I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Andrews.
North-South Co-operation on Sex Offenders: Statements
I thank the House for giving me the opportunity to speak on this important subject. The Minister for Justice and Law Reform regrets that he is unable to be present for the debate owing to other business. I assure the House that he is determined that no opportunity will be given to convicted sex offenders to take advantage of any differences in the law and arrangements in place in the different legal jurisdictions on these islands.
I will briefly set out the legal position on convicted sex offenders who either have served a sentence or were convicted and did not receive a sentence of imprisonment. The Sex Offenders Act 2001 established a notification system, under which, in summary, a convicted sex offender is obliged to notify the Garda Síochána of where he or she resides and any change of address for more than seven days and any change of name. The Act contains provisions requiring offenders convicted in Ireland to notify the Garda when travelling abroad and, significantly, provisions requiring offenders convicted abroad who have a similar notification obligation in their own country to notify the Garda when coming to Ireland, whether coming to live or for shorter stays. The Act's provisions extend to any offenders convicted abroad of the same range of sexual offences who enter the State, including from Northern Ireland.
Persons convicted of sexual offences are also required to inform their employers or any prospective employers of their convictions, where a necessary and regular part of their work consists mainly of the person having unsupervised access to or contact with a child or children or a mentally impaired person or persons. Under the Act, sex offenders released from prison can be subject to supervision and other restrictions. For example, the Act introduced a system for the supervision of sex offenders after their release from prison. Post-release supervision orders allow for court sanctioned supervision of offenders after their custodial sentence has expired.
The Act is modelled on similar systems in other common law jurisdictions and, in particular, owing to our common travel arrangements, is closely aligned to the system in the United Kingdom. The Minister is very much in favour of a greater approximation of the laws north and south of the Border, in particular on the operation of the respective notification systems in order that sex offenders will not gain any advantage in living on or visiting either side of the Border. The notification period for sex offenders convicted in our neighbouring jurisdictions has been reduced from 14 days to three. The Department of Justice and Law Reform is developing legislative proposals to bring the notification requirement in this jurisdiction — currently seven days — into line with that in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Consideration is also being given to what additional information offenders might be required to give to the Garda in the context of notification requirements for the sex offenders register and to revising the process of applying for a sex offender order. A senior Garda officer can apply for such an order against any sex offender whose behaviour in the community gives the Garda reasonable cause for concern that an order is necessary to protect the public from serious harm from him or her. The Department is being assisted in this review of the legislation by a number of agencies, including my office, the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and the Garda.
All convicted sex offenders are monitored by the sex offender management and intelligence unit which is part of the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation, NBCI. The unit is supported by nominated Garda inspectors in each Garda division who are responsible for the monitoring of sex offenders in their division. When the Garda becomes aware that a sex offender has left or is intending to leave the State, the unit ensures the relevant law enforcement agency in the country of destination is informed. When the Garda becomes aware that a sex offender is entering the State, it will make every effort to ensure he or she is aware of his or her obligations under the Act at the earliest possible opportunity. The Garda is particularly aware of the importance of knowing the level of risk posed by individual sex offenders and it therefore has trained a substantial number of gardaí in a number of assessment tools which are used extensively to assess the level of risk of all convicted sex offenders. This training is ongoing. In addition, a pilot scheme is being jointly run in a number of Garda divisions by the Garda and the probation and welfare service to facilitate the inter-agency risk management of sex offenders. These local sex offender risk assessment and management, SORAM, committees engage with other relevant services, such as the HSE child protection services, in order that the risk posed to the community by convicted sex offenders is reduced as far as possible.
The Garda is developing further training in assessing and managing the risk posed to the community by sex offenders. A number of gardaí have been trained at the Garda College as trainers to facilitate the Garda Síochána in developing its own risk assessment training capability. Steps are also being taken to develop this training capability further. Probation officers work closely with the Garda and other partner agencies to ensure the compliance of the offender with supervision in the interests of community safety. In conjunction with the Garda and others, probation officers by and large successfully engage with the offenders concerned and ensure their compliance through ongoing motivation and monitoring. To assist in its supervision of sex offenders, the probation and welfare service, in partnership with the Granada Institute, runs the Lighthouse treatment programmes for sex offenders under its supervision.
