Criminal Law (Incest) (Amendment) Bill 2012: Second Stage [Private Members]

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Five years ago, Roscommon Circuit Court heard the shocking details surrounding the sustained abuse and neglect of six children in one family. At the time, the late Judge Miriam Reynolds questioned how the situation could have gone on for so long given that the children were in school and also given the family's involvement with the health board. After being failed by the State institutions for years, these children were once again failed by both the law and the Oireachtas.

At the sentencing hearing the late Judge Miriam Reynolds stated:

The Punishment of Incest Act 1908 is 100 years old. At the time it was not even contemplated by the legislation and possibly by the society that a woman, a female, could commit incest, as the perpetrator or instigator of the offence. The provision was a person who had carnal knowledge of a female was guilty of a felony and liable to life imprisonment. Section 2 stated that a female person aged 17 or above, who permitted a grandfather, father, brother, or son to have carnal knowledge shall be guilty of a misdemeanour and was liable to a prison sentence of between three and seven years.

In this particular case, rather than the issue being that of whether a female consented, we had a woman who was the perpetrator and the instigator. At the time, the late judge stated: "I believe all persons should be treated equally before the law." She went on to state:

Had she been male, she would be facing up to life imprisonment. Clearly right-thinking society could not comprehend such a desperate act, hence the lack of regulation.

This lack of regulation could have been addressed in 1993, when the 1908 Act was amended on foot of the sentencing in the Kilkenny incest case or when it was subsequently amended in 1995, by making the offence apply to both sexes. The woman sentenced in the Roscommon Circuit Court case five years ago became the first, and hopefully the only, woman in the history of the State to be convicted of incest.

On 27 January in that year, Deputy Shatter, who is now Minister, moved a motion in the Dáil following the shocking and disturbing revelations exposed on foot of that case, including the gross failures of the former Western Health Board to appropriately intervene at an early stage. At the commencement of that debate, we all were warned that the motion made specific reference to matters which were the subject of criminal proceedings and in regard to which further proceedings were expected at that time. While the issue of sentencing and the courts was avoided at that stage due to the fact that a male had yet to stand trial, we all were appalled at the sentencing restriction. Commenting on the sentence, family law expert Dr. Geoffrey Shannon stated that the law should be reformed to provide for equal sentencing for men and women convicted of incest. At the time, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Mr. Dermot Ahern, was reviewing the criminal law governing sexual offences for the purpose of providing greater protection to children and other vulnerable persons against sexual exploitation and abuse, including a review of the need to reform the incest laws. It was subsequently decided that a provision to increase the penalty for incest by a female to life imprisonment in order to bring it in line with that of a male would be incorporated into the reform of the Criminal Justice (Sex Offences) Acts, and five years later we are awaiting action on that.

The general scheme of the sexual offences Bill, including this reform, was approved by Government before Christmas. The Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brian Hayes, in the House in October last, stated that it would be approved by the end of October by the Government, but it did happen before Christmas. After that Cabinet decision, the Minister, Deputy Shatter, announced, on 17 December last that the general scheme of the Bill would be published by the end of January. We have yet to see the general scheme of that Bill and the fact remains that it will take some time before it becomes the law of this land.

Twenty-one years ago there was public revulsion when a man, a so-called father, was sentenced to a maximum seven years for incest in Kilkenny. The Oireachtas acted quickly and increased the maximum sentence within weeks, and revisited the issue two years later. Before that individual was due to be released from prison the law had been revised twice, yet here we are, five years after the sentencing of a woman, a so-called mother, still awaiting a change to the law.

I do not question the bona fides of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, or his commitment to reform this law, but it is taking far too long. That is why, two years ago, I published this legislation, the Criminal Law (Incest) (Amendment) Bill 2012, which addresses the 21-year legal loophole that sees men liable for life imprisonment if convicted of incest while a woman faces a much shorter maximum sentence. In order to address this anomaly and ensure equality of treatment of sentencing in incest cases, the Bill proposes to increase the maximum sentence available to judges in respect of females to life imprisonment so that the law no longer makes an irrational distinction between male and female perpetrators of such horrific offences.

The Bill proposes to amend section 2 of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 by substituting the word "felony" for "misdemeanour" and substituting the words "to be imprisoned for a maximum term of life" for "to be kept in penal servitude for any term not less than three years, and not exceeding seven years, or to be imprisoned with or without hard labour for any term not exceeding two years". All I am seeking is ten words to ensure the option of life imprisonment is open to judges upon conviction of either a male or female for the inhumane act of incest.

This change in the law is needed now, not some time in the future. That is what the family at the centre of the case to which I referred has requested. While the law has been changed twice since the Kilkenny incest case, both changes happening in advance of that offender's release from prison, the perpetrator in the Roscommon case will be released in advance of any new change in the law. While my proposal would have no bearing on the sentences served by those already convicted, it would at least help the victims, who will see that their tragedy is being taken seriously by the Legislature and that no other offender will receive such a light sentence in future. As I said, all I am seeking is the insertion of ten words in the legislation. The legal loophole in regard to incest has existed for 21 years. Let us ensure it does not run to 22 years.

