I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the opportunity not only to move this Bill, but, more important, to have the management and monitoring of sex offenders in Ireland debated on the floor of Dáil Éireann. I became interested in the subject as a direct result of experience in respect of repeat offenders living in communities within my constituency. As a parent, I believe it is wrong that in many cases the only person who does not know about these individuals is the mother or father of the child at risk. The impression is given that it is up to the professionals who have the information required to protect children within the community but the reality is that the current legislative structure for the management and monitoring of such offenders is virtually non-existent.
Garda intelligence has a meaningful role to play in protecting our children. At present, a large body of Garda intelligence and other important information concerning individuals sits passively on the Garda information systems. The purpose of the Bill is to put that information to work in order that it is used in an intelligent and proportional way in the interests of child protection. This is not only my view, but the view set out by the Department of Justice and Equality in its discussion document released almost 60 months ago. The time for discussion is over. In 2011, when I tabled a parliamentary question on the issue, I was told that the legislation would come in the next few months, in 2012 I was told it would come forward later that year and in July last year I was told it would be ready shortly. The reality is that we need to make this issue a priority.
At present, the Garda is not specifically statutorily empowered to share relevant intelligence with parents, guardians and other carers of children for the purposes of enabling them to take steps to safeguard children and vulnerable adults who may be at risk. The purpose of the Bill is to establish an information on child sex offenders, ICSO, scheme, which would enable parents and guardians to inquire whether a person coming in contact with their child or vulnerable adult has been convicted of a sexual offence or would otherwise pose a serious danger to children. It provides for a similar entitlement for persons in authority in schools and clubs.
I accept the contention of the Minister for Justice and Equality that from a legislative perspective it would be better to have facilitating primary legislation supported by an operational scheme within An Garda Síochána. In fact, when I published the Bill 15 months ago I made it crystal clear that I sought these provisions to be enacted either through the fast-tracking of the long-promised Department of Justice and Equality legislation or by using my Bill as a vehicle for the required change.
The Bill provides a careful balancing of rights, those of parents to protect and safeguard their children and those of the offender. It also provides a balance between the disclosure of information and the improved monitoring of convicted sex offenders. The ICSO scheme is modelled on Sarah's law, which operates in the United Kingdom through the child sex offenders disclosure scheme. Sarah's law is so named after Sarah Payne who, at eight years of age, was abducted and murdered in the United Kingdom in 2000 by a sex offender.
Sarah's law was successfully piloted in several areas in the UK for four years. The analysis of the pilot highlighted several interesting points. First, approximately half of all the requests for information did not involve a stranger but a relative, neighbour or someone known to the family member, such as a new partner of one of the separated parents of the children. Approximately 70% of sex abuse cases involved someone other than a family member. The majority of these people were known to the children in question but the offender had built up a relationship over time. Disclosures about registered child sex offenders were made in 7% of cases, directly impacting on 60 children. Far more interesting was the fact that the initiative also led to other actions, including referrals to children's social care services in 27% of cases. The research carried out by the British Home Office suggests the police and other criminal justice agencies have seen benefits in the formalisation of processes and that this has led to the provision of increased intelligence and a better route for the public to make inquiries should they have concerns. These factors cannot be underestimated.
We need to change the attitude in Ireland to reporting suspicious activity. As a population we are slow to report our concerns to the Garda and we tend to leave it to someone else. However, sometimes this decision has devastating consequences. Some of these cases are currently before the courts but I will outline a few incidents not involving proceedings to elaborate the point. Three incidents in counties Louth and Dublin involved strangers approaching children on the street and at a playground. They highlight the need to change the law regarding the supervision of sex offenders. The incidents occurred 12 months ago following Garda reports of possible abductions. The first incident was in Dunleer, County Louth, where a stranger pulled alongside a playground and called out a boy's name as he played with his friends. The second incident took place in Monasterboice, County Louth, when a man in a van called out to children on a particular Sunday. At the time, the Garda was investigating a third incident that had taken place on Lansdowne Road, Dublin, some weeks earlier when a ten year old and an 11 year old boy were approached by a stranger driving a black car, but there was a delay in reporting that to the Garda.
These incidents not only highlight the fact that tighter controls are needed to monitor convicted sex offenders and those who pose a high risk of assaulting or abducting children, but they also expose serious flaws in the community response to such suspicious activity. The incident in Dunleer, County Louth, highlighted the fact that the individual had done preparatory work in obtaining details about the child in question. The question is whether these inquiries should have raised suspicions at an earlier stage and whether they were acted upon. The Dublin incident took ten days to be reported to the Garda. We need to send out a clear message to the public that they should report all suspicious activity to the Garda.
I believe this Bill will assist in copper-fastening the necessity to change that attitude. The proposals contained in this Bill should not be confused with Megan's law, which operates in the United States. That particular scheme allows the publication of names, addresses and pictures of paedophiles. This Bill does not propose to do that or to publish such information online. This Bill pertains to a proportionate response that gives accurate and vital information to parents in order that they can act upon it.