In 2009 the Minister for Justice and Law Reform published a detailed discussion document on the management of convicted sex offenders. This document was prepared by a high level group involving the Department, the Garda, the Irish Prison Service and the probation and welfare service and which examined the current arrangements in place for the management of sex offenders with a view to strengthening inter-agency co-operation and further enhancing public protection and safety. Their remit included a review of the procedures and legislation relating to the assessment, monitoring and supervision of convicted sex offenders. A summary report on the views received as part of the consultation process, along with responses from the Department, was published on the Department's website last month.
In 2009 the Minister announced a new policy on the management of sex offenders in prison. The policy document is available on the website of the Irish Prison Service. The policy is aimed at bringing about changes in offenders' lives that reduce risk of re-offending and enhance public protection. It forms an integral part of the wider range of interventions by criminal justice and community-based agencies. In addition, a new programme of group interventions for sex offenders was introduced in January 2009. The programme, Building Better Lives, allows more responsive and flexible delivery to a greater number of offenders than heretofore. The new treatment programme will ensure all sex offenders serving sentences of one year or more will have access to appropriate treatment. This new programme replaced the sex offender programme which ran from 1994 to 2008. A comprehensive range of services are available to sex offenders and any willing participant can be facilitated within the range of therapeutic interventions. These comprise one-to-one interventions, group interventions, community-based services and interventions available to prisoners generally. Therapeutic interventions with sex offenders are delivered primarily through the psychology service of the Irish Prison Service. Interventions by community-based services in 2009 include motivational enhancement groups provided by the Granada Institute in the Midlands and Wheatfield prisons and interventions with young sex offenders provided by the Northside Inter-Agency Project, NIAP, in St. Patrick's Institution.
The Irish Prison Service is testing the use of the global positioning system, GPS, on a small number of prisoners — about 20 — who are being given temporary release with electronic monitoring. These prisoners, none of whom is a sex offender, are carefully selected having regard to a range of criteria, including the nature of the offence, public safety and overall conduct in prison. The test phase began in August 2010 and is due to run until the end of the year, at which time it will be evaluated to assess its viability in terms of cost and other considerations as a tool in the management of offenders.
The discussion document on the management of convicted sex offenders put forward the possibility of using GPS electronic monitoring technology to monitor higher risk convicted sex offenders for the first six months following the completion of their prison sentences and their release back to the community. In the consultative process following its publication, the majority view expressed was that electronic monitoring of sex offenders would be of very limited value, although the view was also expressed that it could be of value in a limited number of particular cases as part of a broader plan for the management of this particular cohort in the community. The Minister intends to explore further the possibility of making legislative provision for the use of electronic monitoring in specific circumstances. This consideration has begun.
The Government attaches great importance to the continued development of co-operation at all levels between policing and criminal justice agencies North and South, ranging from co-operation between police officers locally, policy co-ordination at official level, co-operation between institutions, the exchange of best practice to ministerial contacts and oversight. The two Ministers, Deputy Dermot Ahern and Mr. David Ford, MLA, and their officials meet regularly, both formally under the intergovernmental agreement on co-operation on criminal justice matters and informally. An intergovernmental agreement on North-South co-operation on criminal justice matters was signed in July 2005. A new agreement was signed in April 2010 to ensure the provisions of the 2005 agreement would remain in place following the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Under the agreement, the two Ministers meet regularly to discuss criminal justice matters of mutual interest or concern to the two jurisdictions and consider the scope for, and develop plans to achieve, more effective co-operation and co-ordination on criminal justice matters between the two jurisdictions. A working group comprising representatives of the Department of Justice and Law Reform, the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and criminal justice agencies from both jurisdictions supports the ministerial meetings, takes forward current co-operation and identifies areas in which co-operation could be enhanced or initiated.
Among the areas in which formal co-operation is taken forward is registered sex offenders. A project advisory group, jointly led by the Garda and the PSNI and including representatives of the two justice Departments and the probation services, meets regularly. The group evaluates the potential for sharing information, examines the registration criteria in both jurisdictions for sex offenders and identifies areas for further co-operation. As part of their ongoing co-operation, the Garda and the PSNI examine how the means of transmitting information to each other and the training given might be improved. I commend the Garda Síochána and the PSNI on their adoption of positive measures to improve the flow of information and expertise between the two jurisdictions.
