I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to propose this Bill.
Vol. 278 No. 6
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to propose this Bill.
May I ask with whom Senator Chambers is sharing time?
Sorry, I am sharing time with Senator Fitzpatrick.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I am pleased also to be here this evening, with the support of my Fianna Fáil colleagues, to move this Bill during Fianna Fáil Private Members' time.
As Members will be aware, the Bill seeks to introduce a stand-alone offence of stalking into Irish law which is characterised by repeated, unwanted behaviour that occurs as a result of fixation or obsession and causes alarm, distress or harm to the victim. This offence, in this Bill, would carry a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment.
Earlier this year, two very brave women, Una Ring from Cork and Eve McDowell from Sligo, both victims of stalking, came together to campaign for a change in the law in this area that would make stalking a stand-alone offence. They both drew on their own lived experience of being victims of stalking and highlighted the deficiencies in Irish law and the inadequacies in the justice system they had to go through to bring their perpetrators to justice. I heard both women on the radio a number of months ago as I was driving to work in Leinster House, and I was struck by both of their ordeals and what they had been through. I was even more struck, as a legislator and as a lawyer, that such a law did not exist. I was not aware that we did not have a stand-alone offence of stalking and was quite taken aback by that. I felt that, in this day and age, this was a clear omission on our part and this was a gap in the law that we should close. Had I not heard both women on the radio and had they not started their campaign, this Bill would not be here today, so I want to commend both of them for the campaign they set up. We would not have the Bill we have on Second Stage Bill at all if it was not for their immense work over the past number of months.
Thankfully, both of their attackers are now behind bars in jail, but for a relatively short period, given the ordeal they put their victims through and what both Eve and Una are continuing to have to live with as a result of what they experienced. I ask Members to reflect on the experiences of both women and the many other women victims of stalking in this country, and to ask themselves whether the current laws are sufficient.
In Una's case, she knew her attacker through the workplace. They were not friends as such, but they were colleagues at work in a normal work relationship. That changed over time and it became an obsession and a fixation, where he moved job but he lured her to his place of employment. Then the text messages and telephone calls started. That did not get him where he wanted to get to and she quickly rebuffed his advances, but he then proceeded to escalate his behaviours. He spray-painted her car, he spray-painted her house and he left messages. He sent her letters outlining what he was going to do and what she was going to put up with. Thankfully, Una had a very good response from gardaí locally in Cork, who took this seriously. It resulted in gardaí camping outside her house between midnight and 5 a.m. every night to keep her safe. Ultimately, her attacker arrived at her home with a rape kit - a dildo, crowbar and rope - with the clear intention of doing serious harm and potentially taking her life. Thankfully, he was caught but he will serve less than four years in prison for what he did. Meanwhile, Una will live with the impact of this for much longer. I pose the question: does the word “harassment” cover that? I suggest it does not adequately cover what she has been through and the seriousness of the crime.
The other co-founder of Stalking Ireland is Eve McDowell. Each situation is so unique and different. Eve was in college in Galway. She lived on the same campus as her attacker but they did not know each other, they did not have a prior relationship and they had never gone out or anything like that. He took to following her around, never with any direct contact, unlike the previous case. He was not messaging, he was not calling, but he was coming into the shop where she worked. Then he stopped coming in and was just walking around outside all day. She ended up having to leave her job. He then ended up hanging around outside her house in the bushes. He shaved off his hair, his eyebrows and his beard. He tried to break into her property a couple of times. No statement was taken and nothing was done about it until one evening when her friend was sleeping on the couch in the apartment because she had forgotten the key to her room. That friend had opened the balcony doors to let some air in. The next thing, there was a creak on the floorboards and there he was, in the house, with a hammer. He attacked her friend with the intention of getting into Eve’s bedroom.
Again, I pose the question: does the word “harassment” cover that? I suggest it does not.
We have a poor track record in this country of listening to victims and framing our response in the terms that they have set out, and a poor track record of listening to women. This is predominately a women’s safety issue. I attach a caveat to that as, of course, stalking can affect men and women, and it is estimated that one in ten victims is male. However, women are predominantly the victims and men are the perpetrators. We have to listen carefully to what these women are telling us. It is not just Una and Eve. Because of the campaign they started, they now have almost 11,000 signatures in support of this legislation. The very least we can do, as legislators, is to listen and take action. I have no doubt I will have the support of this House in doing that.
In terms of why this legislation is so important, the response from the Department of Justice until this evening - obviously, we will wait to hear the Minister of State's response to this debate - has been that the current harassment laws are sufficient because, for want of a better phrase, they were beefed up last year and there is a stronger sentence of up to seven years. However, words matter, words have impact and words have a meaning. By using the term “harassment”, we minimise the seriousness of the crime and we minimise the experiences of the victim.
Even more than that, the Law Reform Commission, LRC, had recommended in its "Report on Harmful Communications and Digital Safety" in 2016 that this become a stand-alone offence in law. It expressed a view that consideration should be given to having a stand-alone offence of stalking in Irish law for good reason. It looked at other jurisdictions, in particular at England, Scotland and Wales, where this has been law for more than a decade. It looked at the impact of having enacted those laws in those countries. To take Wales as an example, between 2014 and 2018, because of the enactment of a law providing for a stand-alone offence of stalking, there was a trebling of reporting of stalking offences in that jurisdiction. If 2019 is compared with 2015, there was a doubling of charges brought against perpetrators for those types of offences. Straightaway, we see a very real impact in terms of the level of reporting, of victims coming forward and of that carrying through to charges being brought and then prosecutions, and people getting the justice they deserve from the justice system. That is why the LRC recommended that we follow suit and do the same. Unfortunately, the Department of Justice did not act upon that and is still today failing to act upon that recommendation.
We also know from victims that their experiences with gardaí and the justice system fall short of what we would all like to see happen. In Una’s case, she had a very good response. Gardaí were on-site, they were at her house and they were so helpful, giving their mobile numbers and saying, “Call me anytime” - it was really an “above and beyond” response. The same could not be said in Eve’s case, where, repeatedly, she was calling the Garda station, having to explain herself every time, and trying to convince somebody that she feared for life, and she was right to fear for her life. We need to have a uniform approach across An Garda Síochána, which is going to require additional training to make sure that every garda is up to speed on what stalking is, what it means, the seriousness of the offence and how quickly it can escalate.