I accept the commitment of the Minister to reforming this particular aspect of the legislation and the law in regard to sexual offenders in general. The current law in this area was enacted by the Oireachtas in 2001. A review took place in 2009, on foot of which we were promised new legislation. In fairness to the Minister, he has made progress in this regard since his appointment. However, it is vital that we address not only this particular issue but other gaping loopholes within the sexual offences legislation.

One of those loopholes relates to the sex offenders register. In issuing her sentencing in the Roscommon case, Judge Reynolds ordered that the defendant be placed on the register. Under the Sex Offenders Act 2001, the Garda domestic violence and sexual assault investigation unit monitors and manages notification provisions and maintains all information relating to persons who have obligations under that Act. More than 1,300 persons are monitored by An Garda Síochána on an ongoing basis. A nominated Garda inspector in each division has responsibility for monitoring of persons subject to the requirements under the Act within his or her division. All sex offenders are required to notify An Garda Síochána within seven days of their release from prison that they have been convicted of a sexual offence and must provide their name and address. They are also obliged to notify the Garda of any change in their name or address and give notice of their intention to leave the State.

The duration of the post-release notification requirements varies according to the sentence received, ranging from a five-year period for non-custodial sentences to an indefinite period for sentences of more than two years. Failure to notify is an offence punishable by up to five years' imprisonment and triggers Garda powers of arrest without warrant. Unfortunately, the current system of monitoring sex offenders simply is not working. Central Statistics Office data show that 24 breaches were recorded in 2009, 50 in 2010, 59 in 2011, and a similar figure in 2012. In a scenario where some 100 sex offenders are discharged from prison on an annual basis, we have six prison staff with responsibility for performing risk assessments for the entire prison population - not just sex offenders - in respect of transfers, temporary releases and early releases. There is one recorded breach for every five people on the sex offenders register. In other words, one fifth of those on the register have been in breach of the conditions at one stage. A breach occurs where there is a failure on the part of an offender to notify any Garda station of where he or she is living, or where an offender fails to reside at his or her designated address one out of every seven nights. The requirements are quite simple, yet one in five offenders breaches them. The reason for the high incidence of breaches is that the system is hugely lax. There are major loopholes in the legislation, some of which I have raised in the past. In 2009, for example, I raised the issue of the seven-day notification period with the Minister's predecessor, Dermot Ahern. The situation in the United Kingdom is that once a sex offender is released from prison, he or she must notify the authorities of that release within three days, with the same notification period applying where offenders change address. Here, the notice period is seven days. The former Minister told the House in 2009 that unless this particular loophole was closed off, Ireland could become a safe haven for convicted sex offenders. Fifty months later, convicted high-risk paedophiles can visit Ireland from Britain or Northern Ireland, unknown to the authorities, and roam around the country legally for seven days. It is not good enough that this particular anomaly remains in the law. There have been numerous instances where people who are being sought by the authorities in the North, some of whom have already been convicted in the past for sexual offences, are found residing in this State. It is imperative that this loophole be closed off as quickly as possible.

Some small good - if one can call it that - might be said to have come out of the horrendous case in Roscommon in that it highlighted the positive aspects of practice within the Garda Síochána. Sergeant John Hynes showed enormous dedication, not only in bringing this particular case to conviction but also in respect of the similar cases he has pursued over his career. He has been recognised by colleagues for his tremendous work in this area. At the time of the court hearing in the Roscommon case, Sergeant Hynes singled out the family for praise, pointing out that credit was due to those members who brought these crimes to the attention of the authorities and facilitated the prosecution and conviction. In exposing what was done, that family triggered action in this area. On foot of the case, pilot audits were done in three areas, one of which was Roscommon, into how neglect cases were being handled.

In County Roscommon it identified seven families out of the 30 examined, where adequate provisions had not been put in place to protect children. The audit of three areas identified a total of 17 families who had been failed miserably by the State. The audit represents only a small snapshot of the number of neglect cases in the country. On foot of the pilot study, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has directed the HSE to review all neglect cases in the country. Hundreds of families will be saved on foot of the review that has taken place owing to the fact that these children were brave enough to come forward.

I acknowledge the assistance of two individuals who helped me to draft the Bill - Ms Jill Mellor in my own office and Mr. Brian Hunt without whose assistance the Bill would not be before the House today. The objective of the Bill is to ensure that through our laws we protect those who are most vulnerable in society, namely, children and all victims of such horrific crimes. We owe it to the children at the centre of the Roscommon case to ensure their courage and bravery are recognised. No other family should be failed by the State to the extent that this family were. Judge Miriam Reynolds said:

But there are six lives that are destroyed and there is no other way of saying it, they are all victims of abuse. The woman who gave birth to them will cast a long shadow over their lives forever.

Let us ensure this law will reduce that shadow somewhat. Let us close off this loophole once and for all and ensure the law reflects the abhorrence we all have of this offence.

