The picture is still fuzzy. All I could imagine was prison service staff going through court ledgers, checking handwritten entries. I am sure, or at least I hope, that the system is not as archaic, although it does not appear to be far off that. There was no fast and easily accessible way of checking the records to answer a reasonable and straightforward question.
The purpose of the Bill is to establish a register of sentences that would allow information of this type to be readily available. Today the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children was unable to answer a question from Deputy Kenny about convictions under section 1(2) of the Act in question. Under our proposals, it would be possible for a Government to know how many people have been convicted of any given offence without delay at the touch of a button.
Such a register would also ensure that, as legislators, we know the precise number of people convicted of any given crime. It is especially important that, in tracking the incidence of sexual assaults against adults or children, as much information as possible is at our disposal. This will allow us to deal with these serious crimes adequately and put in place the best possible protection for children and young people.
The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday, in response to questions on the issue of the release of the man known as Mr. A and the possible release of several other men:
All of this is to protect our children . . . It is all about protecting our young people so that they can move around freely and their parents can understand they are safe.
He then went on to say:
The Government and, I am sure, everybody else, want to protect our children and be seen to do so. We are satisfied that we have a strong body of law.
We do not have a strong body of law to protect children. Are we yet again reacting to a crisis, as we always seem to do on issues of child safety? Ireland does not offer the best possible protection. Child safety is not a priority until something happens. We have failed to learn the lesson from the past. Ireland's child protection and vetting procedures seriously lag behind other jurisdictions, especially Northern Ireland.
There has been a protracted delay in extending vetting procedures to the education sector. While vetting is beginning for new teachers I have not seen any proposals to extend this vetting to those already in the teaching service or in any other capacity in our schools. The Fine Gael Party believes that staff or volunteers, either full or part-time, should be vetted before taking up positions where they would have substantial unsupervised access to children.
To make this happen, the central vetting unit should be expanded and extended, resourced properly and its services made available to charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations. Under the Fine Gael proposals, staff in the Health Service Executive and organisations funded by it, teachers and other staff at schools, staff or volunteers at charities and voluntary sporting and youth organisations would be vetted if they have substantial unsupervised access to children and vulnerable adults.
In addition, the legislative framework in place to ensure the protection of children and young people has not been completed. There are serious gaps in place which the Government has failed to address. It has repeatedly promised to bring forward legislation to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children. It is long overdue. Hand in hand with enhanced vetting, a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children must be a key aspect to our approach to child safety, yet there is still no sign of the legislation needed to establish such a register. It has been promised repeatedly and has appeared on the Government legislative programme time and again, yet no further details regarding this legislation or the register have been published.
Other legislative recommendations, such as the amendment of both the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 and the Sex Offenders Act 2001, respectively to include the reporting of abuse of vulnerable adults and offer a greater degree of protection to those with physical disabilities, have also failed to attract any priority from the Government. The extreme delays in bringing forward the necessary new and amending legislation are not acceptable. As the events of this week have shown, there can be no room for error or complacency in the matter of child protection. The abuse of children detailed in the Ferns Report and highlighted by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is horrifying. The need for thorough vetting and for a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children is highlighted by one finding of the Ferns Report, which stated:
The Inquiry believes that the appointment as Chairman of the Board of Management of national schools . . . should be made with the utmost care and diligence. As will be obvious from the allegations set out in this Report, some priests appear to have abused their position as Managers of national schools in order to access children.
Candidates for school boards of management must also be subject to vetting.
Last year it was revealed that a convicted sex offender was employed as a bus driver for special needs children in the Laoighis-Offaly constituency. Clear gaps in our child safety procedures must be addressed. We urgently need legislation to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children. The Government must prioritise this matter for the coming Dáil session.
It is important the Fine Gael Party's proposals be adopted and that a register of sentences be put in place. At the same time, a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children must be established.
What is the status of Mr. A's conviction? Will he remain on the register of sex offenders? What happens if he decides to try to have his conviction quashed? If Mr. A wants to get a job in a school tomorrow or work with children in any other paid or voluntary capacity, be it in a sports club or elsewhere, no one will be any the wiser about his previous behaviour. His sentence no longer stands. A High Court judge declared that he was unlawfully detained and he walked free.
There are people who do not have convictions but who are still a danger to children. When the Fine Gael Party published its proposals for vetting, both conviction and non-conviction, commonly called soft information, were included. After a debate in the Dáil in December 2003 on it and the lack of real action on this issue since then, I believe the Government is avoiding making a decision issue in case it upsets someone. Mr. A was convicted on a charge that did not exist in law and so he is free. He was originally convicted. Will he be included on a sex offenders register? Either way the use of soft information would allow an employer to know about his history if he looks for employment. It would also allow a youth or sporting organisation the knowledge it needs not to employ him. I remind the House that Ian Huntley had no criminal convictions.
When speaking on the Fine Gael Private Members' motion on vetting and child safety three years ago, the then Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Dea, told the House the best course of action was to wait for the outcome of the deliberations of a working group. It has long since reported but we are still waiting. He was speaking on the advice of the Attorney General that hard facts are disclosable but soft facts are not. That is why this register is needed and why the Government must take the issue of child safety seriously. It must face up to the issue of soft information with all of the safeguards the Fine Gael Party has suggested.
I ask the Government to accept Deputy Jim O'Keeffe's Bill. It is always reluctant to accept any idea that is not its own but I hope it will learn from its mistakes. The Fine Gael Party's proposals are sound and sensible. Their enactment will assist the criminal justice system and ensure greater consistency in sentencing.