One of the points Eve and Una have constantly made regarding the difference between harassment and stalking is that we should look to the intent of the attacker. What is the intent of a harasser and what is the intent of a stalker? The endgame is very different and that shows the clear distinction. Stalking is going up a notch in terms of seriousness. Let us take, for example, the laws on assault. There are different degrees of assault and they are clearly laid out in different sections of legislation because one section cannot cover the entire spectrum of offences. The same can be said for harassment legislation. It cannot cover everything from unwanted repeated text messages to entering someone's home with a rape kit with the intention to kill him or her. It is too much for one section to cover. That is why we need a stand-alone offence of stalking.
We will see a very different attitude and a very different approach from the Garda and the Judiciary when there is a separate offence of stalking. Straightaway, we are saying we attach a higher seriousness to this. Straightaway, gardaí will know that this is a bigger deal than perhaps text messages, although I am not minimising that because everything has a psychological impact and stays with the victim. Similarly, when it goes before the Judiciary, if a prosecution is being brought for stalking as opposed to harassment, straightaway, the judge is on notice that this is a more serious crime because they are bringing forward a case under this section as opposed to the lower of offence of harassment. It has an impact on the attitude of all of the arms of the Judiciary and the Garda, and on the attitude of the public.
To conclude, I have been struck by the bravery of Una Ring and Eve McDowell, who have, time and again, had to recount their ordeals on various media platforms, and to friends and family, just to lay bare everything they have been through and the impact on themselves. They got their day in court, they will say. It was partial justice, in my view, and I think they will agree with that. In Eve's case, her perpetrator was charged with aggravated burglary because it was the most serious offence they could get him on, which means he is now in prison for just that incident in her home, but nothing in the run-up to that, and that has had a significant psychological impact on her. We are now at a position where we can help other potential victims not to have to go through the same ordeal again, which is very important.
If I could ask for one thing from this debate, it is that we should not repeat the mistakes of the past. Let us listen to victims and women and take our lead from them. There is a concrete basis to make this change from the Law Reform Commission and from other jurisdictions that we often take our lead from. I respectfully request that the Department of Justice and Minister for Justice reflect on their current position and amend it to get this Bill to its conclusion.
I thank the Minister of State for coming in for this debate. I am proud to second this reading of the Bill by Senator Lisa Chambers. I start by paying tribute to Una Ring and Eve McDowell. I had the pleasure of meeting them personally today. I have heard them give such brave testimony in the media. Their courage, strength and generosity are incredible. They have endured terrible ordeals and somehow found the strength not only to cope with that and to move forward personally but to actually give further of themselves to other victims and to broader society. It is our great honour and privilege to be here in the Seanad with the Minister of State, to put this Bill before him and to ask him to take it to Government and to champion it for Una, Eve and all of the victims whose names will never be known to many of us. I start by paying tribute to them.
The Bill is about stalking and harassment. Senator Chambers eloquently explained the difference between harassment and stalking. I heard Eve describe it this morning as being fixated. It is behaviour which is fixated, obsessive, unwanted and repeated. Those words convey the intrusive, insidious violence of it as an activity and how it manifests in being followed, watched or observed. Your personal space or identity are intruded upon and invaded. That is before it gets to the actual physical threat. It is a horrendous situation for any human being to be threatened with. I firmly believe that we need the law to recognise this as a particular crime. It causes alarm and distress, both mental and physical, for the victims and for everyone who cares for and loves them.
We as a society should all be distressed and want it to be recognised as a crime in our society and in our law. There would be many benefits to it being criminalised. It would be simple to call it out as a crime, not something to be dismissed or to be confused as being odd behaviour. It is a crime. We need to say that as a society and our laws should say that it is a crime. That will send a clear message to anybody who is thinking about acting in an antisocial way towards another individual that they need to think twice. It also sends a strong message to the statutory and non-statutory authorities. We heard Una talk about how great the support that she got from the gardaí was.
Youghal is a beautiful seaside heritage town and a place where people go for their holidays. When I first heard about it, I said, "Wow, that is happening there." Eve talked about Galway. It is a town where many young people in Ireland go to university and it is a tourist destination. These are the heart of Ireland. These are not dystopian, remote places. These are the heart of our communities. We need to ensure that stalking is a criminal activity in the heart of every community in our country. Every garda needs to be trained to understand that. Every garda needs to be equipped and resourced to respond to victims or potential victims of stalking. It is important that, in progressing this legislation and stating that stalking is a criminal activity, that we as a society are not only calling it out and ensuring that it is not hidden, dismissed and passed over, but that all of the survivors are empowered, supported and valued. All those who are charged with enforcing our laws should know that this is something that we want to tackle, that we will support, resource, train and equip them to tackle and criminalise this activity.
Stalking is a clear example of a crime which has become all too common, facilitated by the rise in communications technology. The word no longer conjures up images of hooded figures in dark alleys but of inboxes spammed with messages, private social media accounts being bombarded with comments, identity theft, phone calls and more. There has been a move over the past decade or so to an online life, which has been made more drastic by Covid and has led to many victims of stalking being unable to escape their tormentors. It is a depraved and destructive behaviour which can cause severe distress to a victim and leave a lasting negative impact which may not fade even when the behaviour stops. As such, it is appropriate that we legislate to dissuade and punish such behaviour. It is also true that we must be extremely careful with new criminal legislation. Imprisoning someone is not a decision which should be made lightly. We owe it to the people and the courts to make sure that the legislation does not catch other, less serious behaviour in its definition of stalking behaviour while also ensuring that in those cases where legitimate stalking is taking place, a conviction can be secured.
As has been mentioned, the creation of a specific stalking offence was a recommendation of the Law Reform Commission in 2016. It differentiated it from harassment based on an element of intense obsession or fixation which creates unwanted intimacy between the stalker and the victim. I do not speak about these things in any abstract sense. I am sure that I am not alone in that. My nightmare started on 23 August 2013 and it went on for two and a half years. The gardaí tried their best to try to get the person who was making the calls to me. I got up to 92 calls one day. It really destroys your life. No matter where I went, this individual knew exactly where I was. He knew what I was wearing. He knew whose company I was in. He would ring friends to see if I was with them if he could not get me. I welcome this legislation but we need to resource the gardaí better to deal with such cases. Nothing could be done in my case because the person making the phone calls did not own the phones that the calls were being made from. He got away with it on that basis. He put me through two and a half years of hell and he got away with it. That should not happen.