In 2012, slightly more than 2,000 sexual offences were recorded in Ireland, of which approximately 131 involved a crime against a child under the age of 17 and a further 24 cases related to a sexual offence involving a mentally-impaired person. At the same time, sex offenders have been granted remission and have been released back into communities, often without rehabilitation or proper supervision upon release. The average annual number of persons convicted of a scheduled offence under the Sex Offenders Act 2001 is 130. At any given time, approximately 300 convicted sex offenders are in custody, more than half of whom have been imprisoned for the offence of rape and up to half of whom have been imprisoned for offences that involved children as victims. Offenders generally serve a relatively lengthy sentence, with approximately two thirds sentenced to terms of imprisonment of five years or more. At present, more than 100 sex offenders are discharged annually, having completed their sentence. However, there are just six Prison Service staff to perform the risk assessment of the entire prison population with regard to transfers, temporary releases and early releases and it is impossible for them to conduct a proper risk assessment.
A vitally important point regarding the management of sex offenders in this jurisdiction is the need to replicate what is happening in the United Kingdom, which has proper risk assessment of sex offenders, in order to be able to monitor accurately such offenders. It is also important to note that only one in ten sexual offences is reported and only approximately one in 20 is convicted. As I mentioned, half of these convictions involve children and therefore, even an effectively-operating monitoring regime for sex offenders will not address the totality of parents' concerns. However, the current system of keeping track of sex offenders' locations simply is not working. At present, 1,300 people are on the sex offenders register in Ireland. In 2008, Central Statistics Office records indicate that 16 such offenders breached their notification requirements. This number rose to 24 in 2009 and then doubled in 2010 to 50 breaches. In 2011, some 59 breaches were recorded and a further 49 in 2012. Some of these people have gone underground without trace. Based on the recorded breaches, there is one breach of the sex offenders register for every five people on that register and it is important to place on the record what constitutes a breach of that register. A breach of that register entails not telling any Garda station where, as a convicted sex offender, one is living or not staying for one night out of seven in one's designated accommodation. That is the threshold for compliance that is required in respect of the sex offenders register in Ireland. The level of breaches in respect of the notification requirements of convicted sex offenders appears to be a clear indication that the current system simply is not working.
In 2009, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Dermot Ahern, stated the failure to reduce the notification period for the registration of sex offenders would lead to Ireland becoming "a safe haven for convicted sex offenders". Nevertheless, more than 50 months later, this gaping hole in Ireland with the so-called sex offenders register still has not been closed off. At present, a convicted high-risk paedophile can visit Ireland from Britain or Northern Ireland unknown to the authorities and can roam around this country without being obliged to register with the Garda. This also applies to convicted sex offenders released from prison in Ireland or those who moved here from other jurisdictions or to another county within Ireland. In theory, the same notification procedures apply to Irish sex offenders as to those convicted of serious sexual offences in other jurisdictions. However, this is reliant on the offender being flagged by passport control on entering the country. There have been a number of instances in which dangerous sex offenders who were wanted by the police in either Northern Ireland or Britain subsequently were located in the Republic. For example, in July 2012, a convicted rapist on the run from the police in Northern Ireland was found in Dublin.
I will now focus briefly on a number of provisions within the Bill itself. Section 4 is the key provision in the Bill, which allows the parent or guardian of a child or vulnerable adult to make an inquiry under the information on child sex offenders, ICSO, scheme as to whether a particular person who has had or potentially could have contact with his or her child poses a serious risk or danger. Section 4 also provides for applications under the ICSO scheme should be determined within 48 hours of the application. Section 4 also makes provision that in the case of a named person who is a current or former participant in the witness protection programme, such participation shall not serve to preclude a disclosure made under this section. I understand there have been instances involving individuals in the witness protection programme in the past.
The legislation also makes provision for the disclosure, in certain circumstances, of soft information. The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 makes specific provision for soft information. This is soft information held by the Garda Síochána but which reasonably gives rise to bona fide concerns that a person may harm a child or a vulnerable person. It is based on the Garda Síochána's own investigations into an offence or disclosure of information from a scheduled organisation. This does not pertain to hearsay or word-of-mouth reports. Section 9 empowers the Garda, on its own initiative, to provide information to parents, guardians or the community regarding a high risk sex offender in the community. Section 10 closes off a number of the loopholes regarding the sex offenders register and the notification process and I believe this provision strengthens both this legislation and the sex offenders register.
Finally, I will paraphrase the comments made by the mother of Sarah Payne, after whom the legislation in the United Kingdom is named. She stated that if just one child can be kept safe as a result of this law, then it will have been worth it. I believe it is possible to protect the lives of many children and to protect the future of thousands of children by the enactment of this legislation and I commend the Bill to the House.