I thank Deputy Denis Naughten for raising this issue. It is one in which he and I have had a particular interest for some considerable time. The Bill is, in part, a response to the Roscommon child care case, as detailed by him. As the House is aware, an inquiry team chaired by Ms Norah Gibbons presented a report on the case to the HSE in October 2010. I am conscious that the preface to the report referred to the wave of publicity and comment that, understandably, followed the sentencing of the mother and father in 2009 and 2010, respectively, for physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. The inquiry team was sensitive to the fact that publication of its report was likely to give rise to further publicity. While acknowledging the public interest in this matter and a need for the facts to be reported, the team asked those involved in reporting and commenting on the case to be fully cognisant of the effect such reporting would have on each and every one of the children and young people concerned. It is important that we be just as cognisant today of the well-being of the young people in question and I do not propose to say anything more about the case referred to in the explanatory memorandum to the Bill. As the Deputy correctly said, it is an issue which I raised in the House, with others, and which was addressed at some length.

To put matters in perspective, it is important to say, as the offence of incest is narrowly defined, that incest legislation is much less used than other sexual offences legislation to prosecute familial sexual abuse. I am informed that between 2003 and 2011, inclusive, court proceedings for incest offences were commenced in only 12 cases. There were eight convictions in the same period, only one of which was for incest by a female. As the Deputy correctly pointed out, this is the only known case of incest by a female of which I am aware since the foundation of the State in which a conviction has been secured. I accept, so far as legislation on the Statute Book is concerned, that there is a gender anomaly - for historical reasons - in the penalties for incest, an issue the Deputy and I have raised previously in the House. The maximum penalty for incest by a male has been increased twice, in 1993 and 1995, and is currently life imprisonment. The maximum penalty for incest by a female has been seven years since passage of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908. Accordingly, I have no difficulty, in principle, with the Private Member's Bill and the Government is not opposing its reading on Second Stage.

On 17 December last the Government approved the drafting of a wide-ranging sexual offences Bill. This Bill will include measures to equalise upwards the penalties for incest by male and female offenders. It will also take a more comprehensive approach to reform of the law in this area than the Bill before the House which simply proposes to increase the penalty for incest by a female to life imprisonment to bring it into line with the penalty for incest by a male. I have no disagreement of any nature with this whatsoever. The Government's Bill will provide for waiver of complainant anonymity in certain circumstances. Currently, the Incest Proceedings Act 1995 provides for total anonymity of the accused and the complainant. The sexual offences Bill will also provide for repeals in order that the law on incest can be consolidated. As I have indicated, the original legislation on incest pre-dates the foundation of the State. In addition, the Government's legislation will enhance the protection of children from familial sexual abuse and abuse by persons in authority through amendments to the wider criminal law.

Incest offences, on their own, are of limited value in protecting children from familial sexual abuse. This is because prohibited relationships for the purposes of incest offences are based on a close degree of blood relationship and incestuous acts for the purposes of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 are limited to sexual intercourse. Therefore, any other sexual interference of any nature by a parent or a very close relation with the child does not fall under the offence of incest. The offence of incest by a male, for example, does not include incest committed by an uncle against his niece - it is so confined in the manner in which it was detailed in the 1908 Act.

The wider criminal law must and does take a more comprehensive approach to the protection of children from familial sexual abuse. For example, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 created two separate offences of engaging in a sexual act with a child. These are gender neutral offences and apply whether there is a familial relationship between the complainant and the accused. Also, prohibited sexual acts include all penetrative sexual acts; therefore, they are not confined formally to sexual intercourse.

The offence at section 2 of the 2006 Act of engaging in a sexual act with a child under the age of 15 years carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, that is, the same penalty as the maximum penalty for incest by a male. The offence at section 3 of the 2006 Act of engaging in a sexual act with a child under the age of 17 years carries a higher maximum penalty where the offender is a person in a position of authority. That term is broadly defined. It includes blood relatives, for example, an aunt or an uncle, not covered by incest offences and household members who are not related to the victim by blood.

The sexual offences Bill will enhance the protection of children from abuse by persons in authority. In particular, it will expand considerably the definition of "person in authority" in the 2006 Act to reflect the greater diversity of family households in Ireland today. Accordingly, it is proposed to add the partner of a parent who lives in an enduring family relationship with the parent, as well as foster and adoptive parents, to the definition. As I stated, I have no difficulty, in principle, with the Bill we are discussing. However, it is necessary to point out that, in addition to the limited focus of the Bill, unfortunately, the drafting of section 1 is flawed. This is because it fails to take account of the Criminal Law Act 1997 which abolished all distinctions between felony and misdemeanour. It also abolished penal servitude and hard labour.

The explanatory memorandum to Deputy Denis Naughten's Bill states the anomaly it seeks to address "also highlights the consequences of the State's failure to actively review and modernise legislation in the area of sexual crimes as well as other areas". I do not accept that is the case. My Department has undertaken a wide and comprehensive review of the law on sexual offences. This is a complex area of the law and there have been delays. However, the required Bill in this area is being drafted. The scheme of the Bill has more than 70 sections. It is extremely comprehensive and, when published later in the year, Deputies on all sides will see that we will have a modern legal architecture to address all of the various areas that need to be addressed in a consistent and coherent way and some issues that have not up to now been adequately addressed or, essentially, ignored in the law.

In addition to reforming the law on incest, this comprehensive legislation will implement the following - the legislative improvements identified by the Department's comprehensive review; recommendations of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children; recommendations of the Joint Committee on Child Protection; full compliance with the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse; and the EU directive on combating the sexual abuse and sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. That gives Deputies an insight into the range of issues we are dealing with and the extent to which I am committed to ensuring our full compliance with all relevant and important international instruments with regard to providing child protection and dealing with areas of child sexual abuse.