It was in the context of these arrangements that the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Under-Secretary of State at the UK's Home Office signed in November 2006 at Hillsborough a memorandum of understanding on information sharing arrangements between Ireland and the UK relating to sex offenders. This was negotiated between the then Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Home Office, with input from the Northern Ireland Office. It relates to information about persons travelling between Ireland and the UK and who are subject to sex offender notification requirements in their own jurisdiction. It therefore covers sex offenders travelling between Ireland, Northern Ireland and Britain. The purpose of the memorandum is to facilitate the sharing of information of this type between the Garda, the PSNI and police forces in Britain to protect the public from the risks presented by sex offenders and to investigate serious sexual offences. It covers all information necessary to achieve these purposes. As a result of the memorandum, the exchange of such information between the Garda Síochána, the PSNI and British police forces, which has been taking place for some time, is on a formal footing.
The memorandum of understanding will be underpinned by the planned changes to legislation I referred to earlier. It is also intended that a statutory obligation will be placed on the Garda Commissioner and the director of the probation and welfare service to establish arrangements to assess and manage the risk posed by convicted sex offenders and to share that information with one another. Such information may also be shared with the relevant authority in another jurisdiction in accordance with the terms of any written agreement or understanding for the reciprocal exchange of the information. Subsequently in 2008, an agreement for the sharing of personal data in the investigation of sexual offences and the monitoring of sex offenders was signed between the Garda and the PSNI. The agreement provides for the sharing of personal information through single points of contact in both services and conforms to the data protection legislation in place in both jurisdictions. The Garda sex offender management and intelligence unit is the single point of contact within the Garda. Regular meetings take place between Garda management within the unit and their counterparts within the PSNI. These meetings cover a range of issues relating to the management of convicted sex offenders.
Given the shared land border with Northern Ireland and the common travel area with Britain, these agreements greatly facilitate the exchange of information relating to the movements of sex offenders and the investigation of sex related crimes. The progress made in the cross-Border monitoring of sex offenders has gone well beyond discussions and there is an excellent relationship between the Garda and the PSNI in the management of sex offenders. This is evident from the recent arrest of sex offenders who had travelled to this jurisdiction from Northern Ireland in breach of their notification requirements. The exchange of information between both organisations was instrumental in effecting these arrests. The nominated Garda inspectors in the Border divisions have been attending multi-agency meetings in neighbouring counties in Northern Ireland as a matter of course.
The cross-Border relationship regarding the management of sex offenders is not limited to the Garda and the PSNI. Excellent relationships also exist between the probation services in both jurisdictions which ensures effective communication is maintained regarding sex offenders who move between the two jurisdictions. All these agencies are examining further ways in which they work together, including examining means for the pooling of resources to assist in delivering cost-efficient training to personnel in the various agencies in the two jurisdictions. A group has also carried out work to examine current arrangements for returning sex offenders who travel to the other jurisdiction in breach of the conditions of their release or notification requirements, to identify any weaknesses in arrangements for their return to face court sanctions and to make recommendations for improvements where necessary. The group's conclusions were reassuring. It found that the number of individuals who cross the Border in breach of their requirements is small and that the co-operation between the police forces in regard to such cases is exemplary. Nevertheless, Ministers in Dublin and Belfast are determined to ensure our two criminal justice systems are as co-ordinated as possible in tackling such cases. The proposed legislative changes I have outlined represent one step along this road. These will support the information-sharing provisions in place.
We have strong and effective legislation in place. We must ensure, however, that we never become complacent. Work is ongoing, therefore, on strengthening and harmonising the legislation in effect in both jurisdictions to the greatest extent possible in order that sex offenders cannot take advantage of differences between the provisions in place. I also believe the formal and informal arrangements in operation between the two parts of our island and with Britain are working efficiently in order that offenders are monitored and effective action is taken quickly, if that becomes necessary.
I thank the Minister of State. It is an important subject. We all wholeheartedly support North-South co-operation in the management of sex offenders and their movements, all efforts to ensure that convicted sex offenders on either side of the Border cannot seek refuge or anonymity on the other side and, particularly for our area of responsibility, that the Republic is not seen as a safe haven for those who have been convicted of these nefarious crimes in Northern Ireland or the United Kingdom.