One concern I have with this legislation is with the difficulties that may be encountered where the existence of a crime is based on how events are perceived or experienced by an individual. I trust that as this Bill passes through the House, we will strike the correct balance in this regard in anticipation of cases which may not be as clear cut as others. I think of subsection (3)(g) lists "interfering with the property of a person" as an example of stalking behaviour. While one can certainly think of instances wherein such an action would be stalking behaviour, it is easy to envisage where such behaviour could be more innocent. Likewise, the persistent nature of any activity is instrumental in a behaviour being a stalking behaviour, yet the list of defined stalking behaviours only refers to this in the first of its eight examples, which could have serious legal ramifications. I have no doubt that these issues will be explored in detail and dealt with over the next stages of the Bill. I look forward to working on it. I commend Senators Chambers, Fitzpatrick and McGreehan on bringing it before the House.
I thank Senator Keogan for sharing her story. It is a clear example of the necessity for legislation that would prevent what has happened to her, to Members of this House and to members of our society. It is timely that this legislation would be brought before us.
Senator Keogan's sharing of her story sums up and brings into this Chamber just how invasive and frightening it can be, so I thank her for that. I commend my Fianna Fáil colleagues on bringing forward this important legislation. I commend the bravery of Una Ring and Eve McDowell in sharing their stories and speaking of their horrific experiences. There is no doubt that coming forward and creating the lobbying of Stalking Ireland is advancing the case. It is right we start to parse down that sense of entitlement others have to interfere with the free movement and living of another individual as a means of control and aggression. There is no other way to interpret it. The Senator is absolutely right that harassment does not go anywhere near describing what this could be and the experience of this for people.
Prosecutions for stalking, under the guise of harassment, have repeatedly failed to hit the bar and we have a very low number of prosecutions for that reason. We take it that stalking is a way down the road toward what can be the inevitable consequence, that being the homicide of an individual. Yesterday morning, I listened to Newstalk as the outcome of its recent survey on women and their sense of safety at night was talked about. The shocking result that 90% of women were uncomfortable being out alone after dark is an appalling statistic. In that discussion, it was said that the biggest fear men have is that women will laugh at them. As someone who has been a counselling psychologist and counselled men coming through domestic violence and being the victims, that is not the only fear that some men have of women, but the real issue talked about yesterday was that the biggest fear women have is that they will be killed.
In 2019, Women's Aid published a report on a legacy of loss to femicide, which showed rather frightening statistics. Since 1996, when Women's Aid started collating its figures, 230 women have died violently, including 16 children who were killed alongside their mothers. Almost two thirds of the women were killed in their own homes. One hundred women were murdered by their current or ex-partner, another 20 women were killed by a male relative, and 37 were killed by men who were known to them. In the murder-suicide cases, of 21 of these, it was a current or ex-partner of the victim.
We need to take very seriously that women live in the fear that their lives will be ended by this individual. Calling it stalking and having a serious penalty attached to that is very important. It is incredibly important we have that on our Statute Book and that the Garda and all services recognise just how serious it is. It is unacceptable that, as you read the reports and the victims' experiences, people feel that when they first talk about it, it is dismissed, said to be just a bit of attention and their experience is minimised. Bringing it forward and having it on the Statute Book as a stand-alone offence frames in all our minds that we should take seriously that repeated unwanted attention can very often lead to something significantly more sinister. It is unacceptable that women, in particular, live in fear of their lives and that any other person could exhibit that level of control and aggression. Stalking is an extremely aggressive act. I commend the Senator and there is absolute support from the Fine Gael group in bringing this forward.
I welcome the Minister of State and thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for bringing this forward. We can forget we are elected here as normal people, that we are representative of society and speak to normal people in society. What we bring to the floor of this Chamber is our experiences and those of the people to whom we speak. I commend Senator Keogan on sharing her experience, and I commend Una Ring and Eve McDowell. Legislation such as this does not come out of thin air. It is not that a person has a great idea and decides to put forward legislation. These are real lived experiences put down in words on which somebody can act. The important thing to remember about the law, especially criminal law, is that it is there to protect people. Gardaí can only act when there is a law in black and white in front of them. In some cases, what prevents gardaí from acting, or feeling they can act, is a lack of certainty around whether something is a crime. That is why it is important we have something that specifically talks about this insidious behaviour which is stalking and which is different from harassment.
There has been no explanation as to why the Department has not stepped up to the mark when it comes to stalking, especially in light of the fact the Law Reform Commission has recommended this legislation and other jurisdictions have it. I find it baffling that Ireland is not stepping up to the mark and I commend the Senators on bringing it forward. I look forward to the Minister of State's comments and hope things have changed. They may have and I know there will be cross-party support. If the politicians have to drive this and push the Department, that is what we will do.
Ireland has changed. We have had the Citizens' Assembly on gender this year, which has shown there are clear failures, but also that the citizens and those living in this country want change and a recognition of women's place in society. It is quite right to say it is not only women who are impacted by stalking. I know men who are experiencing this and, throughout the years, I have known many women who have experienced it. It is, for the most part, gendered because of power and a patriarchal system. Stalking fundamentally comes down to control, in my layperson's view. To any victims who are watching this, our thoughts are with them and we will do all we can to ensure this legislation goes beyond today and we see a clear response from the Department of Justice on this very important issue.
Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis na moltóirí as an mBille seo. I welcome the Minister of State and commend the proposers of this legislation because, as has been said so eloquently by colleagues, there is a need for it. In listening to the powerful testimony from Senator Keogan, it certainly touched on the reasons it is necessary and, in what was a powerful and convincing contribution from Senator Chambers, she laid out the extremes, for want of a better term, of why legislation such as this is necessary for victims. I again commend the proposers of the Bill and all of those who have campaigned. Una Ring and Eve McDowell have been mentioned, in particular, which is right and proper.