The protection of children from sexual abuse and sexual exploitation is a top priority of the Government. This is evident from the significant legislative output in this area since the Government took office. As a priority following publication of the Cloyne report, I steered two very important legislative measures through the Houses of the Oireachtas. In August 2012, the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act was enacted and introduced important measures designed to deal with the problem of failure to report abuse. Following this, in December 2012, the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 was enacted. This Act provides for the mandatory vetting of persons working with children or vulnerable adults.

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has also taken a number of initiatives, as part of a wider package of measures, to further ensure the protection of children and vulnerable persons from sexual abuse and exploitation. To mention one such initiative, the Child and Family Agency became an independent legal entity on 1 January this year and is now the dedicated State agency responsible for improving well-being and outcomes for children.

I also wish to mention the registration of sexual offenders, an issue on which I have had very strong views for some time. The Deputy also has such views and referred to them in his contribution. There are specific and detailed provisions in the scheme of the Bill, which will appear in the draft Bill when it is finalised with the assistance of the Office of the Attorney General, to change our law in this area. The three day rule which the Deputy mentioned is incorporated in it. We have looked carefully at the issue of the failure of registered sex offenders to comply with their obligation to give notice of change of residence. We have also looked at issues surrounding the notification of members of An Garda Síochána of an intended residence location in the period immediately preceding an offender's release. Substantial and comprehensive work has been done on this. Of course, no Bill is perfect when published, but I look forward to having it published later this year and to the debate that will take place on it. I will incorporate the wisdom of Members in any improvements that can be made.

I understand that the Deputy is impatient to see progress quickly. It is possible to make progress on isolated issues by cherry-picking them out and putting them in a short Bill. I am not saying that in a critical fashion because this is an important issue but, because of other provisions in our sexual offences legislation, there are other charges that could be brought in the circumstances of the case we have been discussing which would hold out the possibility of a far heavier sentence than arose in the Roscommon case. It is important that we take a comprehensive approach and address all the outstanding issues that have either been too far ignored or have not been adequately addressed in existing legislation, having regard to experience and the review that has been undertaken. In so far as none of us is pleased with delay, and I tend to want legislation to be produced at a double quick time and rate, a substantive and comprehensive approach and ultimately the introduction of comprehensive reforms is of great value.

In conclusion, I reiterate that the Sexual Offences Bill will be wide-ranging legislation to advance reform on a number of fronts, including reform of the law on incest. Amendments to the law on incest together with amendments to the wider criminal law will enhance the protection of children from familial abuse. I assure the House the legislation will be published later in the year and I look forward to its early enactment.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Law (Incest) (Amendment) Bill. I welcome the legislation and commend Deputy Naughten on bringing it before the House as it is a hugely important issue that requires quick action. Leaving victims and children waiting for proper and adequate legislation is never an option when dealing with issues such as child sexual abuse and the exploitation of young people.

I am getting sick and tired of listening to all the chat from the Government on the rights of children and abuse victims, while the same Government makes life difficult for people such as Louise O'Keeffe, a child abuse victim, by chasing her through the courts, both national and international and particularly at the European Court of Human Rights, and wasting taxpayers' money on hounding sexual abuse victims. These are horrific things to do to victims of abuse. It is important to point that out in this debate. The Government is also hounding children with a disability through our courts. That is the reality. Thousands of euro in taxpayers' money is being spent on hounding people in the courts when it could be spent on services, be it for a child abuse victim or a child with disability, and put to proper and adequate use.

While it is important to have the legislation before us today, we must also have proper and adequate prevention measures. The legislation only kicks in when the crime has been committed. My main gripe with many of the Government's Ministers is that we must be more proactive in ensuring that the front-line staff are doing their jobs to a very high standard. Sadly, having been a backbench Deputy for over 12 years, I have encountered many cases where the reaction was slow when one is very worried about a particular family. I do not like to say that. Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the legislation, we must have people working in child services and a Minister for Justice and Equality and a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs who focus on good quality services and getting the right people working on the front line, because they are the people who can prevent many situations occurring and having to deal with them through the courts. It is also important to make that point today.

Let us consider the details of what is involved. The term "incest" refers to sexual intercourse occurring between close blood relatives. Close relatives include a child, sibling, parent or grandparent. This is a criminal offence and charges are brought under the Punishment of Incest Act 1908, as amended by the Criminal Law (Incest Proceedings) Act 1995. There are no age limits so the fact that both parties are adults is irrelevant to a finding of guilt. However, a girl under 17 years of age cannot be prosecuted for incest, notwithstanding that she may have initiated the intercourse. This is based on the concept of the girl as a victim in every such instance, despite the possibility of evidence to the contrary. The maximum sentence for incest is life imprisonment for males and seven years for females as a result of amendments made by section 5 of the 1995 Act, perhaps reflecting the traditional view on the participants involved in the crime. Consent is no defence, but without consent the man may instead be charged with rape or defilement of a child. Again, these matters are covered by the legislation.