The CSO recorded crime statistics for the third quarter of 2010 which show a shocking 80% increase in sexual offences on the same period of 2009. One has to accept that this rise in the number of recorded sexual offences for the first nine months can be partly explained by an ongoing review of all cases reported to the Garda Síochána, some of which will have occurred in the distant past but which are represented in the current figures being reported. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre reported in October an alarming increase in the number of victims accompanied to the sexual assault treatment unit in the Rotunda Hospital and an extraordinary increase in the number of calls to its helpline, which is compared to a 40% increase in the past year.
The importance of co-operation between North and South has been highlighted by particular cases where convicted paedophiles have travelled back and forth between Britain and Ireland from the mid-1970s until recent times. A number of cases have been highlighted in the media, although I will not mention the names, and the various examples have confirmed that Ireland is seen as a safe haven. People who were convicted of attempted rape in the United Kingdom have been detected in this country and some other individuals who were convicted or suspected of the most serious crimes of this nature have been identified in this jurisdiction.
The Sex Offenders Act 2001 included a provision to ensure Ireland would not become a safe haven for sex offenders convicted outside Ireland and who might seek to avoid the reporting requirements imposed on them by the place of conviction. As the Minister of State said, anyone who is convicted of a sexual offence in another country and who later moves to Ireland is subject to a reporting requirement in the same way as someone convicted in Ireland. However, not having a modern sex offenders database but rather a paper system is unfortunate and something that must be rectified if we are to have the effective co-operation and monitoring we seek.
The Minister of State highlighted various agreements and areas of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. In this area, as in so many others, the two organisations work extremely well together and this is all the more important given the increase in dissident republican terrorist activity. One can see from the list of areas of co-operation within this area of sexual offenders the evidence of greater understanding and deep co-operation between the two organisations, which is very important.
The then Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brendan Smith, on 13 February 2008 promised that it was intended to update and bring the legislation underpinning the sex offenders register more into line with that in our neighbouring jurisdictions and to strengthen further the legislation on sexual grooming in light of continuing developments in technology. The Minister for Justice and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, said in March 2009 that the notification period for the purposes of the sex offenders register would be reduced from seven days to three days to bring it into line with requirements in Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, an issue which was raised earlier this month by Deputy Alan Shatter. Notwithstanding that statement by the Minister in 2009, that notification period still stands at seven days. The Minister of State said the Department of Justice and Law Reform is developing legislative proposals to bring the current notification requirement of seven days into line with Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom but that is the same promise made in March 2009 and we are no further towards regularising the situation. If we are serious about co-operation with the Northern Ireland authorities in this area, we should get our act together and do what we promise.
There is a clear need for a computerised all-Ireland sex offenders register. The UK has had such a system since its launch in 2006 — the violent and sex offender register. The lack of such a system in our jurisdiction seriously hampers our ability to play our part in co-operation with the PSNI.
The Ombudsman for Children's report on the Children First guidelines recommends that a list of sex offenders in an area should be given to each local health office in order that the risk to children can be assessed. Will the Minister of State comment on whether that recommendation has been followed?
The Minister of State referred to electronic tagging. Given the overcrowding in our prisons and the particular importance of electronic tagging in regard to sex offenders, the progress in this area has been very slow. The Minister of State indicated there is an ongoing pilot project in this area and, hopefully, this will provide guidance on how we move forward on the matter.
I welcome the fact this matter is on the Order of Business today. The recent case of a man who had served his sentence for a most heinous sexual crime, and the concern in the community that was created by his release, highlights how important this issue is for many people. Neither jurisdiction, North or South, must be utilised to provide a hiding place and anonymity for sexual offenders.
The only other issue I wish to highlight concerns reports that only a small proportion of sex offenders in prisons have received specialised treatment. The Minister for Justice and Law reform has not acted on this matter, either to ensure greater resources be made available so sex offenders can avail of specialised psychiatric or psychological treatment, or to ensure the imposition of a sanction for not availing of such treatment. This issue needs to be addressed but has not been addressed by the Government.
