Criminal Justice (Aggravation by Prejudice) Bill 2016: Discussion

The purpose of this meeting is to conduct pre-committee scrutiny of the Criminal Justice (Aggravation by Prejudice) Bill 2016 which is being sponsored by Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin. I extend a very warm fáilte to her to the discussion on her Bill. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Deputy O'Loughlin to brief the committee on the Bill and I will then open it up to a general discussion and questions and answers. I invite Deputy O'Loughlin to introduce the Bill.

I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for inviting me here this morning to discuss the Criminal Justice (Aggravation by Prejudice) Bill 2016, which I introduced in the Dáil in July 2016 and which subsequently passed Second Stage at the end of September. The intention behind the Bill is the need to provide for hate crime legislation in this country. When introducing the Bill last year I said that Ireland is behind the curve when it comes to having effective and robust legislation in place to deal with hate crimes. Similar legislation is in place in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales - our closest neighbours - and many non-governmental organisations and voluntary bodies have been highlighting the need for hate crime legislation for many years.

The need was reinforced last month when I hosted a briefing by the National Steering Group Against Hate Crime in the Leinster House audiovisual room. I thank committee members and other Members from both Houses who attended it. At the meeting we heard some very moving testimonies from five different people who suffered hate crimes predicated in prejudice and hatred. All of them were still visibly living with the consequences of that. I again pay tribute to the people who came forward and who showed great courage in enlightening us on their experiences. Also present at the briefing were Dr. Jennifer Schweppe and Dr. Amanda Haynes from the Hate and Hostility Research Group at the University of Limerick who are experts in this area. I have had a number of meetings and other contacts with them in recent months. They are considered to be international experts in the area. They have published widely in academic and other journals on the subject. They welcomed the introduction of a Bill on hate crime but they also had a number of concerns about the Bill that was proposed in July 2016. Such concerns were also expressed during the Second Stage debate in the Dáil. At the time I undertook to look more closely at the proposed legislation and to carry out extensive consultation, which I have done, to see what we could do in terms of amendments. On foot of these discussions I have tabled significant and far-reaching amendments to the original Bill. It is my belief that at this point there is a majority in both Houses in favour of the introduction of hate crime legislation. I hope the amendments will win widespread support in the Dáil and Seanad. I have written to the Minister seeking support for the amendments also.

While the original Bill was wide in scope, it does need to be given greater focus and more specific measures to be provided in law. For the convenience of members, rather than attach a list of the amendments I tabled to the Bill, I have provided a revised copy of the Bill by way of post script to the statement as it would appear if the proposed amendments were agreed. I proposed a widening of the various interpretations under the Bill to be more definitively inclusive and to address the concerns raised about addressing hate crimes through enhanced sentencing rather than by creating new offences. I now propose to create new offences by specifically amending the following seven Acts of the Oireachtas, namely, the Criminal Justice Act 1990, the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997, the Criminal Justice (Theft and Fraud) Offences Act 2001, the Criminal Damage Act 1991, the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981, the Criminal Law (Rape) (Amendment) Act 1990 and the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 1994. Rather than see bias and hatred as exacerbating criminal behaviour already provided for in law, these amendments will mean that hate crimes are specifically legislated for and it will also mean that hate crimes can be recorded, published and monitored, which is very important. The amendments also provide for offences which are motivated by bias and where there is demonstration of bias in legislation, with demonstration being incorporated in cases where hate is a manifest and central basis for committing a crime.

The amendments I propose are transformative in relation to the original Bill and the Title of the Bill would be changed to the Criminal Law (Hate Crimes) Bill. However, they will both address the concerns raised about the Bill on Second Stage and will ensure wider political support for legislation. There is no doubt other Members may wish to submit amendments and I look forward to discussing them also. There is an urgent need for legislation on hate crimes and I hope that together we can build a consensus across the political spectrum for it. I look forward to the discussion and the possibility of answering any questions members may have.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin. I commend her initiative. The areas being addressed relate to prejudice relating to race, colour, ethnic origin, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identification. The meeting is open to members to pose any questions.

I wish to convey apologies on behalf of Senator Clifford-Lee who could not make it to today's meeting. I also thank Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin and Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony on their initiative in introducing the legislation. It is important we have a recognition on the Statute Book that certain offences are aggravated by prejudice, whether that is on the basis of race, colour, being a member of the Traveller community or having a disability.