Delving further into this issue, the Criminal Justice Act 1993 was enacted after the Kilkenny incest cast in 1993 in which a man who was found guilty of incest and abuse of his daughter received a sentence of seven years, which was the maximum sentence under the 1908 Act. There was a huge row in response to this and the Criminal Justice Act 1993 increased the maximum penalty for male incest to 20 years. The maximum punishment for incest for a female aged over 17 years remains at seven years under section 2 of the 1908 Act. This shorter sentence for women has caused huge controversy, which is the reason for the Bill before us today. The judge in that case pointed to the possibility for legislative intervention.

This is the opportunity. I was interested to hear the Minister's remarks earlier that legislation is being prepared. Every time a sensible proposal comes up, during the Friday sittings or at other times, it is blown out of the water. I am extremely disappointed about this. We need to deal with these issues professionally and act swiftly. There are huge problems with regard to the abuse of children.

On a point of order, I do not wish to interrupt the Deputy's flow, but Deputy Naughten's Bill is not being blown out of the water. We are not opposing the Bill and I welcome the initiative he has taken.

The Minister welcomes the initiative. We all welcome the initiative, but at the same time the Bill will not be accepted next Tuesday. The Government will not support it.

There will be no vote on the Bill.

There will be no vote.

We will accept the Bill on Second Stage. I have merely explained we will produce a Bill which will address a range of other matters of relevance.

For the record, in fairness to the Minister, Deputy Shatter, this is the second Bill I have tabled which the Government has accepted and will incorporate into the new sexual offences legislation. If other Ministers took a leaf out of his book it would be more in line.

Does this mean that when it goes to Committee Stage the Government will not have issues with it?

We will deal with that on Committee Stage.

My focus today must be on ensuring the protection of the rights of children and those who are victims of child sexual abuse. This is the key issue with regard to the Bill.

Incest and horrific incidents occur in many families and most cases do not reach the courts. We must accept that most of these young boys and girls suffer in silence, and it is only 20 or 30 years later that they declare what happened in their childhood. We must place a strong focus on this. With all the discussion, talk and referendums, I want to ensure that those in schools and social workers deliver front-line services for these children. The safety of children is very important.

It is important to examine what is happening in other jurisdictions. Of all jurisdictions where incest is illegal, the maximum sentence for the crime of incest by a male is life imprisonment under the Punishment of Incest Act 1908. The province of Queensland in Australia also provides for a life sentence. The punishment for incest in jurisdictions where it is illegal varies substantially, with a maximum sentence of 14 years in the UK and Canada, and three years in Germany and Sweden. It is important to highlight this issue.

Where there is a lack of consent, the DPP may choose to prosecute a crime under general sexual offences legislation as rape, rape under section 4 or defilement of a child. When we speak about the Bill it is important to picture the image of the young child in these situations. We must focus on this and ensure the legislation is of a high standard and that it is brought efficiently through the Dáil and no stumbling blocks are put in its way as it goes through the Oireachtas. We do not want another young woman like Louise O'Keeffe having to fight and scream for many years before she is listened to. Many other victims in the same position also received letters from the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Education and Skills. These victims must be looked after. I welcome the debate on the legislation and I will support it.

Fianna Fáil supports the Bill and we recognise the efforts of Deputy Naughten in bringing forward such important legislation. The legislation aims to address an anomaly in Irish law whereby females are subjected to less stringent maximum sentences than males for committing incest. The Roscommon case of 2009, with which Deputy Naughten is very familiar, illustrated this gap in the legal system and the need to address it. It also underlines the need to establish a legal framework which actively protects the most vulnerable sections of society and children. These are the victims of heinous sexual crimes which need to be adequately punished and deterred. The Government needs to publish the Children First legislation and give effect to the referendum on children's rights passed by the people in November 2012.

Incest is one of the most disturbing crimes which can be committed against children. That close family members entrusted with the care and protection of a child could betray this duty in the most disturbing manner is a grave moral and legal violation. It is the duty of the State to establish, maintain and enforce the legal framework which protects children from this rare and awful crime. I hope the enactment of the Children First legislation will be a considerable step in this direction.

The Roscommon incest case, in which a 40-year-old woman was convicted of abusing her children, illustrated this gap in the law where different sentences apply to men and women. The appalling crimes of the woman concerned underline the need to address this discrepancy. There is something profoundly shocking about the sheer unnatural seriousness of the crimes where the mother beat, neglected and abused her own children. They bravely brought their plight to the attention of the authorities and pressed for justice to be done. A number of people in the House are very familiar with the case and with the lives of the children concerned years after the crimes were committed. It is clear that the impact on the children as they moved into adulthood was profoundly disturbing, and has an impact on their lives and the lives of those in their communities on a daily basis.

The legislation used to sentence the woman was completely outdated and was originally brought about in 1908. Reforms in 1993 excluded women, and the Bill aims to address this oversight. I hope that in co-operation with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Minister, Deputy Shatter, appropriate legislation can be enacted. It seems from the intervention of the Minister that he intends to take the content of Deputy Naughten's Bill and include it in other legislation he will introduce, which is welcome. In fairness to the Minister, he has accepted appropriate amendments to his legislation with good grace, which is right and fitting. A number of other Ministers also do this, whereby when they see a Bill with which they agree on principle, while they may not allow the Bill to proceed to enactment on its own, it forms part of their legislative framework. This is very helpful.