The Minister of State has outlined quite comprehensively the depth of co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána. The latter takes the monitoring of sex offenders very seriously and has carried out its work in an exemplary fashion. I welcome the fact that these statements are on the Order of Business and that the Minister of State has stressed the importance of North-South co-operation between police forces. This matter has the full support of the Fine Gael Party.
I welcome this debate and welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House.
Significant progress has been made in legislating for sex offences in the past decade or so. It is regrettable that we were not debating this 30 years ago. However, circumstances have changed. For such legislation to be a success, it is critical that there be international co-operation. However, it is more critical that our neighbours in Northern Ireland, particularly the PSNI, along with other arms of the State, such as appropriation authorities, co-operate with one another to the maximum extent to ensure those convicted of serious sex offences, usually against young people, cannot slip out of this jurisdiction across the Border and find shelter in the Six Counties, and that those convicted in Northern Ireland or Britain cannot find shelter here. The Border is very easy to negotiate and it is critical that there be as much co-operation as possible between both jurisdictions.
The monitoring of sex offenders is critical. The sex offenders management and intelligence unit is part of the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation. The unit is supported by nominated Garda inspectors and each Garda division in the State has its own staff from monitoring sex offenders.
An integrated system for ensuring co-operation between the probation services on both sides of the Border is as important as co-operation between the Garda Síochána and PSNI. The Minister of State said that to assist in its supervision of sex offenders, the probation service, in partnership with the Granada Institute, runs the Lighthouse treatment programmes for sex offenders under its supervision. Sex offences covered by the 2001 Act are appalling and serious.
In addition to ensuring the co-operation of the various authorities concerned, it is important to ensure that, in so far as it is possible, sex offenders be treated, be it through counselling or treatment by clinical psychologists and psychiatrists. I read of two or three cases in which there was a lack of regret on the part of paedophiles. One case involved the downloading of images of young people and another involved physical interference with young people. In one case, in which the court was prepared to offer a young offender some leniency, I was amazed that the offender felt at all times that what he had done was normal and appropriate. He refused treatment and help. As a consequence, he probably received a more serious sentence then he would have received had he apologised and said his actions were wrong. The worrying point is that, if that offender is on the streets again, in this jurisdiction or elsewhere, he may, considering his mental attitude to serious crimes, re-offend.
The Minister of State referred to the management of sex offenders, both inside and outside prisons. This is essential. Sex offenders in prison are usually segregated. Within prisons, under the sex offenders programme, therapeutic interventions with sex offenders are delivered primarily through the psychology service of the Irish Prison Service. My experience of dealing with prisons, primarily Cork Prison, and my experience as a practising lawyer is such that I would have said ten years ago that the amount of resources, including clinical psychology and counselling services, for inmates in general left a lot to be desired. Either there were not sufficient staff or the programme was not being managed correctly. I am not being disparaging towards the Minister of State in saying this. Offering an offender a 45-minute consultation, perhaps once in six months, was not enough. The service should be improved. I accept that many strides have been made in the past ten years but feel strongly that more can and should be done to rehabilitate the offenders in question.
The Minister of State referred to electronic monitoring. I am very interested to note the testing of the global positioning system for monitoring sex offenders, although I accept it is only a pilot scheme. I do not hesitate in saying this should be expanded. Sex offences are very serious. Generally, those subjected to sexual harassment and abuse are usually minors, some of whom are very young.
We dealt with cross-Border co-operation. It is important to acknowledge that, in November 2006, a memorandum of understanding on information-sharing arrangements between Ireland and the United Kingdom relating to sex offenders was signed by the then Minister. This progress was important. It indicates that, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there has been North-South co-operation in many areas, especially in regard to sex offences. As a result of the memorandum of understanding, the exchange of information between the Garda Síochána, the PSNI and British police forces, which has been taking place for some time, will now be on a formal footing. This is extremely important. Prior to 2006, co-operation took place, not only with the UK but also with countries across Europe, in respect of sharing information relating to sex offenders. The fact that matters have been placed on a formal footing is a welcome development.