In many ways, we could have concluded this debate at the end of Senator Chambers's contribution because it outlined so finely just why this is necessary. In saying that I do not want to take anything away from any of the other contributions tonight, including my own. Second Stage affords us the opportunity to make contributions such as this. I am keen, in the short remarks I will make, to get beyond that. Hopefully, the Minister of State will respond positively and proactively from the perspective of the Department, for all the reasons outlined earlier and all the reasons we know, and we can get this on the Statute Book and not only assist victims but perhaps more important, get perpetrators off the street and punish them for what they are doing and what they are responsible for. I beg the Cathaoirleach's pardon. I was not able to print my notes so I will be working off my phone. I do not like doing that but there we go.
This Bill is a welcome addition to the measures in place to deal with the intimidation and harassment of individuals by others that takes place for many and varied reasons. The top and bottom line is that individuals who experience this unwarranted intrusion into their lives need to be protected by the law from their assailants. This Bill sets out a specific offence of stalking, characterised by repeated unwanted behaviour that occurs as a result of fixation of obsession and causes alarm, distress or harm to the victim and provides for related matters. During the debate on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, organisations such as the NWCI and Women's Aid noted that we need a separate offence of stalking in addition to existing laws around gender-based violence and abuse and this Bill addresses that gap.
Under the current law, some of the behaviours that currently constitute stalking are not, per se, illegal. These can include behaviours such as the installation of spyware on a partner's computer or mobile device as well as persistent use of the Internet by a stranger to harass and stalk an individual through impersonation or the use of other computer-based tactics. This Bill will be a welcome addition to the Statute Book, which is starting to catch up and legally protect women who are experiencing the frightening attention of a stalker but of course, as we all know, we still have some way to go. Although legislation is progressing, it is not the sole element in combating stalking and similar behaviour. Education, resourcing and trainign for gardaí, which many Members have referenced, as well as restorative justice programmes and portrayals within popular media are also of importance. Reality needs to be the benchmark against which the law is made effective and stalkers must face the full rigour of it. Too often, cases have been before the courts and have been presented as perpetrators being besotted with or love-struck by their victims. The reality is that many of these cases occur with no romantic contact or, indeed, any contact between the victim and the perpetrator. Often the victim has the misfortune of coming to the casual attention of the stalker.
The Bill is expansive in its provisions. One notable aspect is that it extends to a victim's pets. This is welcome as pets are frequently the target of stalkers and are kidnapped, injured or killed. Family members being targeted is also a feature of many stalking incidents. The provision regarding any means of communication is also crucial. Combined with the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act, there should now be few behaviours currently used by stalkers against victims that are not in some way caught by this Bill. If enacted, the legislation should be subject to frequent review so that its practicalities and the degree to which it can be used can be clear. I am sure colleagues would support me in that. The strength of the Bill and its ability to protect the victim and punish the stalker is to be found in its all-embracing and comprehensive provisions. For that reason and many others, Sinn Féin will support the Bill.
We in the Labour Party welcome this Bill and I thank the Fianna Fáil Senators for bringing it forward. As we have heard from a number of accounts and from reading the LRC report, stalking is a deeply insidious and appalling violation of a person's dignity, safety and security. I pay tribute to Una Ring, Eve McDowell, and, indeed, Senator Keogan, for sharing their stories.
This is a welcome Bill but it is important to say, particularly to the Department of Justice, that this ask is not new. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre has been calling for a change in the law and, as has been said, the LRC has also called for a new offence of stalking. When my colleague, Deputy Brendan Howlin, was introducing Coco's Law, or the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill, there was a provision for stalking in it but when it was going through the Houses, he was prevailed upon to remove that provision for stalking as a separate offence, with the promise that it would be dealt with at a later date. Unfortunately, we have now come to this; a Private Members' Bill has had to be brought forward to deal with it.
As I said, we are glad that this issue is now back on the agenda, in the form of separate, stand-alone legislation. The big difference now is that we have two such powerful advocates in Una Ring and Eve McDowell. We have all watched and listened to them speak with such dignity today. The genesis of Coco's Law was that the mother of Nicole Fox Fenlon was so fiercely determined that nobody else's daughter, or son, would ever have to go through what her daughter did, or would not get justice in the way that her daughter did not. Unfortunately, she is not here today.
It is great that we have cross-party support but the key issue now is making sure there is speedy passage of this Bill through the Houses. I am struck by how far behind Ireland is in comparison with England, Scotland and Wales, as has been referenced. Scotland made this an offence 11 years ago. It has taken us until now for the Department of Justice to, hopefully, accept this Bill and have stalking as a distinct and separate offence.
While it is one thing to put in place the measures to identify stalking as a crime, we cannot forget the conversation about the supports and the enforcement. Senator Keogan made that point about how An Garda Síochána is resourced in pursuing prosecutions for this crime. In a separate but related area, I have spoken to quite a number of women over the past few weeks who have been victims of assault, rape, harassment, and other related offences and they have been badly let down by the counselling services in this country. There are some fantastic counselling services but there are significant waits of up to 12 months in some parts of the country for those services after an event has happened, when going through the courts system, or after a prosecution or a lack of conviction. That also deserves attention because it is one thing to put in place the law but it is a very different matter to put in place the supports around it. That needs to be part of the conversation. Let us pass this Bill speedily through the Houses but let us also follow up with action. I commend our colleagues in Fianna Fáil on bringing forward this Bill.
The Minister of State is very welcome. First, I congratulate my colleague, Senator Chambers, on the work she has done on this Bill. I am incredibly in awe and humbled by the two women in particular, Una Ring and Eve McDowell, who set up Stalking Ireland. They have been victims and because of their experiences they started this process to change things. I also thank Senator Keogan for sharing her story. As Senator O'Reilly said, we are human here and we all come with our lived experiences so I thank her for sharing hers. I am sorry she had to go through that, and that the crime committed against her did not result in a conviction because stalking is not an offence. This is the reason we are here this evening. Stalking should be an offence and the pressure is on now. There is cross-party support in the House.
I hope the Department will change its mind and attitude towards this and work with us all here on the Fianna Fáil benches to bring this Bill through all Stages.
