Thursday, 10 September 2020

Questions (4)

Denis Naughten


4. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Justice her plans to reform the monitoring of sex offenders; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [23115/20]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Justice)

In 2009, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform announced that new statutory powers were to be given to An Garda Síochána to more effectively and efficiently monitor released sex offenders. Due to the lack of progress, in 2012 I published the Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill 2012 to close the gaping loopholes in the monitoring of high-risk sex offenders. This Bill passed Second Stage in the House in 2013. Since I published that Bill to reform the monitoring of sex offenders in 2012, some 800 sex offenders have been released from prison, some of whom may have been stopped from reoffending if the laws had been reformed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this extremely important issue, on which I know he is particularly focused and on which he wants to see progress. I understand the concern which communities can have with regard to the issue of rehabilitation of sex offenders and the protection of public safety and our citizens.

It is important to note that there are already provisions in existing law with regard to the management of sex offenders after they have been released from prison. The Sex Offenders Act 2001 provides that a court can impose conditions on a convicted sex offender as part of his or her post-release supervision. Further, where An Garda Síochána believes that a convicted offender poses a serious risk to the public, an application can be made to the courts for a sex offender order under section 16 of the 2001 Act. Such an order can prohibit the offender from doing anything the court considers necessary to ensure the public is protected from serious harm.

On legislative reform, I can confirm that the general scheme of the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2018 was developed by my Department following a comprehensive review of current law and administrative practice. The general scheme was approved by Government in June 2018 and it is available on my Department's website.

The Bill is currently with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, OPC, for drafting. My officials and that office are working together to finalise the draft with a view to publication of the Bill as soon as possible. Obviously that Bill has been with the OPC for some time now so I have asked for an update on the expected timeline as it is something I would like to progress as soon as possible.

The purpose of the Bill is to enhance current systems for assessment and management of convicted sex offenders and to put those systems on a statutory footing. The drafting process is not yet complete. The provisions of it are well known but I will outline a few. I expect the Bill to include stricter notification requirements, including requiring offenders to notify gardaí of their address upon release from custody, or any subsequent change of address, within three days as opposed to the existing seven days. I also expect provision to allow for fingerprinting and photographing of the offender where necessary to confirm their identity. I expect enhanced supervision of high-risk offenders, including, in limited circumstances, the electronic monitoring of offenders subject to post-release supervision orders.

I thank the Minister. I am glad she mentioned the current law because a convicted sex offender released from Arbour Hill Prison this morning, can toddle down to O'Connell Street and put a letter in the post addressed to the Superintendent's office, An Garda Síochána, Bandon Garda station, Bandon, County Cork informing them they are going to reside at 55, Atlantic View, Malin Head, County Donegal. Once they are in that premises on one day in seven they are in compliance with the current law on sex offenders. The reality is that one could drive a coach and four through the so-called sex offenders register we have. It is nothing but a fig leaf. Any sexual predator who is determined to reoffend can easily do so undetected and still comply with the current law. This was a priority in the previous programme for Government, it is a priority in this programme for Government but when will we see the legislation published?

This is something that has taken some time and, therefore, I assure the Deputy again that I have asked for an update on the timeline of this and I have asked that it be progressed as soon as possible. I will finish outlining some of the areas included in the legislation. We will have enhanced supervision of high-risk offenders including, in limited circumstances, the electronic monitoring of offenders subject to post-release supervision orders, the placing on a legislative footing of assessment teams to assess and manage the risk posed by sex offenders and provisions whereby a court can prohibit a sex offender from working with children which is particularly important. We will have provision for a statutory basis for the necessary disclosure of information relating to a high-risk offender on the sex offenders register. The information about any offender which may be disclosed includes the name, address and threat posed by the offender. There is, of course, a need for balance in these measures and, therefore, it is intended that the disclosure would be made to the minimum number of people necessary to avert a serious risk to safety.

I understand the Deputy's concerns but as I outlined earlier there is legislation in place at the moment, under which if a sex offender is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of two or more years, he or she will be subject to notification requirements for a period of indefinite duration. While the measures may not be strict enough at the moment there are a significant number of measures.

The difficulty is that the balance is entirely in the hands of the perpetrator at present. It is important to note that only one in ten sexual offences is reported and approximately one in 20 results in a conviction. Half of these convictions involve children. Even an effectively operating sex offender monitoring regime, therefore, will not address the total concerns of parents. However, the current system of keeping track of the location of sex offenders is just not working. As a consequence of these very lax monitoring conditions women and children are put at grossly unacceptable risk from those who are determined to reoffend. The Garda are trying to monitor these people with both hands tied behind their backs. Since 2009 there has been a commitment to reform the law in this area and we need a date.

I fully accept the Deputy's concerns and that we need to make progress in the area but while there is legislation there, it does not go far enough. That is why we need this legislation. As such I commit again to try to progress this as quickly as possible. There are obviously other areas as well that relates to sexual offences. The Sexual Offences Act 2017 specifically provides for a review of those provisions after three years. Consequently, earlier this summer, I commissioned an independent expert, Ms Maura Butler, to undertake this review and more generally of the area of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This is an absolute priority for me as Minister.

We launched the O'Malley report just before the summer recess and we are currently working through a ten-week engagement process with all stakeholders including an Garda Síochána to put in place an implementation plan, particularly focusing on vulnerable witnesses. This does not just include victims of rape, be they men or women, but also vulnerable witnesses, including children and those with disabilities or other challenges. A large volume of work is being done in this area. With specific reference to this legislation, I accept the Deputy's concerns. I share them and want to see this implemented as soon as possible.