Offenderbill to protect children online

The grooming of children or minors for sex abuse or exploitation including arranging online to meet them will be a criminal offence under draft laws to be published today.

A wide set of measures aimed at strengthening and modernising laws to protect children or vulnerable people from abuse will also, for the first time, allow for the electronic tagging of sex offenders or paedophiles after their release from prison.

Other crimes including indecent exposure, stalking and harassment will be clamped down on with strengthened laws in the Sexual Offences Bill 2014.

A draft version of the bill — which contains 62 new measures and is described as “extensive” — was agreed by cabinet on Tuesday and will be published by Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, today. It will transpose many elements of an EU directive on the issue which recommended the criminalisation of online or off-line “grooming”.

It told member states they should introduce a term of imprisonment for forms of sexual exploitation including “the online solicitation of children for sexual purposes via social networking websites and chat rooms”.

Up until now, any act of abuse that takes place as a result of grooming is punishable by law, but the process of manipulating a child to carry out the act is not a crime. The Oireachtas Justice Committee has also recommended a change to this anomaly, and a Government source said last night the new laws will have a “major focus on the offence of grooming”.

It’s understood that proposing via the internet to meet a child for the purpose of sex abuse or asking a child through online forums to provide pornographic images of themselves will be criminalised.

The EU directive has said that the investigations of sex crimes “must not solely depend on a report or accusation being made by the victim” and that criminal proceedings “must be able to continue even if that person has withdrawn their statement”.

The new laws will also allow for the electronic tagging of high-risk sex offenders who are subject to post-release supervision.

The tagging order will only be given at the time the sex-offender is sentenced, meaning a decision to do so cannot be made while they are still in prison or after they are released.

Tagging will only happen in “limited circumstances” where they are deemed to be a “high-risk offender”.

The tagging of offenders was first proposed by then justice minister, Michael McDowell, 10 years ago at a speech to the Prison Officers’ Association.

The Irish Examiner reported in August that the Prison Service issued a tender for the provision of 50 electronic monitoring devices — up from 10.

So far, the tags are mainly used to save on supervision costs for inmates who need to go to hospital for treatment or surgery. However, it has been expected for some time that their use may be extended as part of a system to remove certain offenders from jail.

The system involves a private company attaching the tag to an inmate before they leave prison, typically to go to hospital, and monitoring any movement. If the tag is tampered with in any way, it sends a signal to the company which can respond.


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