The case also highlighted the broader need for vigilance in potential child abuse cases and the need for a legal framework to protect children. The Government should publish the Children First legislation to give effect to the referendum passed in 2012. The entire nation was utterly shocked by the gravity of the crimes uncovered in the Roscommon incest case in January 2009. For the first time in Irish legal history a mother was convicted of incest and sentenced to the maximum seven years' imprisonment on ten counts of incest, sexual abuse and neglect of her children. The offences took place at the family home in County Roscommon over a six-year period, at a time when her children were aged between six and 15. They were regularly abused and beaten, frequently went hungry, lived in squalid conditions, suffered poor personal hygiene and endured the type of nightmare lives most of us, thankfully, will never know.

There was a major fall-out in the immediate aftermath of the case and serious questions emerged as to how a mother had been allowed to perpetrate the abuse for so long. It is still shocking to think that in 2009 this type of activity could have continued in the way it did. What had gone so disastrously wrong in a care system supposed to protect children that it took until 2004 for all of the children to be finally taken into care despite recognition of the ongoing neglect among social care and health care professionals? The report of the inquiry team established to examine the events surrounding the Roscommon child care case provides an insight. It found while the Western Health Board recognised the neglect, and on occasions recognised the emotional abuse of the children, it failed to follow up on the decisions taken by the child protection management team in a manner which offered the children the best protection.

As the report states, the inquiry also recognised that "Prior to their admission to care, the voice of the child is virtually silent" and "Yet, a basic requirement in the delivery of child protection services is the necessity to at least see the children and, ideally, to seek their views of their situation". It went on to note this is set out as a key task in Children First and that its absence in practice has been identified as a deficit in other inquiry reports, such as the Ferguson report of 2007. The report also states that while HSE staff were briefed, there was no systematic effort to embed the principles of the Children First guidelines into practice. Failure to put a legal responsibility on people to be Children First-compliant ensures that the State continues to fail children abysmally.

The report also demonstrates yet again the absolute need for the Government to build on the referendum and to legislate to properly enshrine children's rights under the Constitution. The absence of the child's voice was evident in court proceedings, most noticeably in the High Court injunction proceedings taken by the parents to prevent the Western Health Board from removing the children from their parents, at which, for constitutional and legal reasons, the parents' right to be heard was not matched by equal consideration of the wishes and needs of the children. Consequently, the Children First Bill will play such an important part in ensuring these issues are addressed comprehensively in law.

In light of the harsh lessons of the Roscommon case, I believe the Government must both support this legislation and accelerate the passage of the Children First Bill. The purpose of this Bill, when it is finally published, will be to put Children First, the National Guidelines for Child Protection and Welfare, on a statutory basis, and one hopes that so doing will ensure that a situation such as then arose will never happen again. Under the Children First legislation, organisations that are involved with children will have statutory responsibility to make sure the organisation is a safe place for children. The organisation will be required to notify the Child and Family Agency, which has been devolved from the Health Service Executive, that it comes within the remit of the legislation and to appoint a designated officer. This role of designated officer will provide the kind of protection all Members recognise as being important. That designated officer will have responsibility for ensuring that staff and volunteers are vetted, recruited and properly trained in safe practices with children and in recognising signs of abuse and neglect. The obligation to report abuse will extend to abuse and neglect wherever it occurs. The officer must make available to parents information about child protection within the organisation and must have a system in place to check and report on compliance with the legislation. The officer will have statutory responsibility to report suspicions as allegations of abuse to the Child and Family Agency, and further, where a named professional such as a doctor or a nurse works in an organisation under the legislation, he or she may report that information to the designated officer in the organisation.

In conclusion, I and my party will support every effort the Minister makes in enacting this legislation and making it part of the formal statutes that will afford greater protection to children. However, Fianna Fáil encourages the introduction at the earliest possible opportunity of the Children First legislation and its enactment without delay to ensure children are protected in the manner all Members have a responsibility to ensure. It would be deeply disturbing were a case similar to the one that brought about this legislation as proposed by Deputy Naughten to emerge. However, it always is possible, and Members must be seen to have made the greatest effort to put in place a legal framework that at least ensures the State has taken seriously its responsibilities and has attempted, to the greatest extent possible, to afford protection to children through the various different agencies that work with children.

I dtús báire, cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Naughten mar gheall air. I welcome the opportunity to speak today on behalf of the Sinn Féin party on Deputy Naughten's Criminal Law (Incest) (Amendment) Bill 2012 and I commend the Deputy on his preparation of this Bill. Deputy Naughten's Bill proposes to end a legal loophole that for 17 years has ensured that while men are liable for life imprisonment if convicted of incest, women may face only shorter sentences. The Bill seeks to amend the Punishment of Incest Act 1908, a law inherited by the Irish State after Independence, in order that both men and women can be imprisoned for life. As most Members present are aware, the original legislation carried a maximum prison term of seven years. This was extended in 1993 and 1995 after a public outcry when a Kilkenny father was jailed for abusing his daughter. The problem is that although the legislation now means that men could face life imprisonment for such crimes, the amendments did not cover women. This means the law now is different for men and women, as the latter are still faced with only a seven-year maximum sentence. Over the years, a number of cases have highlighted the need for this change in the law, and one particular high-profile case in Deputy Naughten's own constituency comes to mind. At the time, the judge pointed to the need for legislative intervention to remedy this discrepancy, and there was a public call from legal experts to have equal sentencing for men and women convicted of incest.