I note Deputy O'Loughlin has indicated that she is not being completely proprietorial about the Bill. She recognises that it can be improved. We as a committee are happy to work with her in trying to improve it through amendments and otherwise. It is important, however, that when we finalise a draft of a piece of legislation, we recognise that categorising a person as being guilty of a hate crime has long-term consequences and we need to give a certain amount of latitude to a court in order that when young people make a mistake and do something foolish when they are in their late teens or early 20s, they are not categorised for the rest of their lives as being somebody who has committed a hate crime. It is important that, in the legislation, latitude is given to the courts or there is some recognition that people can make mistakes. It is not acceptable to make such mistakes but we must recognise that there needs to be some latitude.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for her work on the Bill. Perhaps she will comment on whether she would look positively on providing latitude to the courts in that area.

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for his remarks. The purpose of the Bill is to create a framework within which a judge can pass sentence in a given situation.

I have sympathy with what the Deputy is saying. None of us wants a situation to arise where somebody is tagged for life for something they did. We also have to be very mindful of the victims of these crimes. Quite often, they have been tagged for life by the crimes that have been perpetrated on them. I would be happy to consider a situation in which there is latitude. I feel that in all cases the judge should have discretion.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for attending. It is a good example of new politics - which generally does not work in here - that we can work together to bring forward this Bill which is in all of our interests. A huge amount of work has been done since the Bill passed Second Stage. It is an excellent example of the coming together of Deputies, with some interested parties in academia, to advance conditions for people living in Ireland. It is to be welcomed. The work done has reflected many of the concerns raised on Second Stage. It is important we get through the scrutiny elements so we can bring it to Committee Stage. I am conscious there was a money message attached to the Bill. The Minister was supposed to say today if the Bill required a money message and if the Government will give one. As a minimum we should be saying we want that, that the committee has done its homework and is only waiting for the money message so the Bill can proceed to Committee Stage. It is important.

I am interested in the issue of the new offences. It is important that these crimes are recorded and monitored. It is essential going forward. There was a discussion on how the motivation of a crime might be dealt with. Perhaps it is a debate for Committee Stage. What is the difference, for example, between a racially motivated assault where it is quite clear the assault was initiated as a race hatred issue and an assault that is already under way when an element of racism is introduced in the middle of it? How is that dealt with? The fact that the person introduces racism in the course of the assault is reflective in some ways of internalised racism. It touches on the point Deputy O'Callaghan made. Is it just a remark in the heat of battle or is it the motivation? How do we deal with that? The assault itself will presumably be prosecuted but will the hate element be prosecuted? They are the types of issues that need to be addressed. I think we know where we are going and we can certainly do it.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin for taking the time to come in today.

Four of the Private Members' Bills referred to this committee have been referred by the Office of the Ceann Comhairle because they require a money message. We do not have the reply at this time. Members will be made aware of whatever responses are received.

Would Deputy O'Loughlin like to respond to Deputy Daly's remarks? There was no specific question and her comments were clearly very supportive.

I appreciate the Deputy's comments and the engagement we have had on it over the past number of months. I have also had engagement with a number of Deputies from across the parties. Deputy Daly said there has been a lot of consensus since Second Stage. To me, that means this could be more effective and more robust and has a better chance of success. At the end of the day, that is what is important. When we started looking at this there were three key areas that needed to be addressed. They included determining which victim groups would be included and which needed to be protected; deciding whether the hate element would be addressed by way of aggravated offences or aggravated sentencing; and determining how hate would be established and what hate is understood to be. The Deputy made that point. It is quite complex. We still have quite a bit of work to do on that. I welcome the approach we have taken. We are completely open to amendments and to working together to ensure this will be on the Statute Book. It will help those who need support in our country.

I commend Deputy O'Loughlin for what I consider to be very important legislation. I have always been a big believer in parliamentarians bringing forward Private Members' Bills and Private Members' motions. We are elected to make good law. As justice spokesperson for the Government in the Seanad, I give the Deputy my assurance that when it comes into the Seanad I will do everything in my power to ensure it has a speedy passage through the Seanad. I am sure Senator Black will agree. It has to go through the Dáil first. I have to confess I have not studied the Bill in great detail because of time constraints but the genesis of what the Deputy is proposing is very important. As I said, our job is to make good law. It will certainly add to the suite of good law that comes from these Houses.

I will take Deputy Jack Chambers now and Deputy O'Loughlin can reply then.

I thank Deputy O'Loughlin and Deputy Margaret Murphy O'Mahony for drafting the Bill. Others have mentioned the amendment process and how open the Deputies have been about bringing in different groups. The number of people who contributed on Second Stage shows how Bills can be reflective of the views of all Deputies in the House and how something positive and a framework can be established. I commend what the Deputy organised in the AV room for victims. It was shocking to see how imprisoned they are in their own communities and how powerless the law enforcement process is for them and how they feel there is no hope for them within society. Hopefully this will give them something to progress very legitimate matters in their lives. It will address circumstances in which they were seriously targeted and there was no doubt about what the issue was but that the criminal justice process, as it currently stands, could do nothing for them. If this is progressed and we get the money message, it will do an awful lot for them. It will give them hope and allow them to move on in some ways. The mental trauma that people have gone through was really shocking. Hopefully this can be progressed. Has the Deputy had any informal indication that we may get this progressed from the Government? Will a money message be given? Has the Deputy had any contact? We can talk hypothetically forever about pre-legislative scrutiny. That roadblock has been a challenge in this committee with most Bills apart from one of Deputy O'Callaghan's Bills.

Will Deputy O'Loughlin respond to Senator Conway and Deputy Chambers?

To answer Deputy Chamber's question first, I wrote to the Minister looking for engagement and support on this. I received an acknowledgment but we have not had any engagement yet. I feel there is support but it has not been formally put on the table yet. I have no doubt that Deputy Brophy and Deputy Farrell know more about it than I do. I have a hope that it will be accepted by the Government.

The Deputy hit on an important issue of the impact of hate crime not only on individuals but on communities. Hate crime can have a ripple effect and it can send out a message in a community that hate crime is okay. It is sending out the completely wrong message. It brings us back to why we should legislate for hate crime. At the end of the day, people should not be targeted with criminal offences because of their differences, whatever those differences are.

Every citizen and non-citizen should feel free participate safely in all aspects of life in our country because hate crime, as much as there can be a physical impact, is also a message crime. It gives a bad message to those who are impacted and the five people to whom I referred suffered for years afterwards in respect of how they felt about themselves, how their confidence was impacted and how they felt they were not of value to society. It sends a dehumanising message to the victim and the community. We have to try to eradicate that. It is one thing to address this in legislation but we also have to try to change the hearts and minds of our people when it is enacted and to support the Garda to act in a proactive and appropriate way when such crimes are committed. This is a grey area at this point in time.

I do not have questions but I would like to thank the Deputy for introducing this legislation. I apologise for not attending the briefing on it but I was away. A dear friend of mine from Pakistan who was a victim of a hate crime was there. I have worked alongside her. She is a volunteer for the charitable organisation I have set up and she is a close friend. She came to me after the incident happened. She was verbally abused and her rabia scarf was dragged off her. It was an horrendous time for her and she is still not over it as she was with her baby at the time. She is a beautiful person. She is married and they just want to work and bring up their child. I appreciate the work the Deputy has put into this. My friend at last feels she has been listened to and she feels valued. Like Senator Conway, I will fully support the Bill when it comes to the Seanad.

I thank Senators Conway and Black for their support. Those of us who were at the briefing heard Eva's story, which was powerful and emotional, and one could see the impact it had on her. This brings the message home. The victims are the most important people at the centre of this debate and we have to think of them all the time. When we hear their stories and we recognise, as legislators, that there is a gap in the law, there is an onus on us to protect the vulnerable in society. I look forward to everybody's support. I thank the Chairman and the committee members for affording me this time and I look forward to further engagement on this as I bring to the next Stage.

I thank the Deputy for her engagement with the committee. The committee will report on its scrutiny of the Bill as soon as possible. We are going into recess shortly but we will progress it over that period and it will be forwarded once everyone has signed off on it. Go raibh maith as teacht anseo inniu.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.35 a.m. and adjourned at 12.15 p.m. until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, 3 May 2017.