Wednesday, 30th January 2013
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. On Second Stage I expressed my full support for the Bill and the amendments I have tabled are to strengthen it further. The Bill brings Ireland in line with the rest of its EU partners and the vast majority of the Council of Europe states. It is a mark of a fair, just and compassionate society to have arrangements in law that allow for individuals to put their offending past behind them and move forward with a clean slate. It is in everybody’s interest to facilitate and encourage the rehabilitation and reintegration of former offenders into society. My only concern, which my amendments are intended to remedy, is that the Bill, even with the Government amendments, which I take it will be supported and all of which I welcome, is still too restrictive and too conservative to fulfil its purpose.
I will begin by noting that I have no difficulty in supporting a further increase in the maximum limit of sentence to which the spent conviction regime will apply. The “30 months” amendment being put forward by my Sinn Féin colleagues has merit. A review in 2011 of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 by the Ministry of Justice in the United Kingdom judged the limit of 30 month sentences to be too restrictive.
In response the UK Government, through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has reformed the relevant sections of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act by setting the limit at 48 months. This is four times the limit proposed in the Bill.
The UK has a 40 year head start on us with regard to spent convictions legislation. This is not something it has come up with because of five years’ experience. After 40 years it has increased the limited to 48 months. During this time the Ministry of Justice in the UK strived to strike the appropriate balance between public safety and reducing barriers to integration for those who have moved on from offending behaviour. We have an opportunity to capitalise on the learning in the UK with the legislation before us.
I support my colleagues in Sinn Féin, whose amendment proposes to extend the limit to 30 months and this keeps with the minimum extension sought by the Irish Penal Reform Trust. I would have preferred to propose 48 months but I thought I would try to strike a middle ground, which is why the amendment proposes two years as a compromise between the 12 months in the Bill which is extremely restricted and prohibitive and the 48 months which has grown out of trust after 40 years of legislation in the UK. I believe two years strikes a good balance as we start out on this journey of recognising spent convictions.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is good that we are all broadly in strong support of the Bill, although we are trying to make it that little bit better. It is good to have such a constructive atmosphere for this debate. There was only one comment with which I did not agree – it referred to recidivism rates in Ireland. In 2008, a report by UCD’s Institute of Criminology, which examined reoffending after more than four years, found that Ireland was in the mid to lower rates of recidivism compared to similar countries internationally.
While I still believe we are being too cautious, I will reflect on what was said. Although I will not move the amendments I have tabled under this grouping today, I reserve the right to bring them back on Report Stage.
We agree on this issue. The fact the new spent conviction arrangements would not apply to multiple convictions arising from a single offence or incident was raised on Second Stage. Today’s amendments Nos. 22 and 23 seek to address that. I felt there was a danger that combining convictions of this nature could have had the effect of combining two minor sentences into a more serious sentence, thus taking all of the convictions out of the remit of the Bill. I do not believe that is what the Minister intended and my amendment was submitted to avoid that unintentional pitfall.
I am glad to see the Government itself recognises the need for clarity around the single incident, multiple conviction scenario. I am happy to support the Government amendment but, with respect, I would like the Government to look at the wording in my amendment because, in this case, it is particularly good wording. The Minister might say I would say that but I have taken advice today on it, although I am happy to support the Government amendment.
I thank the Minister of State for her reply. Obviously, the overall rationale for my amendment is that the original rehabilitative periods put forward in this Bill of five to seven years for relevant custodial sentences and three to five years for relevant non-custodial sentences were too long. The Government’s own amendment, which reduces these periods to four to five years and two to four years, respectively, is very welcome but in my opinion is too conservative. Nevertheless, I welcome these changes and am supportive of them.
I wish to draw the Minister of State’s attention, once again, to the explanatory memorandum that accompanied the publication of the Bill which sets out the main purpose of the Bill as being “to assist the rehabilitation of offenders, who often experience difficulties securing employment as a result of having a conviction”. In order to achieve this objective, the Bill must be as generous as possible. To be generous does not mean being soft on crime in any way, although some members of the Government may believe that a less restrictive and less conservative law might be seen thus. It would show foresight and an appreciation of the long-term societal benefits of encouraging the rehabilitation and the reintegration of ex-offenders into society. A less restrictive spent convictions regime, negating as far as possible against the negative, far-reaching and often discriminatory consequences for ex-offenders and their families would also reflect the qualities, in Irish society, of compassion and forgiveness.
I am very aware of research conducted by the UK Home Office into re-conviction rates which suggests that if an individual has not re-offended in the first two years post-conviction, he or she is at equal risk of future risk of future offending as an individual with no previous conviction. That finding is in keeping with the fact that in the UK legislation, the conviction-free or rehabilitative period at the lowest end of the offending scale is actually two years. Obviously, when I put forward my amendment I was hoping that my original amendments would be accepted, which they were not. I will now reflect on this and return to it on Report Stage, if necessary.