The Garda Sex Offender Management Unit is the single point of contact within the force. It is great that members of this unit and their counterparts in the PSNI meet on a regular basis. The utopian situation would be to eliminate all sex offences or to minimise the number that are perpetrated. Unfortunately, we live in a society where such a utopia will probably never become a reality. In the past 12 years or so, substantial progress has been made by successive Governments in the areas of legislation, monitoring and co-operation in respect of curtailing the number of sex offences that occur. We have changed the way in which sex offenders are dealt with and monitored. Probation officers work to ensure that such offenders are properly supervised and there is co-operation among the various police forces.
I welcome the debate and I am glad the Minister of State came before the House to share his extremely important views with Members.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, and acknowledge the good work he has done in this area since his appointment. However, I do not share the same kind of enthusiasm expressed by certain other groups in respect of the matters to which he refers. My great hope for the British-Irish Agreement and the commitment to shadow legislation was that the area which we are discussing would have been one of those in respect of which substantial progress could have been made. I wish to provide a number of classic examples of what is not happening and to suggest what might easily be done.
In the first instance, the registers of sex offenders, North and South, should be shared. Whereas in legislative terms it would not be possible to have one register for the entire island of Ireland, it would be possible to create a situation where both registers could be completely shared and where people would not be obliged to cross the Border in the interests of sharing information. The Border is open and people traverse it every day. In that context, it would be in everyone's interests, including those of sex offenders, to share the two registers.
The notification period which applies in the North is being reduced from 14 days to three days. That is a welcome development. However, the period which applies in this jurisdiction remains at seven days. With the sharing of information relating to sex offenders, progress could be made in this regard.
Another issue, which I discussed with the Minister of State approximately 18 months ago, is vetting. The situation in this regard is a complete mess. I am familiar with a person who was vetted as a teacher in the North, who came to teach in the South and was required to be vetted again, who returned to the North as an educational psychologist and had to be vetted once more and who was vetted all over again on returning to the South. That is complete nonsense. The Garda unit does an excellent job but there is a need to consider what is involved here. When people change jobs, they should not be required to be vetted again and the information relating to their original vetting should be made available, in a secure way, to those to whom it is appropriate.
Perhaps two years ago, the Minister of State and I discussed the issue of protocols relating to people in sports organisations who deal with those who are under age and who are involved in sport. The authorities, North and South, should examine this matter in the interests of putting in place the same protocols in both jurisdictions. The position is similar with regard to educators. The rules and protocols, suggestions and proposals relating to teachers and others in the area of education who deal with children should be the same, North and South. If the latter cannot be achieved, then we should try to ensure that as many of these as possible should be the same.
Senator O'Donovan referred to the fact that many sex offenders, particularly paedophiles, do not acknowledge, accept or believe that they have done anything wrong. These individuals leave prison with exactly the same view of the world they harboured when they were incarcerated. I am of the view that in the case of sex offenders, the reduction in sentence — anywhere from one third to one half of the overall term — to which prisoners who display good conduct are entitled should be tied to their attending treatment or participating in rehabilitation courses. There should be a clear connection in this regard. If a person does not acknowledge the gravity of his or her crime and has no appreciation regarding what he or she has done, it is not safe for him or her to be released back into society. That is the reality. There have been many cases where unsuitable individuals have been released early from prison.
I do not quite understand how post-release supervision orders work. However, it appears that we are making provision for the Garda to seek such orders. In my opinion, if a judge considers a sex offender to be a risk, then such an order should automatically come into play. We should make provision in legislation to ensure that post-release supervision orders become part of the normal approach to dealing with this issue.
In the context of the approach to sex crimes, there is already a great deal of engagement between legal practitioners, North and South. On a number of occasions each year, members at the various levels within the Judiciary hold private conferences at which they discuss issues such as sentencing and approaches to certain types of cases. There is a great argument in favour of holding such meetings on an all-Ireland basis at times. This is a matter to which the North-South Ministerial Council should give consideration. Members of the Judiciary in this jurisdiction and their counterparts across the Border should be able — in private session — to discuss how to approach cases involving sex offenders. This would assist in bringing about a degree of uniformity between these two different but common-law based legal systems. In this way, we might arrive at an approach that would be acceptable to those on both sides.
In summary, I would appreciate movement in respect of vetting, the sharing of the sex offenders registers, North and South, to the Garda and the PSNI and a reduction in the notification period. I am surprised that the latter cannot be dealt with by means of a ministerial order. In addition, the reduction in the term of sentence that is available to all prisoners who display good conduct should, in the case of sex offenders, be related to their submitting to partake of the various treatment options on offer in different prisons.
