I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to have the opportunity to present this legislation, which deals with aspects of sentencing for sexual offences, to the House. I know that Deputies on all sides are interested in the Bill and I look forward to hearing their contributions.
The Bill marks a further step in a programme of reforms to sexual offences legislation initiated by this Government. Members will recall the enactment last year of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which was one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging items of sexual offences legislation to be introduced in more than a decade. That Act updated existing laws to combat child pornography and introduced new measures to combat the sexual grooming of children. It also contained important provisions around criminal evidence in sexual offences trials.
The legislation on sexual offences has come under rightful scrutiny this year, prompted by high-profile cases both here and in Northern Ireland. I will continue to emphasise the importance of a robust legislative basis for the prosecution of sexual offences that is sensitive to the impact of these crimes on victims and, indeed, on society as a whole. In keeping with this commitment, I have initiated a review of protections for vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. The review will examine: the adequacy of the mechanisms available in law and practice relating to protections for vulnerable witnesses; the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, including measures to protect vulnerable witnesses during evidence; further practical and legal supports for victims; and restrictions on reporting of trials for sexual offences. The review will take place over a period of months. It will make recommendations in respect of legislative and practical changes that will reflect the needs of vulnerable witnesses. I thank Professor Tom O'Malley at the National University of Ireland Galway, a leading academic in this area, for undertaking to chair this review. I look forward to working closely with him and indeed hearing from him once he has completed the review. This review is in addition to the Bill before the House. Further legislation in this area is also being prepared. The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill 2018 currently being readied will enhance the monitoring of convicted sex offenders. I look forward to also bringing these proposals before the House.
The Bill represents a further branch of this programme of reform. It is vital and necessary that we enhance the current body of legislation with this measure. It is important that sentencing provisions for sexual offences are appropriate to the offences in question. I want to acknowledge the contribution of my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, who initiated some of the provisions in this Bill while a private Member of the House representing the constituency of Longford-Westmeath. I acknowledge the importance of his Criminal Justice (Commission of Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2017, which provided for a scheme or arrangement of presumptive minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders. I am pleased that the broad scope of the Minister of State's proposals have been incorporated in the Bill before us. They seek to address some of the most serious offences in our society and protect the most vulnerable citizens from serious harm. In acknowledging the contribution and leadership of the Minister of State, I also want to acknowledge the important role played by civil society and by many victims in the production of this legislation. I want to mention Ms Debbie Cole, who, I understand, is one of the Minister of State's constituents. Arising from her experience, the Minister of State was very keen for the subject matter of this legislation to be brought before the House. I am very pleased that both of us as Ministers are now appealing to the all Members to debate this proposal, to move matters into the appropriate committee and, ultimately, to enact the legislation at the earliest opportunity.
The role of legislators in sentencing is to set out the maximum sentence that can be imposed. It is then a matter for the courts to decide the appropriate sentence in any particular case taking into account all of the circumstances. Sentencing in individual cases is a matter for the Judiciary, whose members apply sentences according to principles and the facts of the case, guided by what is provided for in legislation. Lest there be any doubt, I want to stress that the courts are wholly independent in the exercise of this judicial function. The court is required to impose a sentence which is proportionate not only to the crime but also to the individual offender, in that process identifying where in the sentencing range the particular case should lie and then applying any mitigating factors which may be present or any representations which might be made on the conclusion of the trial.
There are very few instances in which mandatory or minimum sentences are specified in law. There is a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for murder. Minimum sentences are also in place for a number of serious offences such as crimes involving drugs or firearms. The use of minimum sentences is intended to reflect the impact of such crimes on society as a whole as well as individuals, often traumatised families and indeed communities. This Bill sets out presumptive minimum sentences for repeat sex offenders. These provisions will apply to those who have been convicted of a serious sexual offence and received a sentence of at least five years. If those offenders go on to commit a further offence within ten years, a presumptive minimum sentence will apply. It should be acknowledged that many convicted sex offenders are effectively managed through the Probation Service and the Garda Síochána on their release from prison and do not go on to commit further offences. However, it is clear that some do go on to reoffend and often offend again and again. By putting these provisions in place the Government is recognising the impact of sexual offences, both on individual victims and on society as a whole. It is ensuring that appropriate measures are available to the Judiciary at sentencing in order to ensure that these crimes can be dealt with both appropriately and effectively.
The Bill also proposes to equalise the penalties for incest by both male and female offenders.