I must commend Una and Eve who, against all odds, have come out of this stronger. We speak about survivors and victims a lot in this House and it is always about their strength, about how they have overcome and come out the other side and actually end up turning into those advocates that the State has failed to be. They are advocating for people. They are there with counselling supports and organising for support and help for other victims. The State fails to do it. Now is our opportunity as legislators to make sure that the State grows up and actually starts to support victims and not put the onus onto victims to support other victims. I have seen this time and again. I do not know how many times we have discussed this in the House.
The Department has said that the law of harassment is sufficient but we have seen and heard evidence, there is a consensus from the Law Reform Commission and from survivors, and there is evidence from the UK, that stalking needs to be a stand-alone offence. By legislating to identify stalking it empowers our police force to identify stalking and it empowers victims to know that they are actually being stalked, that it is not a normal behaviour, that it is unwanted behaviour and that An Garda Síochána will listen to them.
Stalking generally is a gendered crime, while there is always the exception where men are stalked or harassed and attacked. Going by the Newstalk survey this week about our unsafe streets, at an early age women and girls are conditioned to act differently, to be careful, to be careful where they go, be careful about who they talk to, what they wear and what they say, how they do it and how they dress. It is always on the woman and the victim to change and adapt and not to encourage another illegal behaviour. The State and the church have perpetuated this for 100 years.
We owe it to women not to treat them as passengers in this society, and to stand up and have us in that front seat and to listen to women because women know what has happened to women over the past 100 years. We are the best advocates for ourselves. Listen to us. It comes from the ingrained bias or degradation of women that sex was something a man could take for granted and a woman had to suppress it. Again and again we see this. This all goes to the exact same thing.
Hopefully women have now turned a corner and we are standing up for ourselves. We are taking no more of it. We want our State, our Government and our country to stand up and back us, back our mothers, sisters and friends, wives and partners and everyone among us. It is time.
I thank Senator Chambers for all her hard work. I thank all of the victims who are suffering and those who may not have come forward. Hopefully, when this Bill is brought through all Stages in the Houses, the next person who is stalked can go to An Garda Síochána and say "I am being stalked, protect me" and will be protected. That is the name and the aim of this Bill.
I express my thanks to Senator Chambers, and to Senators McGreehan and Fitzpatrick, for bringing forward this Bill. In her remarks Senator Chambers set out the horrific examples of just two victims. The Senator put this on the record of the House for people to hear and listen to. As the Senator said, does the word "harassment" from a legal standpoint adequately cover what she has documented here: the continued and pointed stalking of these particular victims to the point where the man turns up with a rape kit, clearly intent on causing exceptional harm to that victim?
This morning we met Una and Eve. I was the only man in the room when we met. The testimony of the particular cases that led to the convictions of the perpetrators was scary. It was most unsettling to hear the conversation within the room that was sparked among my female Fianna Fáil parliamentary colleagues as a result of listening to the testimony. It just happened naturally and the conversation sparked and flowed around their fears and their apprehensions in society in general. I do not know how I felt but "uncomfortable" is probably one adjective I would use. It felt uncomfortable to sit there and hear my colleagues speak so openly, it just flowed out, about the fear and anxiety they live with and deal with from having such heightened awareness when they go out in the evening time, and their feeling on edge if they are alone and walking. That is no way to live. I found it shocking. Perhaps I should have been more attuned but I found it shocking to see that fear in the eyes of my colleagues and for them to have that fear as women.
As Senator McGreehan said, women are conditioned that way and it is even more shocking that society has led this and actually stood back and allowed that to happen. When my 12-year-old daughter becomes 18 years of age I do not want her to have those same fears and anxieties that I listened to today, or that she would feel conditioned to have to act in a certain way when she goes out at night or that she would have to carry keys in her hand to be on guard for an assailant or a perpetrator. If we are perturbed by this and if we find this abhorrent then there are steps we must take, and of course the starting point is the national Legislature and the law. As Senator Chambers pointed out, however, the law is not adequate to deal with it.
It was shocking to hear the two women say that when they were coming here today they were left here by a taxi man who told them they should have no problem in terms of dealing with it. It was nearly the attitude of "aren't they lovely girls". Society is wrong. The law needs to change to reflect that and to change attitudes. Senator Chambers also referred to the Garda response, which in some instances was exemplary and it is very important to point this out. In other instances, however, it is not because there is no law there to adequately deal with this issue. Gardaí are only dealing with what they have before them. When dealing with a case we are hoping that there is enough empathy from the members of the force who deal with these complaints to actually take it seriously to begin with. This is not consistent.
It is important that the men in this Chamber and in the Dáil Chamber speak out. There was a significant lack of men tonight but I pay tribute to those who were here to speak. It is not just a female issue: men are at the heart of what is wrong. It is important that men speak out. It is also important that men would listen to and hear what is being said, and to hear what I heard today, that is, the fear in my colleagues' voices. It shook me all day. It was not just the testimony of the victims, it was also the voices of women in general and the colleagues we have here in this Chamber. It is incumbent on us to listen to them. We are not here just to change the law, we are here to change attitudes as well, and words matter.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I commend my colleague, Senator Cassells, for his words, which were heartfelt and passionate. I welcome this amendment Bill to the house and I appreciate having the opportunity to speak on it. Stalking is more prevalent in Ireland than many of us may believe and it is an insidious and intimidating crime. I commend my colleague, Senator Chambers, on her work in this area and on her tenacity and dedication to representing victims of stalking.
This Bill, as we know, provides for a specific offence of stalking which is characterised as the willful, malicious and repeated following and harassing of another person that creates fear, sadness and anxiety and threatens the safety of the other person. Victims of stalking, like Eve McDowell and Una Ring, have bravely detailed the incredible distress they felt while being subjected to stalking. Unfortunately, they came close to losing their lives. I was humbled today to meet and speak with Eve and Una, who are the true heroes here. Not alone are they going through their personal trauma but they are supporting and helping other victims. They have spent huge time and resources setting up stalking.ie. An action I suggest to everyone is to go to their website and sign their petition. It is very heartwarming to see that almost 1,000 people have signed today since they and Senator Chambers were on the airwaves. They both did campaigning courses and met people from other campaigns. They empowered themselves and empowered others. Over the last few months I have become familiar with their stories from print, radio and television. Their stories are hugely harrowing. Both of their experiences have highlighted the inadequacy that exists in Irish law where protection from stalking is concerned. Listening to them talking about its impact on their lives is quite horrific. In Una's words:
It was the most harrowing experience of my life. To know that I was being hunted and having to constantly look over my shoulder was completely exhausting and debilitating. I used to wake up and think "is this the day that I get abducted, raped and murdered? Is today the day that my kids lose their mam?".