I understand it is proposed to conclude the debate on this matter at 5 p.m.
That is correct.
In such circumstances, I wish to share time with Senator Keaveney in order to facilitate other Members.
I would certainly be grateful if Senator Boyle did share time because I would like to contribute to the debate.
Is Senator Boyle sharing time with Senator Keaveney?
Yes. As a result, Senator Bacik will have a full five minutes in which to contribute.
I thank Senator Boyle.
I welcome the positive nature of the Minister of State's contribution. There is a broad consensus regarding the need to achieve co-operation, cohesion and coherence in respect of how sex offences are dealt with on both sides of the Border.
It is important to state that this is not a one way street. There have been instances where sex offenders lived quite happily here to escape responsibility for crimes they committed in Northern Ireland and the development of codes of practice and protocols would be important as much for the North of Ireland as for here. The fact there is now a member of the Northern Ireland Executive with responsibility for justice in the form of Mr. David Ford, MLA, allows us to progress this agenda in a way that has not happened previously.
The development of all-island protocols is necessary. In listening to Senator O'Toole, we must acknowledge the work done on child protection protocols by the GAA, which does not get universal acclaim, particularly in Northern Ireland, and which as far as I know has an all-island application and which could be used as a template for the adoption of these measures by other voluntary organisations and other sporting organisations, and even examined by the Governments in both jurisdictions.
On the question of notifications and areas like exclusion orders, the real problems arise with the reality of a border for persons, who have been victims of sex crimes, in how they can be protected. This is where my party would like to see much progress being achieved. There have been fairly high profile situations in the past, with sex offenders finishing sentences and being released. Similar knowledge of when such persons are released in Northern Ireland will help public confidence here and develop better standards.
The best area of effective co-operation would be, as highlighted in the Minister of State's speech, between the probation services in both jurisdictions. We need a common standard on how one identifies persons as they are being dealt with in prison, and Senator O'Toole's point about the usage of the facilities that should be there for sex offenders, and how persons as and when they are released are dealt with in both jurisdictions is an important factor. It is an area that sometimes is prone to hysterical debate in certain types of media. This debate is important and proper effective measures developed by the Government, or any effective Government, will help alleviate much of the ongoing concern in this area.
I thank Senator Boyle for sharing time.
It is because every year there is a campaign by Women's Aid, 16 Days, highlighting the issue of domestic abuse — obviously, sexual violence is part of that — that I was anxious thatwe would have a debate today on this area of sex offending. I want to make a couple of comments.
We have been focusing on sex offenders and the fact that often they do not accept they have an issue and there is an argument that there is nothing to cure them, but I want to take it from the other perspective, that of the person who has suffered sexual crime. In my area, where there is no concept of a border, where the Dohertys and McLoughlins are on both sides of the Border, it is imperative that we continue to develop cross-Border co-operation. I totally agree with Senator O'Toole on having a shared register. I would like an all-island register, but whatever maximises the sharing of information, so that persons who are——
Under the order of the House, I must call the Minister of State. The statements must conclude at 5 p.m. and the Minister of State is to be called now, with seven minutes to go, unless we have agreement——
Can we have agreement to continue for another 15 minutes?
I would certainly agree to that because I am anxious to get in, even for a few minutes, on this issue.
It would involve a formal amendment from the Governmentside.
Can I formally propose an amendment to the Order of Business, that we continue until 5.15 p.m.?
The next debate is scheduled for 5 p.m.
What would the Leas-Chathaoirleach need me to say?
If the Leas-Chathaoirleach would allow me two minutes at the end, it would permit the two Senators to get through before 5 p.m.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I just want to put my tuppence worth in. Support for the victims of domestic violence, which is often sexual violence, is very important. In Letterkenny hospital there is a great multidisciplinary team which is helping people go before the courts and giving them the confidence to deal with matters. It is all very well to talk about sex offender registers, but at the other end of the scale we must look after the victims of sex offenders and get them to come forward. I commend the work being done in the Inishowen Women's Outreach centre. It has stated that in the first three months of this year 59% more women came forward. In an area which has the population of County Leitrim and which is the size of County Louth basically, 32,000 people, it is a vote of confidence in this organisation that those who have suffered abuse have a service they feel confident about going to locally, and this is replicated throughout the country.
