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Coherent code of law to protect children now necessary – Ó Snodaigh

6 March, 2007

Sinn Féin Justice Spokesperson Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD has called for a coherent code of law covering offences against children to be produced and said provision should also be made for mandatory protections for vulnerable child witnesses during all court proceedings. Speaking in the Dáil this evening on the emergency legislation to close the loophole in child protection law Deputy Ó Snodaigh said, "Last June I warned the government that crisis-led legislation ultimately risks creating more loopholes than it closes. This is the case today and it is inexcusable because there was no need for any of this to be crisis-led."

Full text of Deputy Ó Snodaigh's contribution to the debate follows:
Last June I warned the government that crisis-led legislation ultimately risks creating more loopholes than it closes. This is the case today and it is inexcusable because there was no need for any of this to be crisis-led. Dating back to 1990, when the Law Reform Commission first recommended that the law on statutory rape be changed, this government, and indeed successive governments including the FG-Labour coalition were aware of the possible clash with the 1937 Constitution but they all failed to act sensibly on this knowledge. Hence it was only in June 2006 following the release of a convicted child sex offender that action was taken to amend the legislation accordingly.

Sinn Féin facilitated the passage of the emergency Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 but in doing so we also called on the government to use the period immediately following its passage to review, debate and introduce proposals for a comprehensive and coherent code of law covering offences against children and one that is free from anomalies and loopholes. Speaking during that particular crisis last summer and with reference to his proposed emergency legislation Minister for Justice Michael McDowell was reported as saying "I am confident that when the dust settles, and the frenzy stops, I will be seen to have acted with good authority and with competence, honesty and courage". Well Minister the dust has now settled but the frenzy continues as your past incompetence leaves new loopholes clearly visible and further emergency legislation is required. A range of issues which should have been addressed by legislation subsequent to last summer's Act remain outstanding with no evidence that this government intends to address them at all - I shall return to these momentarily.

First I will make a few points on the limited content of the Bill before us today. According to its explanatory memorandum the purpose of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Bill 2007 is to add the offence of soliciting or importuning a child or mentally impaired person for the purpose of committing a sexual offence to the new offences created by last summers emergency legislation. It also broadens the definition of 'sexual exploitation" to include the term "inviting" and to include "inviting, inducing or coercing a child to participate or observe any activity of a sexual or indecent nature". The Bill also introduces an offence of grooming. These developments in principle are welcome and Sinn Féin will again facilitate the passage of this piece of legislation. However it is up to the government to ensure that in their technical outworking it will not create further loopholes or anomalies and to ensure that it is constitutionally sound.

Ultimately the ad hoc nature of developments in this area is unacceptable and is not in the interests of children. The scale, extent and impact of child sexual abuse has been uncovered by recent reports and cases after many years of denial and the issue being kept in the dark. Child sexual abuse often has devastating and life-long consequences for victims. As with other crimes of sexual violence under-reporting is a reality, few cases reach the courts and of those fewer again result in convictions and appropriate sentences. The needs of victims in terms of health and counselling often go unmet sometimes for resource reasons other times for legal reasons e.g. requirements for parental consent. Traumatic court proceedings can re-victimise children who have already suffered the worst forms of abuse. Reporting procedures involving the Gardaí and HSE do not guarantee a uniform response and Garda vetting of applicants seeking to work or volunteer with children is not being adequately resourced. It is not enough to create one or two additional offences rather all of these matters must be urgently addressed. Some will require under-pinning legislation. On behalf of Sinn Féin I am calling on the government to introduce legislation to place the Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children on a statutory footing and to ensure their full resourcing and implementation. I am also calling on the government to introduce protections for vulnerable children in court proceedings including the appointment of court commissioners to take evidence thereby preventing the cross-examination of vulnerable children by aggressive Counsel, as currently provided for in Scotland. All of these outstanding issues and many more must be addressed if children are to be protected.

Section 5 of last Junes Act discriminates on a gender basis and criminalises young boys in particular. This remains untenable. Teenage fathers and fathers to be who have not engaged in any abuse of power or sexual exploitation should not face criminal prosecutions. The DPP should be statutorily bound, or Constitutionally bound if necessary, to consider the child's best interests as paramount in the exercise of their prosecutorial discretion. The government should introduce provisions accordingly.

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