This Bill also highlights a true failure on the part of the State to proactively review and modernise legislation relating to sexual crimes. Sexual violence probably is 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. For their part, policy makers and policing services consistently fail to give this crime the focus or resources it deserves. Service provision for victims and survivors is entirely dependent on where one happens to reside, and there is a lack of consultation with those affected regarding the types of service they seek and need. At present, there is an insufficient number of sexual assault treatment units, SATUs, nationwide. According to research conducted by Rape Crisis Network Ireland, RCNI, the reasons victims do not make complaints or reports to the Garda are varying and complex, and concerns about the criminal justice system feature prominently among them. However, the most commonly stated reason is the victim did not want others to know what had happened. In general, new and more effective systems are needed, backed by increased resources, training and other measures, to ensure that sexual assaults and sexual abuse are thoroughly and sensitively investigated and prosecuted and that the victims or survivors receive adequate support to proceed with and complete prosecution.

Sinn Féin acknowledges that most child victims of abuse are abused by a family member. Therefore, measures such as sex offender registers and vetting in isolation will not stop abhorrent crimes of sexual abuse from occurring. Sinn Féin recognises the potentially grave harm that can be caused to children and others by tabloid-style naming-and-shaming policies, particularly to victims and survivors of incest, and therefore it opposes such policies. My party calls for adequate resources for best-practice sex offender treatment programmes, both in custody and post-release in the community. 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.

In concluding, I reiterate my support for Deputy Naughten's Bill and state that my party and I will support its passage to Committee Stage. This should have happened a long time ago. I also repeat the call for the Government to prioritise reforming the law in respect of sexual crimes to create a safer environment for all citizens.

Briefly, I wish to support the principle of Deputy Naughten's Bill and commend him on it. He has articulated well the issue in respect of the Roscommon case and the history of legislation in this regard. It is obvious to everyone that the legislation currently in force comes from a completely different era and is not suitable or appropriate to life as it now is lived. It comes from a time when women obviously were discriminated against in many areas and perhaps at the time were thought to be of so little significance that they were incapable of committing an offence. I also welcome the Minister's response.

The issue here is to deal, in a comprehensive way, with incest and, as we have seen in this House in recent years, there is also a need to address a range of issues. I welcome the fact there will be wide-ranging legislation to cover these issues later in the year.

I suppose all of us read the details of the Roscommon case and, for those of us who live close to the area, it made us realise what is sometimes happening under our noses or in our neighbourhoods without us knowing it. That made it even starker for some of us from the region.

I welcome the fact Deputy Naughten praised the work of the individual gardaí in that case. Sometimes people and institutions are all painted with the same brush. There are a few corrupt politicians but every politician should not be seen in the same light. Some members of the Garda Síochána do not act in the way they should but that does not mean great work is not being done by other gardaí.

I very much welcome the highlighting of this issue and the response from the Minister that it will be dealt with later in the year.

I thank Deputy Naughten. It is a very good thing that we have had this discussion and I very much appreciate the work he has done in this area. When we talk about child sexual abuse, the focus is very often on the stranger who poses a threat to a child but much of the research done and much of the experience in this area show that children more often than not know their abuser. Often the abuser is within a family, is very close to home or is a close family friend. We must bring our legal architecture up to date and meet our international obligations. As I said, I very much look forward to publishing the measure on which we have worked.

There has been a slight delay in publishing the scheme. I envisaged it would be published at the end of January but it should be published at the end of March or early April. The work is ongoing with the Office of the Attorney General. When it is published, there will be various detailed explanations of each of the heads of the scheme. There will be a full visibility as to the direction in which we are going in advance of the Bill, in its final form, being published. However, it will only be in its final form in the context of commencing the debate in this House. I am sure that as it weaves its way through this House and the other one, various amendments, changes and improvements will be made to it based on the insights of Deputies and on the very valuable work done by organisations outside this House, many of which made very substantial and important submissions to the two Oireachtas committees which reported on this area. Not only did they make written submissions but some of them appeared before those committees.

I thank Deputies for their contributions. I am sorry if I disappointed Deputy Finian McGrath who seemed to think we would vote this down. I did not want to spoil his narrative but I take the view that we should encourage Members of this House to publish Private Members' Bills in areas where Government is not doing the work. I am in favour of Bills ultimately being enacted and of contributing to their amendment. In the context of Deputy Naughten's Bill, a huge amount of work has been done in this area and I think he will be very pleased with the Bill we ultimately publish. I am not saying I will be immune from criticism on some bits of it but they are issues on which he and I soldiered together to try to bring about reform.

As I said, it has taken a bit longer to get the Bill published but that is because we are seeking to incorporate within it all of our international obligations in regard to the various instruments mentioned. It would have been quite simple to produce a Bill that did not deal with those issues which will make it very complex, detailed and comprehensive legislation. It is better to do this comprehensively than have another item of piecemeal legislation in which we partly address issues and leave a whole range of other matters aside for a future date. I am really anxious that by the time this Government has completed its terms of office, we are in a position to fully comply with and sign up to any international obligations we have in this area, or ones to which we should be happy to sign up, and have reflected them in our domestic legislation.

