I was expecting it to be taken tomorrow.
I thank the Minister for bringing the Bill before the House. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss the legislation and the topic more broadly. It is legislation we are broadly in support of and we will be happy to engage with the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, on the relevant Stages as the Bill progress through the House.
On the contents of the Bill, it appears to contain what I and my party believe to be changes in the law that are sensible and necessary, particularly regarding the equalisation of proposed sentencing as between genders. Although it is a step forward in laws and cases involving sexual offences, we believe it is somewhat piecemeal and that more can be done regarding consistency in sentencing, a point that I have raised previously with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, regarding sentencing guidelines and one to which I intend to return. I hope the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, can provide some commentary on that point. Perhaps the Minister of State might do so in his reply if he has any views on that matter.
The Bill has two primary purposes, namely, to amend the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 to address a gender anomaly in penalties, something of which we are supportive, and to amend the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 to provide for presumptive minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders, which we will also be supporting. With regard to the former, it is a matter that was discussed during the debate on the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 and both my colleague, Deputy Jonathan O’Brien, and Deputy O’Callaghan raised concern around the approach to harmonisation to the effect that the benefit to the public by an increase and harmonisation to life imprisonment had not been demonstrated. It appears the Minister has listened to this point and responded with a sentence of up to ten years in this Bill, and that it applies both to men and women.
There are still anomalies when it comes to the law on incest which require further consideration. First, the wording still implies that a woman cannot initiate incest, as it is worded, "any woman who permits". Likewise, it is limited to carnal knowledge, therefore, excluding acts of abuse and incest that fall short of intercourse, as well as excluding certain same-sex relationships or same-sex incest and abuse of that kind. These are issues which require amendment and I ask the Minister of State to consider that this is an opportunity to address some of those anomalies.
The significant amendment to the Act of 2017 is detailed and welcome. Where an offender is convicted of a sexual offence listed in the Schedule to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, and is sentenced to imprisonment for a period of at least five years, and is subsequently - within a period of ten years - convicted of a further offence listed in the Schedule, the court shall, when imposing sentence for that offence, specify the minimum term of imprisonment to be served by the person. The minimum period of imprisonment shall be three quarters of the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law in respect of such an offence and, where the maximum term is life imprisonment, the minimum shall be specified as a term of not less than ten years.
The court will have discretion in the application of the sentence if it is satisfied that this sentence would be disproportionate in all the circumstances of the case. Section 25 can be triggered by a subsequent offence, which is committed while in prison. I believe the Minister of State will agree, and as somebody who proposes legislation he will understand it better than most, that for many of us it takes two or three readings of the specific proposal to entirely understand it.
Essentially though, it means that in the case of a person who has committed a serious sexual offence, in the calculation of the sentence of a further relevant sexual offence, the length of the sentence handed down for that second offence will be minimum three quarters of that first sentence. This is very similar to the Criminal Justice Act 2007. Like that Bill, it also includes scope for deviation from the minimum sentence, where it would be disproportionate. Hence it is a presumptive minimum, as opposed to a mandatory minimum. This has been described by O’Malley in the legal text, Sentencing Law and Practice as a significant safety valve, and I agree with that. This makes sense for the most part in that those who repeatedly offend, carrying out such heinous crimes, and leaving a trail of devastation in their wake, have clearly not engaged with or benefitted from any rehabilitation attempts or services provided to them, making them potentially a significant danger to others.
Sexual assault, or any crime of a sexual nature, is a very serious and violent crime that should carry one of the highest penalties. I do not need to delve into either the psychological and physical scars they leave on any victim for a lengthy period and perhaps permanently. While not perfect, the law around sexual offences is ever changing, and we can still do much more in our efforts to protect victims of sexual offences, be that in their treatment by the courts or increasing funding for the services to deal with the victims of such crimes.
More broadly, it is important that the Garda is recording its data accurately as it has a knock-on effect on the wider system and how we deal with offences, in particular sexual assaults, as a society. I believe there are issues in the Garda about the culture and understanding of the importance of accurate data, that the current system being used by An Garda Síochána is not fit for purpose, and that its IT system is in dire need of updating. This was a matter that was touched upon by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland and the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, must address this as a matter of importance. Data are important to this and to every crime to ensure we know the exact detail of what is going on. In that context, it is important that the Government progresses the SAVI 2 report. We saw an increase of 10% in sexual crimes in the quarterly crime statistics but we do not know the extent to which this might be due to increased reporting or an increase in historical cases. Perhaps it is difficult to break down the percentages and that is why the SAVI 2 report will be so important in understanding what the actual scale of sexual crime and sexual assault in this State is. As I stated, I believe that a better and more comprehensive approach to reform of sentencing where it relates to sexual offences or any other matter is in the form of sentencing guidelines. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has agreed with me that this an issue that can be progressed and needs to be progressed.
It is vitally important that the public have confidence that our courts will hand down appropriate sentences that are proportionate to the crimes committed. Unfortunately, currently, that is not the case. There are wide disparities in a number of areas, including sexual offences, but also areas that sometimes come before the District Court such as road traffic offences, and there are many sentences which have drawn considerable comment and anger. Time and time again we have seen sentences handed down that are inconsistent and inadequate. There are issues relating to leniency and light sentences, as well as inconsistency. There are problems in other areas unrelated to what is being discussed today in terms of assault and road traffic issues. The research on judicial sentencing habits conducted shows that sentence lengths range from 14 days to five months for an assault case; from 30 days to nine months for a theft case; and from two to 12 months for road traffic cases and some burglary cases. As a result, members of the public do not have the confidence we would like them to have that the courts would hand down consistent sentences and punishments that fit the crime. As legislators, we have a duty to address these issues in sentencing. It is our belief that collating and publishing data on this and ensuring judges have these parameters as guidelines is the best way to ensure consistency in sentencing.
I met the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, over the summer and he indicated he would introduce such sentencing guidelines at the next Stage of the Judicial Council Bill, and I hope that Stage will commence as a matter of priority, as it is relevant to the serious issues we are trying to address with this Bill and the addressing of those disparities.
We will be supporting this Bill. Sexual offences are especially heinous, intrusive, inherently violent and leave lasting damage. It is important we have strong legislation to tackle this and to ensure that the sentences attached are fitting of such a crime. I thank the Minister of State again for his forbearance.