Senator Keaveney is out of time.
I agree that the vetting should be per person, not per job. I agree with Senator O'Toole, as I myself come across those situations. I am disappointed there was such a short amount of time, but I wish the Minister of State well with the work.
I thank the Senators for enabling me to contribute as I am anxious to do so. I welcome the debate. We all are deeply concerned about the need to ensure there is co-operation across the Border in terms of monitoring of convicted sex offenders.
I should declare an interest, having acted for the State some years ago in a case in which the notification provisions of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 were under constitutional challenge. We successfully defended those against constitutional challenge. I am glad to say the court ruled that these were not penalties but that the notification requirements, on the evidence to the court, were an important part of the process of preventing sex offending, that subjecting sex offenders to notification requirements means they know they are kept under surveillance and under observation and it can have an important preventative effect in terms of preventing further offending by sex offenders, which is in all of our interests.
I very much welcome the Minister of State's speech in which he spoke of increased and enhanced co-operation between North and South in terms of monitoring sex offenders.
I seek clarification on a number of matters. First, he stated there is consideration being given to amending the Sex Offenders Act 2001 to reduce, in particular, the notification period, which is currently seven days, to what it has been changed to in the UK, namely, three days. Is that for every aspect of the notification requirements, including, for example, where an offender is to travel away from their home address for more than three days? Currently, when it is seven days the obligation to notify kicks in. My party would welcome the proposal but I seek clarity on what is meant by that.
Second, what additional information might offenders be required to give the Garda? Currently, it is fairly minimal — name and address. Is any other information envisaged there?
What changes to the sex offender order process are envisaged? I understand that in practice there is little application of the sex offender order provisions and I wonder what is intended to be done to that to improve it.
I have two final points. I am well aware that there have been improvements made to the provision of treatment places for convicted sex offenders. It was a real national scandal how few treatment places were available and how little take-up there was of treatment by convicted sex offenders in prison. Can the Minister of State confirm that anyone who applies for treatment is now able to obtain a treatment place within the prison system?
Has there been any movement on the issue of disclosure? It is a difficult issue. In Britain, the Home Office guidelines provide for inter-agency co-operation on a need-to-know basis and information on the whereabouts of convicted sex offenders is not disclosed to the public except in exceptional cases, and indeed, any disclosure to third parties is exceptional. I understand the Irish position on disclosure is less clear. The Act is silent on it. Of course, there are obligations on sex offenders themselves to disclose the fact of convictions to employers. This raises the issues about vetting which others have mentioned. Has the Minister of State any update for us on that? I am sorry the time is so short.
I thank all the Senators for their comments.
Senator Regan suggested that the list of sex offenders is paper based. I am glad to be able to say that the list is now electronically issued and is integrated with the Garda PULSE system with appropriate security.
The Senator inquired about the passing of information by the Garda to the HSE. The Children First guidelines provide for this. There is close co-operation between the two organisations and I announced earlier in the year that we would put the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, which would give further statutory protection for the exchange of information between these two organisations.
Senator O'Toole suggested a sex offender's reduction in sentence for good behaviour should be tied to participation in a treatment programme. However, naturally, it is better to have voluntary participation rather than it being in any way seen as some form of duress. No decision has yet been made on whether the reduced period will apply to all aspects about which Senator Bacik asked but all possibilities are being considered. Consideration is also being given to having to provide additional information and increased disclosure to other relevant organisations.
Recently, I visited the Garda vetting unit and great progress is being made in North South co-operation. I hope the vetting legislation will be presented to Government prior to Christmas. It is at a very advanced stage. Everyone will agree this is an area ideally suited to North-South co-operation. In recent weeks, I launched the North-South child protection hub, which is the first manifestation of the co-operation taking place between the two governments on the issue of vetting. It is an area in which policy is developing. There is a national organisation for the treatment of abusers which is doing its work very carefully and sensitively. As Senator Boyle pointed out, it is an area that can attract very strident comment if not properly dealt with. It is very sensitive. I thank Senators for their comments in a very constructive debate.