I thank the Minister for his response and his assurance that the forthcoming legislation will close this loophole. As I said earlier, I do not question the Minister's bona fides in regard to this issue. He is sincere and committed. As he said, we have soldiered together on many of these issues over many years. The reform of the legislation in this area is important and I accept the Minister wants to incorporate this into his Bill. It makes sense to do that and to deal with the issues in the forthcoming legislation. I accept what the Minister said in his contribution and thank him for it.

The Minister has been more than accommodating in trying to facilitate the enactment of legislation by members of the Opposition. I hope we will see more Members of the Oireachtas, whether on Opposition or Government benches, bringing forward legislation.

The Minister raised the issue of a technical flaw in the drafting of this Bill in that it does not take into account the Criminal Law Act 1997. There has been an ongoing problem in that accessibility to legislation has been difficult. No official record is maintained of amendments to pre-1922 legislation. The legislative directory, formerly known as the chronological table, on the Office of the Attorney General's website does not track changes to pre-1922 legislation. We still have a substantial amount of legislation which pre-dates the foundation of this State. If I, as a legislator, find it find it difficult to access that information, what hope has a member of the public?

I am glad the Minister is accepting the principle of the Bill and is not throwing the baby out with the bath water and rejecting it on the basis of a technical issue. One would want to be an expert in the field to have made the connection between the two because of the weaknesses in terms of the transparency of the legislation. I hope that can be addressed by modernising the laws and bringing them up to date and by ensuring that if there are amendments to legislation which pre-dates 1922 that it is easy to see them.

Although the Minister said it was not a criticism, he made the point about cherry-picking this issue, which I want to take up. In the legislation I brought forward in October, which the Minister accepted, I made proposals to close off some of the gaping loopholes. The difficulty is that members of the Opposition do not have the resources available to them. I would like to have brought forward far more comprehensive legislation but if it is taking the Minister's Department five years to do so, what hope do I have as an individual? I hope that by bringing forward these two Bills, they highlight flaws in the current legislation.

If the Government is not forthcoming with legislation, these could be used as vehicles to close off some of the substantial problems with the current legislation.

I am as impatient as anyone can be in Parliament because legislation is slow to be enacted. However, there are loopholes in the current laws that need to be closed. The biggest one, on which are agreed, relates to the sex offenders register. The Minister is committed to reforming the law in this area and said during his contribution that the legislation would be published later this year. However, it will be at least 12 months before it is enacted.

Maybe not; it might be a little quicker.

We are splitting hairs. I do not have too many to split, but it is a fine line.

With regard to incest, the Minister is correct that other provisions are in place that can be used. I wanted the loophole relating to it to be closed before the end of April for particular reasons, but there are mechanisms in place. However, there is a serious problem with the sex offenders register. The Minister's predecessor, former Deputy Dermot Ahern, stated in the House in April 2009: "A three day notification period in this jurisdiction for the sex offenders register would ensure a harmonisation of our laws in that respect and would ensure that none of our jurisdictions became a safe haven for convicted sex offenders." Every year 100 sex offenders are released back into the community, approximately 5% of whom will reoffend and commit a sexual offence within three years. That is a lower rate than among the general prison population, but a sexual offence is a heinous crime. Five out of every 100 will be prosecuted for committing sexual offences.

The vast majority of sexual offences against children are committed by someone known to the family, but 70% of offenders come from outside the immediate family. The Rape Crisis Network produced statistics that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, furnished to the House on behalf of the Minister last October. It found that 7% of offenders were strangers and, therefore, comprised a relatively small cohort, while 31% were close family members, which means that 62% were friends, neighbours or new partners from outside the immediate family circle. They have built a relationship and trust with the families and groomed not only the child but also the family. We cannot get away from this fact; that is the big risk.

I will give an example of why the sex offenders register needs to be reformed. If someone is released tomorrow morning from Arbour Hill Prison having served a sentence, he or she must register with a Garda station within seven days. There is nothing to prevent him or her from going to Bantry Garda station in west Cork to register and giving an address in Malin Head, County Donegal. He or she can spend six out of seven days working and living in a community in Wexford, for example, building relationships with families. Once he or she returns to Malin Head on the seventh day, he or she is complying with the law. That is why we urgently need to reform the sex offenders register. We cannot wait another 12 months; we have waited too long. That is why we need disclosure laws and to put on a statutory basis what is in place on an administrative basis for the Garda in order that parents would have access to information on these individuals in limited circumstances. These offenders turn up in communities and begin to build relationships. They groom not only the children but also the parents and family members and the communities in which they reside because communities provide the safe haven for them. The current law, as the Minister's predecessor said, facilitates such safe havens. Emergency legislation is needed to close this loophole. It has gone on for too long. Children are being exposed to unnecessary risk and I hope we can deal with all of the loopholes in an urgent and comprehensive manner to give them the priority they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, it must, under Standing Orders 82A and 118, be referred to a select or special committee. The relevant committee is the Select Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality.