Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Internet Pornography

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

31. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his views regarding an increased role for the Irish Film Classification Office in the monitoring of the availability of pornography to children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26867/19]

The terrible murder of Ana Kriégel and the recent conviction of two boys for murder has raised many issues of concern for the public, which issues we, as policymakers, should be taking into account. One such concern is the prevalence of online pornography, which is available to young people. The purpose of this question is to elicit from the Minister whether the Government or he intend to seek to expand the role of the Irish Film Classification Office, IFCO, to assist it in monitoring the availability of online pornography to young people.

I assure the Deputy that the accessing of online pornography by children is a matter for considerable concern, even where that content is not inherently illegal. As stated by the Taoiseach in the Dáil last week, it is a matter of concern to all of us that many young people learn about sex through pornography, particularly as such material is not an accurate representation of what is healthy or appropriate behaviour. Exposure to such material at a young age is certainly inappropriate and may, at times, be harmful.

As the Deputy may be aware, the Irish Film Classification Office, IFCO, is responsible for examining and certifying all cinema films and videos-DVDs legally distributed in the State. The legislation provides that no film shall be exhibited in public unless the Director of Film Classification has certified that it is suitable and a certificate is displayed to that effect. The legislation gives the director power to prohibit a film or to impose conditions or restrictions upon its exhibition. The Deputy will be aware that the Civil Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2008 clarified for the first time that a core function of IFCO was classification of content "likely to cause harm to children". Where there is pornography contained within the material covered by the above legislation, IFCO takes a firm stand to prevent availability of such material to children by consistent application of its system of age-related classification of cinema films and videos-DVDs. However, within this legislation, there is no statutory function for IFCO relating to broadcast online or mobile material.

I thank the Minister. The Government needs to give consideration to expanding the role of IFCO. I have mentioned previously in this House that the current generation of young people are being exposed to pornography, the likes of which has not been seen previously. Young men in particular are learning about sexuality from very violent pornography online, which presents women in a very malleable and submissive way. As a State, we need to recognise that we have a responsibility to try to protect our children from the influence of online pornography. We protect our children from the dangers of tobacco and alcohol and, similarly, we should do the same in respect of online pornography.

In 2017, the United Kingdom introduced the Digital Economy Act 2017, which includes the statutory rule that providers cannot provide pornography online to people without verifying that they are over 18 years of age. In July this year, that role will be given to the British Board of Film Classification. Does the Government intend to try to expand the role of IFCO in order that it would have a responsibility to ensure that young people, that is, those under 18 years of age, are not being exposed to online pornography?

I listened carefully to what Deputy O'Callaghan had to say. I do not currently envisage a role for IFCO outside its current statutory remit. In particular, I do not envisage a role in regard to classification of online material, which I think Members will recognise as the dominant distribution model for material of a pornographic nature. The issue of online material, as all Deputies will be aware, is complex. It is an area that is constantly developing. Access by children is not solely the responsibility of any individual Minister or Department. Members will also recognise that content which is not illegal can nevertheless be harmful, especially to those people in society who may be vulnerable, and to children.

My colleague, the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is developing proposals for an online safety commission. In this regard, he has recently held a public consultation to seek the views of citizens and stakeholders as to an achievable, proportionate and effective approach to regulating harmful content, particularly online.

The Government should examine the British legislation, which expressly provides for the establishment of an age verification regulator. The responsibility of the regulator is to ensure that children are not exposed to online pornography. We need also to place more of a responsibility on the social media, large technology companies, that are making huge profits. We need to try to set up a statutory office, expanding the role of IFCO, in order that there can be an obligation on the providers of pornography to be satisfied that the people to whom they are providing it are over the age of 18 years. I am aware that when the UK was giving this responsibility to the British Board of Film Classification, there were some privacy concerns.

The issue in the UK is not about trying to identify who is watching pornography. The objective of the legislation and the new statutory position is to ensure that the person providing the pornography has verification that the person watching it is aged over 18 years. The Government is going to have to do something about this because the prevalence of violent pornography on the Internet is such that some steps be taken to ensure social media companies or the people providing it are responsible for it. We have a responsibility as an Oireachtas.

I agree with the Deputy and I assure him that my Department and I will take our responsibilities seriously in that regard, although it is an area that requires input from a number of Departments. The Deputy specifically raised the position in the UK. Last Thursday, the UK Government announced that it was postponing the age verification scheme just weeks before its planned launch. It announced a delay of six months due to an administrative oversight. It has since been reported that the government failed to notify the European Commission when laying the regulator's guidance in Parliament in late 2018, undermining the legal basis of age verification. Deputies may be aware that this is the third delay in respect of age verification in the UK. Last week, in response to a parliamentary question, the Taoiseach indicated that we would examine the UK situation. I would be most happy to do so. While Ireland may envisage difficulties, this is also a situation of some complexity in other jurisdictions. This is why I do not want to pre-empt the round of discussions and consultation currently under way, chaired by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I look forward to hearing the outcome of that consultative process in due course.

Online Safety

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Question:

32. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the expected timeline to ratify the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime; when he plans to do so; the legislation required to do so; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [26882/19]

The previous question dealt with some of the many challenges in the online sphere. A related matter is the whole area of child sexual abuse material, material posted without consent, violent sexual imagery and material of that nature. The Budapest Convention on Cybercrime is broad and part of what it examines is the area of production orders and preservation orders. That area gives additional resources and powers to domestic legislatures. I believe this needs a statutory basis in this jurisdiction.

I thank the Deputy for this question. Deputies will be aware that I outlined the position on ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime in January of this year. I updated the House on the significant progress made in the ratification process within the term of this Administration, particularly through the introduction of legislation to give effect to the key criminal law provisions of the convention.

The majority of the provisions of the convention are provided for under domestic law. The convention is broad in scope and its measures are provided for in criminal justice, interception, sexual offences , extradition, mutual legal assistance and copyright legislation.

The most significant step towards ratification of the convention was the enactment in 2017 of the first Bill in this jurisdiction specifically targeted at cybercrime. The Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Act 2017 gave effect to an EU directive on attacks against information systems, the main provisions of which reflect the key provisions of the Council of Europe convention.

The recent legislation, therefore, also gives effect to provisions in the convention relating to offences against information systems and their data, and search and seizure powers in respect of such data. An Garda Síochána, the organisation with primary responsibility for dealing with cybercrime, has strongly welcomed this important legislation as a comprehensive weapon to tackle criminality involving computer systems and interference with such systems or their data. Officials from my Department recently attended a meeting of the Cybercrime Convention Committee in Strasbourg and discussed with the Council of Europe Ireland's positive progress on ratification.

The current Government legislation programme makes provision for the drafting of a new cybercrime Bill to give effect to those remaining elements of the convention not covered in national law. This is to ensure that Ireland can ratify the convention and is evidence of the Government's clear commitment in this regard. My intention is that this legislation will be in place to facilitate formal ratification of the convention as soon as it is possible.

I was aware that the Minister would point to the Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Act 2017. That is related to what we more immediately think of as cybercrime. As we have both outlined, however, the convention deals with issues such as online sexual exploitation. The sexual abuse of children online is one of the most serious issues that any society can face. The key elements of the Budapest convention that relate to this are production orders and preservation orders under Article 18. It outlines that Article 18 is a domestic power relating to issues such as subscriber information which, as the Council of Europe has outlined, is often the most sought after data in criminal investigations due to the growth of cloud computing, remote data storage and so on. This raises serious challenges for competent authorities seeking access to specified compute data. It hinders criminal investigations and An Garda Síochána is concerned by this. We do not currently have powers in legislation with regard to Article 18. This is one of the significant outstanding issues. The Minister said that legislation will be brought forward soon. When will it be brought forward? Will it deal with the Article 18 transposition?

The legislation will enable us to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime. It is important that any such ratification in legislative form will enable the Garda and other stakeholders to ensure the practical application. I acknowledge, however, that there has been a delay in the ratification of the convention. I am keen to focus on ensuring that the draft legislation is introduced at the earliest opportunity. I refer, again, to the Criminal Justice (Offences Relating to Information Systems) Act 2017, which gives effect to key provisions of the convention. This is now available to An Garda Síochána. I also acknowledge other accompanying legislation such as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, which is a Private Members' Bill sponsored by Deputy Howlin. All parties in the House are currently subscribing towards this Bill.

That legislation is of value but it is related to specific criminal offences and new offences and it does not necessarily assist with the investigation of an offence. Ratification of the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime is important to An Garda Síochána, especially to the Garda national protective services bureau, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC and the State's special rapporteur on child protection. Will the Minister engage with and meet An Garda Síochána officers? They will communicate to the Minister how urgently this is needed to ensure that criminal investigations can be carried out and be successful and that the people responsible for these heinous crimes can be fully investigated and brought before the law.

Will the Minister commit to seeking a further information meeting with An Garda Síochána on this specific issue? He said: "...legislation will be in place to facilitate formal ratification of the convention as soon as it is possible". What does "as soon as it is possible" mean? Does it mean before the end of the year? What timeline exactly is he talking about? "As soon as it is possible" can mean any number of things.

I assure the Deputy that I engage actively with An Garda Síochána on the issue and will continue to do so. Not only is it an area of some complexity, it is an area that is not specifically under the remit of one Department.

It also has an international dimension. In that regard, Ireland is represented at the second protocol drafting plenary meetings, while we are in the process of implementing the legislation necessary to allow full ratification of the convention. A further meeting will be held in the next few weeks and Ireland will be represented. We are keen to ensure, when the second protocol to the Budapest Convention is finalised, that it will align as closely as possible with the issues raised by the Deputy such as protocols, notifications and production. We want it to align with the EU e-evidence package. The recent adoption of a mandate to allow the European Commission to participate in negotiations on behalf of the Union is welcome. There is much work to be done. It is a complex issue. My priority is to see the publication and introduction of the legislation to allow for ratification as soon as possible.

Crime Prevention

Jim O'Callaghan

Question:

33. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan asked the Minister for Justice and Equality if he will report on the response to an ongoing feud in County Longford; the Garda response to date; if he is satisfied that the required resources are in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27153/19]

I have raised previously with the Minister the matter of ongoing criminal activity in towns such as Drogheda. Unfortunately, today I have to refer to what is happening in Longford where there has been serious criminal activity between two gangs in the past 12 months. I ask the Minister for an update on what is being done to give confidence to people in Longford that the State is taking this criminal activity seriously. It needs to be dealt with. We need to ensure ordinary people in Longford are able to go about their lives without this threat hanging over them.

I am concerned about the number of violent and public order incidents that have occurred in Longford in recent weeks. Criminal acts of this nature have no place in civilised society. An Garda Síochána will not permit a small number of individuals to put local communities in fear for their safety. I have been advised by the Garda Commissioner that a number of targeted operations have been put in place by local Garda management in Longford aimed at tackling and preventing the ongoing inter-family feuds in the Longford and Granard districts. Under the current initiative, the feuds will be dealt with by district resources, with more serious incidents being addressed with support from the regional armed support unit. I understand 15 arrests have taken place, with prosecutions having been initiated in a number of instances. Investigation files on incidents in Longford will be submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Deputy is aware that there has been substantial investment in the Garda budget by the Government which will allow the accelerated recruitment programme to continue in tandem with the deployment of new and leading edge technology to support front-line gardaí in Longford in carrying out the work of delivering a visible, effective and responsive police service to communities in Longford and beyond. An Garda Síochána is determined to bring the perpetrators of these acts to justice as soon as possible. Both Garda management and my Department will continue to monitor the situation in Longford closely in the coming weeks.

It is disappointing that once again we have to debate serious criminal activity in a provincial town that receives national coverage and has a significant impact on the lives of people in the town. It is, unfortunately, a product of the drugs industry and the fact that gangs that emanate from Dublin and that have spread into provincial Ireland are making substantial amounts of money from drugs. That is an issue with which we have to deal. Councillor Seamus Butler stated on a radio programme recently that we had to try to get their ill-gotten gains in order that people would realise there was no profit to be made or benefit to be gained from dealing in drugs. It is welcome that the Criminal Assets Bureau is becoming more engaged in seizing assets worth smaller amounts in order that people will be aware that there is no profit to be made from engaging in drug-related activity. I commend An Garda Síochána for its work and acknowledge that further resources have been put in place. Unfortunately, it appears to be a trend that is moving from Drogheda to Longford. We seem to be losing control of the dominance of the drugs industry. What does the Government intend to do to ensure we will not be here in a month or six weeks' time discussing criminal activity in some other provincial town?

I am acutely aware of the concerns of the people of Longford. I have spoken directly to the cathaoirleach of Longford County Council, Mr Micheál Carrigy, about the issue. I condemn the disgraceful behaviour of a small number of thugs in the Longford area who have no regard for the rule of law. The Garda Commissioner and his management team will continue to monitor the situation in Longford closely and allocate resources in the manner that best serves communities, including those in Longford. I heard on the national airwaves a report that Longford town was within a ring of steel. That does not make for pleasant listening. The Garda management team in Longford will continue to tackle the issue to prevent ongoing inter-family feuds from taking hold in the community. A number of arrests have been made. I expect the rule of law to continue to take its course.

I note what the Minister has said, but, unfortunately, it seems to be the case that when an issue arises in a provincial town, it receives coverage, that there is a political response and, as a result, a political reaction, whereby An Garda Síochána puts more resources on the street. We need to put more resources into towns which are vulnerable such as Longford and Drogheda. I note that that has now happened. It is depressing that there is a ring of steel around Longford. We should not let it get to that stage. We need to intervene at an earlier stage. I know that the Government and the Oireachtas cannot provide all of the solutions, but we need to face up to the fact that, unfortunately, the country is awash with drugs and that people are spending a lot of money which supports criminal activity. The drugs industry is dealing in death. We need a stronger education programme. In a way, it is a little like online pornography. We need to warn young people about the dangers of drugs. We need to indicate to them the link between taking drugs and mental illness. We spend much time warning people about tobacco and alcohol. We need to warn them more about drugs.

In condemning the disgraceful criminal behaviour in Longford I condemn the serious incidents of intimidation which are drug related which impact on all communities but especially families. I am advised by An Garda Síochána that the National Family Support Network has concluded a number of evaluations of the drug related intimidation reporting programme and agreed to a number of actions. The Government has made unprecedented resources available to An Garda Síochána to assist it to carry out its vital functions. There is a specific operation in Longford and the surrounding region, Operation Stola, which has been put in place by local Garda management to address the ongoing inter-family feuds as a result of criminal behaviour being engaged in by a small number of people in the Longford and Granard districts. I am keen to ensure the reputation of a fine provincial town, Longford, will not be damaged. I am pleased to note that there have been a number of arrests and that files have been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions. I am confident that the small number of people who continue to break the law in Longford will be brought to justice.

Sentencing Policy

Danny Healy-Rae

Question:

34. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Justice and Equality his plans to bring forward legislation to provide for stronger sentences and penalties for criminals who target the homes of elderly persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27155/19]

Following the closure of many Garda stations on both sides of Kenmare Bay, including Lauragh, Portmagee, Ballinskelligs and Valentia Island, and given that many more such as those in Sneem and Waterville are only open at certain times, there are genuine concerns among communities in this vast area that response times in seeking Garda assistance are not adequate and that this is creating an opening for the importation of drugs along this extensive coastline.

I am sure the Deputy will agree that burglary is a most serious offence, in particular, where the victim may be elderly or vulnerable, and that it often leaves a lasting impact. Given the seriousness of the crime, there are significant sentences in place in the law for burglary offences. I refer to the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud Offences) Act 2001 which provides for sentences of up to 14 years' imprisonment. Aggravated burglary - where a weapon may be used - is punishable by a sentence of up to life imprisonment. Furthermore, the Criminal Justice (Burglary of Dwellings) Act 2015 specifically addresses bail applications and targets repeat offenders by allowing for consecutive sentences where deemed to be appropriate.

I know that the Deputy will be aware that, within parameters set by the Oireachtas, sentences imposed in any given case are a matter for the courts and that judges are at all times independent in their decisions, subject only to the Constitution and the law. A matter that is fundamental in the law is that a court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate, not only to the crime but also to the individual offender in identifying where in the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applying any mitigating factor which may fall for consideration. The vulnerability of a victim, including vulnerability by reason of age, may be regarded by the court as an aggravating circumstance.

It is welcome that the Court of Appeal has set down sentencing guidelines for burglary and robbery. In this jurisprudence the court has stated that if a considerable number of aggravating factors are present, it raises the offence to the highest category which merits a sentence of between nine and 14 years, before mitigating factors are taken into account.

I advise the House that the Judicial Council Bill 2017 which has recently been passed by the Seanad and which I expect to bring into the House next week will address the matter of sentencing guidelines more generally. I welcome the initiative of Deputy Ó Laoghaire in that regard.

I am really shocked and disappointed. The Minister has not answered my question at all. The question he has answered has nothing to do with the one I asked about the coastline that is left unpoliced all along Kenmare Bay. What he dealt with was something else, the matter of sentencing. In all honesty and fairness, he did not answer my question. It is ridiculous. Did he get mixed up or did he get the answer to another answer? What has gone wrong? I asked him a question about the closure of Garda stations on both sides of Kenmare Bay, but he dealt with the matter of sentencing and something else unrelated to my question.

I regret that, but my understanding is I am dealing with Question No. 34 which deals with legislation providing for stronger sentences and penalties for criminals-----

No, that is not it. It is about the closure of Garda stations.

I am dealing with Question No. 34. Any criminal who is before the court in County Kerry is dealt with independently by it. I am pleased to note that the courts in County Kerry have full lists. I was also pleased to accompany the Deputy last year to the busy Garda station in Kenmare in the heart of his constituency. I acknowledge the constructive nature of that meeting. I assure the Deputy on the ongoing resources provided for the Garda and the chief superintendent's team in County Kerry.

Something has gone wrong as the Minister is not dealing with my priority question. As I said, the closure of so many Garda stations on both sides of Kenmare Bay has left the area unserviced, response times are not adequate and communities genuinely believe they are being exposed to the importation of drugs along this massive coastline. Every town and village in County Kerry is rife with drugs. How are they getting in? No one is being intercepted. There are many piers in the area, including Blackwater pier, Tahilla pier, the Oysterbed Pier, Gleesk Pier, the White Strand, Westcove Pier, Derrynane, Kilmakilloge, the Cloonee Lough, Bear head and Cahermore. My question has been left totally unanswered. The Minister did not address how it would be responded to or what would be done in the future to address it.

The Chair has no responsibility for the answers the Minister provides.

The Minister answers the questions put to him. I ask the Deputy to check with the Office of the Ceann Comhairle after this session. My understanding is the specific question referred to by the Deputy was disallowed. The question that was allowed is the one on the Order Paper, notice of which would have been given to the Deputy in recent days. The Garda Commissioner and his team across An Garda Síochána will continue to give priority to communities in County Kerry and other parts of the country. From my perspective, I am keen to ensure the Garda Commissioner and his team are sufficiently resourced. That is why a total budget of €1.76 billion has been provided for An Garda Síochána for this year, which represents an increase of 6% on the initial allocation for 2018. Specifically, I refer the Deputy to Operation Thor which is providing a swift return for the Government on the investment made. It includes an overtime budget of almost €100 million, as announced in budget 2018.

We will clear up any misunderstanding later. I apologise on behalf of Deputy Eamon Ryan who is unable to be here and sends his apologies.

Question No. 35 replied to with Written Answers.