We in the Seanad are here to give voice to those without voices who live in fear of speaking up and speaking out. We are here to argue for and demand proper legislation and appropriate consequences for perpetrators. We are speaking on behalf of women who are at risk and who are holding their lives and safety, and those of their children, in their empty hands.
We can often talk endlessly about statistics and figures which are stark, bleak and disturbing in relation to offences but at present they mean little where stalking is concerned because there is no specific crime of stalking on the Statute Book. That should disturb us because as a society we must be able to record, report and monitor these offences and support these women through the court system. Those of us who have not been through such a situation cannot fully imagine how this can take over your life. The toxic power struggle these women endure is unimaginable but tonight we must, for them, imagine ourselves in such a situation. We must imagine what it is like to be living a life of fear, never to be able to relax in one's own home and never to know what is coming next, whether it will be an assault or an attack. It could be an attack on your children, or indeed your children could witness an attack on yourself. We also need to look at the court system, which is difficult to navigate and terrifying for many women.
We have a duty as legislators to act. This Bill is balanced, is supported by victims and is long overdue. The Law Reform Commission has already recommended that a specific stalking offence should be enacted. This appears to have had a significant practical effect in Scotland, England and Wales since their introduction of similar legislation.
It is important that in this debate we distinguish between an act of harassment and a campaign of stalking. There is a distinct difference between the two. As things currently stand, stalkers are likely to be charged on the basis of having harassed their victims; that is, if they are charged at all. It is important that incidents of stalking are reported urgently to An Garda Síochána and that male or female victims are cautious and take all threats seriously. It was interesting to note the different experiences Una and Eve had with the Garda. Una found huge empathy and dedication to the victim and Eve found the opposite. We must support our gardaí to be empathic and supportive and ensure they get the training that is essential.
We in this House must play our part and give our justice system the powers to deal with stalking appropriately. We must send a strong message to victims that we support them, to perpetrators that their behaviour is absolutely unacceptable and that there will be consequences, and to society that stalking will not be tolerated.
I congratulate Senator Chambers for bringing this legislation to the House. We were fortunate enough to meet the protagonists, Una and Eve, today. I understand the Senator heard them on the radio, contacted them and was able to support them in their mission to get to this stage. They must be thanked. The women of Ireland owe them huge gratitude for being so brave. We are also grateful to Senator Chambers for running with them and supporting them through the legislative process to where we are today.
I listened to many of the speeches downstairs in my office. I was really taken aback, especially by Senator Cassells's remarks on how it is very important that the men in our lives - our brothers, fathers and friends - realise it is a little bit different for us. If we were to leave Leinster House today and cross the city, we would probably not be as relaxed as many of our male counterparts would. That being said, we have a beautiful and very safe city and I am glad I live here.
It has been shown in Scotland that bringing in this type of legislation gives women the confidence to report instances of stalking. If we as legislators fail to bring in this legislation, it will almost be like some sort of State-sponsored gaslighting of women. We heard from Eve and Una today that gardaí would sometimes ask them whether the individuals in question actually harmed them. Eve and Una replied that they did not actually harm them, but they were crossing their paths a few times a day, including where they worked. One of them told us how she was second-guessing whether she should be a victim here. That is wrong. That is what happens in a relationship, but what we are seeing is almost a State-sponsored gaslighting of women. It is really important that we put an end to it and listen to women, as many of my colleagues have said. We are not all victims but we have smaller physical frames and we are generally more vulnerable to attack. We probably do not really say that because we like to feel we are strong but we are made differently and we are more vulnerable. We want to feel safe in our cities and in our homes and we have the absolute right to do so. This legislation is very neat and goes a small way towards vindicating women's rights. It is a language change that redefines harassment and ensures it has its own place in legislation. It must be done. I commend this legislation to the House and congratulate my colleagues for supporting it and bringing it before us.
I thank the Senators who have sponsored the Bill for bringing it to the House. I thank those who bravely told of their experiences here this evening, including Senator Keogan, and those who allowed their experiences to be shared in the House on their behalf by Senators. The Government is not opposing this Bill this evening. I am aware of the sincerity and the depth of feeling of my colleagues who brought forward this Bill. I am aware also that Senator Chambers has given a lot of time to and is dedicated to this Bill on which she has worked closely with Una Ring and Niamh McDowell who launched the campaign for a new offence earlier this year. Senator Chambers has paid tribute to the courage and tenacity of those two women in campaigning for a new law. I also pay tribute to them for sharing their terrifying experiences with the people of Ireland. They are experiences which all too many women recognise. I acknowledge Senators McGreehan and Fitzpatrick as co-sponsors of the Bill. I want to be associated with the comments of Senator Shane Cassells who referred to the importance of men speaking out to support women who find themselves in these horrific situations. Men have a vital role to play in standing up and having their voices added to those of women who find themselves in very terrifying situations.
The Government appreciates the seriousness of the crime of stalking. It is an intrusive pattern of behaviour where the perpetrator becomes so fixated on another person that will cause any reasonable person to fear for his or her safety. It is not a one-off incident. It involves repeated victimisation over a period of time that can shatter the private and personal life of the victim. Victims of stalking have endured an experience that no person should have to endure. Victims also often have to change their daily routine, phone numbers and social media accounts to escape unwanted contacts. They are constantly looking over their shoulders and cannot feel safe, even in their own homes and places of work. I sympathise with anyone who has suffered in this way and I fully appreciate that for victims of crime, the words that are used for their experiences matter.
I will now address the law as it stands today and how the current law came into being and the Minister's rationale for previously not bringing forward an amendment to refer to the specific word of stalking. It is less than one year ago since I came to this House to debate what became the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, also known as Coco's Law. That Bill was largely based on the criminal law recommendations contained in the Law Reform Commission’s 2016 report on harmful communications and digital safety.
