Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Ceisteanna (1)

Fiona O'Loughlin

Ceist:

1. Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin asked the Minister for Justice and Equality the reason for the delay in introducing legislation to criminalise hate crime; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [48026/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (16 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

The question is in the name of Deputy O'Loughlin but will be taken in her absence by Deputy O'Callaghan.

I wish to record my disappointment and surprise that two of my questions have been ruled out of order. The questions relate to the number of Garda vehicles and the staffing level of the Garda drugs unit. Obviously, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is not responsible for ruling questions out of order. The question I wish to raise with the Minister-----

I do not wish to cut across the Deputy. On the same issue, three of my questions have been ruled out of order. They relate to Operation Freeflow, the budget lines for the new Garda operational divisions and the number of community gardaí. I have been told these are operational matters for the Garda, but they are also issues of Government policy and matters about which the Government speaks very strongly. I am frustrated that these priority questions have been ruled out of order.

I cannot relieve the Deputies' frustration. Under the Garda Síochána Act, resources and operational matters are for the Garda Commissioner.

The questions also relate to policy matters.

I do not have details of the questions which were ruled out of order. Of course, I accept the rulings. I am happy to accept any question on matters for which I have responsibility. Deputy Sherlock referred to policy issues, and I accept responsibility for such issues. I am happy to consider the questions which were ruled out of order but this is not the appropriate time to so do.

Under the Garda Síochána Act, the Commissioner has responsibility for operational matters. The Minister has confirmed he is prepared to look at any policy issues that arise.

I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for allowing me to interject.

I do not wish to get into a debate with the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, but the Garda Síochána Act also provides in section 26(3) that the Commissioner is accountable to the Minister. The Minister has expressed his desire to be politically responsible for the Garda. That should be taken into account.

We will consider the matter further.

Question No. 1 relates to hate crime legislation and is particularly relevant in light of certain recent utterances in the political domain. When will the Department of Justice and Equality bring forward an update to the hate crime legislation?

I wish to recognise the interest and work of Deputies O'Loughlin and O'Callaghan in this important area, including Deputy O'Loughlin's co-sponsorship of a Private Members' Bill. It is important to clearly reflect that our law provides for prosecution of relevant crimes. Under current law, hate crimes are prosecuted under general criminal law rather than through a specific hate crime offence. Where a perpetrator is found guilty of a crime such as, for example, assault or criminal damage, a sentencing judge may consider a hate motive to be an aggravating factor that would increase the sentence.

I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, who is present, in this area. In order to ensure that any new legislation in this field is as robust and effective as possible, the Minister of State and I, along with our Department, are finalising research on the effectiveness of legislative approaches in other jurisdictions to tackling hate crime. This research will allow us to learn from experience elsewhere and identify the approach that will work best in Ireland. When the work concludes in the coming weeks, I plan to incorporate the learning from the research and bring forward proposals for new hate crime legislation in the new year. These proposals will be published for discussion and an opportunity will be given to experts, communities and the public to share their views.

As the Deputy is aware, the Minister of State and I, through our Department, have been running a public consultation since October on the separate but related issue of incitement to hatred. The consultation will remain open until 13 December to gather the views of all stakeholders on how our laws should deal with those who actively seek to promote and encourage hatred and prejudice against vulnerable groups.

The Minister noted that there are two legislative areas of relevance in terms of hate crime, namely, crime being aggravated by the targeting of a specific group, and the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989. The latter legislation is inadequate although its provisions are still relevant. We need to remind all people, particularly those in the political domain, that it is a criminal offence to publish written material that is threatening, abusive or insulting and is intended or likely to stir up hatred against groups because of their race, colour, religion or national origin. That should be brought to the attention of certain figures in the Minister's party, given their recent utterances.

I refer to the legislation which provides for hate crime to be taken account of as an aggravating factor. It is important to point out that there have been many promises to review hate crime legislation or put new legislation on to the Statute Book. As far back as 2000, the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, former Deputy John O'Donoghue, stated his Department was reviewing the effectiveness of laws on incitement to hatred. A review was carried out by the University of Limerick in 2008. In reply to a parliamentary question tabled in 2016, the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, stated there would be a review of the 1989 Act. It is important that we take that into account and get an answer from the Minister on when this legislation will be brought forward. A public consultation has recently been announced. When are we likely to have a proposal from the Department?

On the Deputy's remark regarding unacceptable commentary in the course of the by-elections which are under way, I wish to categorically dissociate myself from comments made by Ms Verona Murphy, a Fine Gael candidate in Wexford. I am sure Deputy O'Callaghan will do likewise in respect of the remarks of a candidate standing for Fianna Fáil in another part of the country. It is incumbent on all Members to ensure that unacceptable commentary is treated as such. In that regard, I note certain apologies given by the candidates involved.

I agree that there is an importance and a certain urgency to reforming the law in this area. My Department is leading several cross-Government initiatives to tackle racism. As the House will be aware, the migrant integration strategy published in 2017 sets out the Government's commitment to the promotion of migrant integration and provides a framework for a wide range of actions to support migrants to participate fully in Irish life. It includes actions to promote intercultural awareness and combat racism and xenophobia, including a review of legislation relating to racially motivated crime and hate speech.

I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in this area. Both of us are aware of the urgency involved here and intend to act accordingly.

I am not aware of any utterances by any Fianna Fáil candidate, as a candidate, in terms of making statements that could offend or incite hatred. We have a broader problem in this country and throughout Europe in respect of incitement to hatred of individuals. If one looks at the UK, one can see that there has been a significant rise in hate crimes recorded in England and Wales. In 2018-2019, 103,000 such offences were recorded in England and Wales, while in 2012-2013, the number was only 42,000. There is a reason that these offences are increasing. It is partly due to populism and partly due to social media. Some of it is also due to intolerance. Obviously, there has been greater immigration into countries in recent years. This appears to have been used inexplicably as justification for it as well so we need to challenge these utterances and to be very severe about it. Hate crimes are not just an attack on the victims and social groups, but an attack on society. It will damage community relations in this country if we are prepared to tolerate certain groups being targeted because of their status.

I agree fully with and welcome the Deputy's comments in this regard and I trust that they are reflective of the views of all elected Members of this House but what are we going to do about it? In respect of the justice sector, in addition to the steps taken by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, I acknowledge the importance of the process of establishing a new anti-racism committee that will include representatives of the public and both the private and voluntary sectors. This committee will have a mandate to examine what needs to be done by public sector bodies as well as the wider community to challenge racism and racist commentary head on in this country. An Garda Síochána has also taken a number of important steps recently that are consistent with the migrant integration strategy. A diversity and integrity strategy has been adopted, including a working definition of hate crime, to assist An Garda Síochána in delivering a victim-centred service and ensure that it responds consistently and in a robust manner to reports of hate crime. I am confident that the approach being taken, including research and providing the opportunity for experts and members of the public to provide their views through the consultation process, will help ensure that the legislation we are bringing forward will deliver a safer, fairer and more inclusive Ireland for everybody.