Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I thank the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, which did a fine job in assisting us with interpreting the Bill. Broadly speaking, the Bill is non-contentious and is aimed at two distinct issues. With regard to the sentencing of repeat sexual offenders, these provisions originated in a Private Members’ Bill, sponsored by the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, and subsequently adopted by the Government.

Essentially, the Bill proposes a new section 58 for the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, to be headed commission of another offence specified in Schedule within a specified period. This proposed new section mirrors section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act 2007, which provides for a regime of enhanced custodial sentences for offenders who reoffend. The basic idea is that where an adult is convicted on indictment of one of the serious offences scheduled to the Act and is sentenced to at least five years and where he or she is subsequently convicted of another scheduled offence within seven years of the first conviction, the court must sentence the defendant to a minimum of three-quarters of the maximum permissible sentence for that subsequent offence. However, there is an important proviso. If the court is satisfied that it would be disproportionate in the circumstances to impose such a sentence, the court may deviate from it. This mirrors section 25 of the 2007 Act. Tom O’Malley describes this as “a significant safety valve”, in what would otherwise be “quite a swingeing provision that could result in remarkably harsh sentences for certain offences which, while inherently serious for the most part, might not always merit the minimum sentences apparently required by the section.”

The Oireachtas Library and Research Service paper states that no regulatory impact assessment was published alongside the Bill. The service is not aware of any assessment which may have been conducted by the Department regarding potential costs, implications or expected impact of the Bill. It again quotes Tom O’Malley on the 2007 precedent:

How much impact s[ection] 25 has had on sentencing practice is impossible to identify. Arguably, a court sentencing a person to whom it applies should always begin by identifying the minimum term to be specified and then decide if that term would be disproportionate in all the circumstances. One suspects, however, that s[ection] 25 seldom impinges on day-to-day practice, save to the extent that courts will have regard to relevant previous convictions as a matter of course.

If the Minister of State has an insight on this, it would be useful to hear it.

I thank all Deputies for speaking on this Bill. I also thank my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, for allowing me to sum on up on this important Bill.

This Government Bill originates from a Private Members’ Bill sponsored by me and introduced to the Dáil in May 2017. In July 2017, it was announced the Government would be drafting its own legislation which would broadly reflect the proposal put forward in my Private Members’ Bill. As an Independent Member in my first term, it is a great privilege to be in a position to have played a major part in bringing this legislation before the House. I am fulfilling my mandate to the people who elected me. I am here trying to make a difference to the lives of ordinary people who look to us for support and to make their lives that small bit safer.

The Bill addresses the situation where convicted sex offenders have gone on to commit further and more serious crimes. We have seen many instances where a convicted sex offender has gone on to commit further serious and horrible sex offences. We owe a duty as legislators to the people to protect them through safer and stronger laws. The Bill is aimed at serial sexual offenders who ignore all rehabilitation efforts and remain a constant public danger and menace to men, women and children.

This issue was raised some time ago by a constituent, Debbie Cole-----

Can I interrupt the Minister of State? Deputy Ó Laoghaire, who is his party's spokesperson on justice, was not aware this Bill was being taken tonight. The Minister of State might give way.

With the approval of the House, I propose we would give Deputy Ó Laoghaire a maximum of ten minutes.

That is no problem.

I appreciate that. I thank the Minister of State very much. I was caught napping a little bit. I was not expecting this Bill to be taken tonight.

It has been a long week.

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.

I beg the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and that of the Minister of State, who was in mid-flight when Deputy Ó Laoghaire came into the House. I ask the Minister of State to take cognisance of the Library and Research Service paper on this Bill. I made reference to the other issues with the current law on incest. There are a number of points addressed there which I will not go into now. It would be useful at the next Stage of the Bill if the Minister could have regard to those points.

I ask the Minister of State to continue now.

I thank Deputy Sherlock. We will take those points into consideration.

This Bill is aimed at the serial sexual offenders who ignore all rehabilitation efforts, who remain a constant public danger and who are a menace to men, women and children in society. This issue was raised with me some time ago by a constituent of mine, Debbie Cole, who suffered the severe trauma of being raped at the age of 19. Her attacker went on to commit further serious crimes. Debbie asked me if I could change the law in this area and I said I would try. Today, I am fulfilling that promise to her and many other victims of sex attacks. There are also other well-known cases of serial sex offenders who commit repeat offences in the State and where the offenders have made no effort to change their ways. The media have highlighted some such cases recently.

The effects of rape and other serious sexual offences on the community and the victims are well documented. Serious sexual crimes not only impose emotional and physical trauma on the victim but such offences also attack the unity and stability of society as a whole. It tears away the protection that society offers to all its citizens and we, as politicians, must be careful not to let this happen. If we allow serial sex offenders to continue unchecked, by going on to commit similar or other more serious crimes without imposing longer sentences for subsequent offences, then society as a whole is devalued.

Figures show that a small number of sex offenders released from Irish prisons undertook treatment programmes. Gardaí are also monitoring at any one time, some 100 sex offenders who remain a threat to society. Repeat offending by sex offenders is an affront to any democratic society that seeks to protect its citizens. Our laws must reflect our disgust at this behaviour. We must show our support, in a meaningful way, for those victims who have suffered at the hands of serial sex offenders.

I thank all Members in the House. I applaud Debbie Cole because for the last 20 years, since the age of 19, she has been campaigning for this. Ms Cole has spoken to a great number of people in the House over those 20 years. This Bill has so far failed to come to fruition, until today. I especially thank Debbie and her family - and all the "Debbie Coles". We had christened this Bill the Debbie Cole Bill or "Debbie's Law", and that is how it will stand with me. For Debbie and all the victims who have since come out and looked for support from the legislation, I appreciate all the Members in the House. The Bill did not just come about by us sitting in an office; we spoke to victims and Debbie Cole was one of those victims. I thank and applaud her. I thank all Members of the House for their contributions on the Bill. I thank also my political adviser, Mr. Eugene Deering, who wrote the Bill. It is the second piece of legislation I have introduced in the House over the last two and a half years and I get great pride in that.

Question put and agreed to.