One of the recommendations of that report was that a specific stand-alone offence of stalking should be introduced in Ireland. My officials considered this fully over the last two years. The commission recommended that a new stalking offence be enacted but that the essential ingredients of a stalking offence, should be the same as the harassment offence contained in section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. The commission recommended that the stalking offence would differ from the harassment offence by requiring the intentional or reckless acts of the perpetrator to seriously interfere with the victim’s peace and privacy and cause him or her alarm, distress or harm. This would be a higher threshold to prove than the existing harassment offence which would result in fewer successful prosecutions. My officials examined the court reports and found that stalking was being successfully prosecuted under the harassment offence and convictions were being secured. Legal advices have advised that stalking is indeed an offence in Irish law. The only lacuna is one of perception in that the word "stalking" is not used but this is not the only case where a commonly known word is not used in law. I refer to kidnapping, which is commonly prosecuted as false imprisonment.
In 1997, when introducing a harassment offence to the Dáil, the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Nora Owen said:
Section 10 provides for the important new offence of harassment which is aimed at what is commonly called "stalking". We are all aware of high profile cases of stalking but such behaviour is not necessarily peculiar to people in the spotlight. Unfortunately, it can occur in everyday life when a person, usually a woman, becomes the object of the stalker's affection — perhaps obsession is a better word — and that person is subjected to sustained harassment and intimidation in a perverted attempt by the stalker to gain the attention or affection of the unfortunate person concerned.
I also wish to refer to the words of Charlton J in DPP v. Doherty. That July 2020 judgment stated:
Harassment was made an offence by s 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. Before that time, those whose lives were affected by harassment, or as it is commonly called stalking, could only have resort to the equitable jurisdiction of the courts.
While working on Coco's Law, my officials consulted our legal advisers as well as key stakeholders in the criminal justice system. All were of the view that the harassment offence works well and there is insufficient reason to change it at this time. There was also concern that legislating specifically for stalking could cast doubt over previous convictions for stalking behaviour under the harassment offence. We looked internationally to see if there was a common approach emerging. Some have stalking offences and others have other harassment offences. The Government concluded that there was no clear benefit to be gained by a stand-alone stalking offence as the elements of the offence were clearly encompassed within the parameters of the harassment offence. The Minister formed the view that a stalking offence called "harassment" already existed in Ireland and it was successfully securing convictions. The Minister also formed the view that the offence is so serious that it merited a higher maximum sentence to reflect the very grave impact on lived experiences of victims.
In December 2020, the Oireachtas, in passing Coco's Law, amended the harassment offence in two ways. The first was to extend the offence to persistent communication about a person as well as persistent to communication to a person. This is an important change as harassing behaviour can also be in the form of unwanted communication to family members, work colleagues and friends of a victim, not simply directly to a victim. Perhaps more importantly, the maximum sentence for harassment was increased to ten years putting it at the top end of the scale internationally for similar offences. I understand that legislation for stalking in England, Wales and Scotland attracts a maximum sentence of five years. This was a clear statement to perpetrators of harassment or stalking that their actions will be subject to very serious penalties that reflect the harm that they have perpetrated on their victims.
In addition to increasing the penalties for harassment, particularly for its more serious forms such as stalking, supporting victims of crime is a priority for the Government. This year, the Department of Justice is providing €4.1 million of funding to support of victims of crime along with €3 million to raise awareness of domestic sexual and gender-based violence.
The work to implement all of the recommendations of the O'Malley report, as set out in Supporting a Victim’s Journey, continues apace. It is introducing important reforms in the criminal justice system to make it more victim-centred. The reforms will ensure that victims are better supported, better informed and are treated with respect and dignity by everyone they come into contact with. It is a living document and as more areas of reform are identified, they will be progressed.
For all these reasons the Government decided less than a year ago not to introduce a stand-alone stalking offence. Section 12 of Coco's Law, which was introduced by way of amendment in the Dáil, provides for view of the operation of that Act within three years of its commencement. This means that a statutory review of its effectiveness of all the changes brought by Coco's Law will be carried out by December 2023. That is the correct time to review the position on harassment and stalking, in the Minister’s view. It is the Minister’s view that we need to allow some time for recent changes in the law to bed down so that we will be able to fully consider what changes, if any, are necessary at that stage.
As I said at the outset, the Government will not oppose the Bill this evening. Once again, I want to acknowledge the work that has gone into its development. I fully acknowledge the intentions behind the Bill and the courage and convictions of victims in seeking a change in the law. This is a very serious and complex issue, which has a profound effect on victims. I am hopeful that the changes brought about by Coco's Law will make a real difference to victims in the coming years and that the statutory review of the Act can identify any further need for legislative change. I thank Senators Chambers, Fitzpatrick and McGreehan once again for bringing this Bill forward.
Senator Maria Byrne was not here earlier but she is more than welcome to make a contribution at this point. Then I will bring Senator Chambers in to respond to the debate. The Senator has six minutes.
Apologies, I was at another meeting.
I support the Bill and I compliment my Fianna Fáil colleagues on bringing it forward. We have all come across people who have been harassed or stalked by people.
It is not a very pleasant experience, which is the whole sentiment of what is before us tonight. I welcome that the Minister of State and the Government are not opposing the Bill. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the future in that regard.
I thank Senator Byrne. I call Senator Chambers to respond to the Minister of State.
I appreciate the response the Minister of State has delivered on behalf of the Minister for Justice and take note of what he said. I received his comments as he was speaking, so if it is okay with him, I will pick through a few of the issues he raised and give him my response to those.
The Minister of State said "the Government appreciates the seriousness of the crime of stalking" but today, there is no crime of stalking. It does not actually exist. He then went on to describe in great detail what stalking actually is: "an intrusive pattern of behaviour where the perpetrator becomes so fixated on another person that ... [it would] cause any reasonable person to fear for his or her safety". Again, this is not actually in the law in this country. This is a definition I would agree with and I would certainly like to see it on the Statute Book. It seems strange, however, that the response from the Government and Minister for Justice is actually to refer to the crime of stalking which does not exist as we stand here today.