Currently, the sentence for a male committing incest is life imprisonment. For a female, the maximum sentence is seven years. It is proposed to equalise these penalties by lowering the sentence for a male to ten years and increasing the sentence for a female to the same level. This matter was the subject of debate on a number of occasions and was contemplated by a number of reports that formed the basis for this legislation. It is an issue I am sure we will have an opportunity to consider in detail on Committee Stage.
As Deputies will recall, provisions on sentencing for incest were proposed for inclusion in the wide-ranging reforms of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill that went on to become the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. At the time, proposals were brought forward to raise the sentence for females convicted of incest to life, to match that in place for males. However, these provisions were removed on Report Stage to allow for further consideration and advice on the issue. The impetus to equalise the sentences for males and females is based on advice from the Attorney General that the gender disparity in sentencing has the potential to give rise to constitutional challenge. It is important, therefore, that this issue be dealt with through legislation in order to avoid any potential legal difficulties that may surround this offence.
While this provision will have the effect of lowering the potential sentence for a male convicted of incest, it still provides for a sentence befitting the seriousness of the offence. Sexual offences are among the most serious offences and the sentencing provisions in place reflect this, as is appropriate. In considering this provision, I note that Part 5 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 contains a number of other provisions regarding the penalty for incest that have been enacted. These provisions have not yet been commenced pending the equalisation of the penalty for incest in this legislation.
Turning to the Bill, I would like to draw the attention of the House to the main proposals contained therein. Sections 2 and 3 of the Bill equalise the maximum penalty for incest by a male and incest by a female at ten years imprisonment by way of amendment to the Punishment of Incest Act 1908. Under the 1908 Act, incest by a male carries a sentence of up to life imprisonment whereas incest by a female carries a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment. As I have noted, the Department of Justice and Equality has been advised by the Office of the Attorney General that the difference in penalty between a man and a woman could give rise to a constitutional challenge. The proposed legislation equalises the maximum penalties for the separate offences of incest by a male and incest by a female at a period of imprisonment of ten years.
Section 2 provides for an amendment to section 1 of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 regarding incest offences committed by males. It introduces an amendment to the maximum term of imprisonment from a life sentence to one not exceeding a period of ten years.
Section 3 provides for an amendment to section 2 of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908 relating to incest offences committed by females, and introduces an amendment to the maximum term of imprisonment to one not exceeding ten years. The section substitutes in its entirety section 2 of the Punishment of Incest Act 1908, which provides for punishment of incest by females of or above the age of 17. The new provision brings the provisions up to date and in line with section 1 of the 1908 Act and provides for a sentence of up to ten years imprisonment. At present, a female of or over 17 years convicted of an incest offence is liable to up to seven years imprisonment.
The provisions in sections 4 and 5 have been developed based on the proposals brought forward by Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, in the Criminal Justice (Commission of Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill. Section 4 provides for the insertion of a new section 58 into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The new section provides that where an offender is convicted of a sexual offence listed in Schedule 1 of the 2017 Act and sentenced to imprisonment for a period of at least five years, and is convicted of a further offence listed in Schedule 1 within ten years, the court shall, when imposing sentence for that offence, specify the minimum term of imprisonment to be served by the person. According to these provisions, the minimum period of imprisonment shall be three quarters of the maximum term of imprisonment prescribed by law in respect of such an offence and, where the maximum term is life imprisonment, the minimum shall be specified as a term of not less than ten years. However, the court will have discretion in the application of the sentence if it is satisfied that this would be disproportionate in all the circumstances of the case.
Section 5 inserts a schedule into the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017. The schedule lists the offences to which the provisions of the new section 58 of the 2017 Act will apply. All of the scheduled offences are offences of a serious nature where the maximum penalty on conviction on indictment is five years imprisonment or above.
The House will agree that any measure that seeks to strengthen legislation governing sexual offences is of the utmost importance, and I hope these issues are given due consideration by Members in order that we can proceed to enshrine them in our body of law in due course. I look forward to hearing and discussing these proposals with the Members. I thank once again the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran, for his collaboration on the proposals contained in the Bill. I acknowledge the important role played by a number of victims of crime, in particular Ms Debbie Cole. I look forward to a constructive and fruitful debate on the provisions of the Bill, and I hope Members will support these efforts to strengthen our legislation governing serious sexual offences. We do so with the objective of protecting all members of our society from serious harm.