The Minister of State said that the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020, known as Coco’s Law, was largely based on the criminal law recommendations contained in the Law Reform Commission's report, to which I referred. There is an omission in that reply, particularly after we heard from Senator Sherlock, who spoke about Deputy Howlin's engagement on this law. I was not aware of that when I brought forward my legislation. I did not realise that stalking, as was recommended in that report, was actually in Coco's Law and was then pulled. That was said on the floor of the House. If that is the case and there is a commitment to do it later, that should be looked at. To say, however, that the Bill was largely based on that report and not refer to the big omission that the report also recommended having a stalking offence, which did not happen, is misleading. That should have been referred to.
The Minister of State said that court reports were examined and it was found that stalking was being successfully prosecuted. Examined by who? Who decides what successful prosecution looks like? I gave two examples today of two victims of stalking who had to go through the courts system to get justice. One case in particular really highlights how stalking clearly is not successfully prosecuted. Take the case of Eve McDowell, who in the end had to have her case prosecuted under aggravated burglary because harassment was not cutting the mustard, effectively, and aggravated burglary was going to allow the judicial system to give the perpetrator a stronger sentence. If there was ever evidence that stalking is not being successfully prosecuted, it is evident in that particular case. I am sure it is not unique.
If I might say, a very weak link was then drawn when the Minister of State said it is not the only time when we exchange language, if I can say that, where one word is not used but it can mean something else. He referred to kidnapping and compared it to false imprisonment. It is apples and oranges. I can see a link between kidnapping and false imprisonment. It is a similar experience. The intent of the perpetrator is the same, but that distinction is important here. The intent of the perpetrator, when you compare harassment to stalking, is quite different. I point very seriously to the intent of the stalkers in the cases of Eve McDowell and Una Ring, where the intent was to cause serious harm and, potentially, death. That is what both victims feared. That is the difference. When you compare kidnapping and false imprisonment, the difference is the intention and the outcome and, therefore, I think the comparison is weak and does not really serve a purpose in this debate.
The Minister of State then referred to a debate from when the then Minister for Justice, Nora Owen, was a Member of Dáil Éireann 24 years ago. Might I suggest we have moved on a lot in this country? Women's rights have advanced a lot in the past 24 years. We have a different attitude now to women's safety, safety on our streets and to listening to women. The very fact the Department saw fit to refer to a Dáil debate from 24 years ago highlights the problem.
It says a lot.
It says a lot, in my view. The Minister of State also referred to the case of the DPP v. Doherty, where Charleton J in his 2020 judgment stated, "Harassment was made an offence by s 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997." That is a fact. The judgment went on to state, "Before that time, those whose lives were affected by harassment, or as it is commonly called stalking". That is used then as evidence to say that the terms are interchangeable. That is the opinion of one person - a man - who took a subjective view and thought the words were interchangeable. I would suggest it was unlikely he was ever stalked so perhaps he did not understand the seriousness of the comparison. The victims with whom we have been dealing do understand the seriousness of that comparison, however, and would not use those terms interchangeably. Again, I think the argument is quite weak and does not serve to explain properly the Department's reluctance to this.
The response goes on to state that it is the view of the Government "that the harassment offence works well". Works well for who? It is not working well for the victims. It is not working well for women. We are very clearly saying today that we want the Government to listen to women. It does not work well. I can only assume that is the opinion of the author of this piece of paper but it is not the opinion shared widely in this Chamber-----
-----and we want to make that view very strongly here today.
Again, this is a very serious allegation that I really do not think should have been made on the floor of this House. I am not taking umbrage with the Minister of State. I know he is reading this out on behalf of the Minister for Justice. He said, "There was also concern that legislating specifically for stalking could cast doubt over previous convictions for stalking behaviour under the harassment offence." That is an incredibly serious assertion to make-----
-----and one I strongly disagree with. That, to me, is undermining the Judiciary on the floor of this House. It is seeking to undermine all those cases that have been prosecuted to date because of the failure of the Department of Justice to act on a five-year-old recommendation and a law that is already in place in other jurisdictions which we commonly followed for more than a decade. I suggest the Department and the Minister for Justice should reflect upon that particular sentence. It should be retracted, in my view, because it is a very serious allegation to make.
The Government concluded that there was "no clear benefit to be gained by a stand-alone stalking offence". Again, based on what? Who is deciding this? I ask that the Department reflect and consider the testimony and lived experience of those who have experienced stalking. The Minister of State said again that the offence of harassment was "successfully securing convictions" under the current law. That is because there are no other options.
I will finish on this. One thing that was not dealt with is moving away from the importance of language and using the word "stalking" so that when victims reach out to try to find information, at least they can find it, they can know it exists and, as other speakers have discussed, they are not second-guessing themselves and asking if they are actually experiencing a crime or if it is all in their heads. It is not all in their head and they are experiencing a crime. Our laws just do not cater for it.
What was not dealt with adequately, however, was the impact that legislation for stalking had in the other jurisdictions, namely, England, Scotland and Wales, which experienced a trebling in reporting of stalking incidences and a doubling of charges being brought against the perpetrators. They are the tangible impacts of legislating and that has not been addressed. All we have heard is the Department reiterating time and again that it has decided what is best, that it is not going to listen to victims and that it has decided that the law, as it stands, is satisfactory. My message for the Minister of State tonight to take back to the Minister for Justice is that it is not satisfactory. Coco's Law does not cut the mustard. It does not cover the experience of the victims.
I will finish by thanking all of my colleagues, cross-party, for supporting the Bill tonight. In particular, I thank Senator Keogan for sharing her personal experience. I ask that the Minister of State relay to the Minister for Justice that a period of reflection might happen over the next while so that when I get to move this legislation forward from this House to the next, we can see it progressed quickly. I thank the Acting Chairperson for his leniency.
I think the word is "forbearance". Senator Chambers is very welcome. While all legislation is very important, Senator Chambers' Bill is very important legislation, which is why I gave her a little bit of extra latitude in her response.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
Before I conclude today's business, I want to mention that it is my first time back in the Chair since 27 March 2020. I thank every Member of this House because I would not be here without the Members of the Oireachtas deciding to allow me to come back, so I do appreciate that. It is great to be back and to see everybody back in the Chamber. I will now ask the Deputy Leader when it is proposed to sit again.
Tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. I am sorry; next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.
That is a better answer. Is that agreed? Agreed.