Like other Deputies, I welcome the changes relating to sexual offences. Plenty of time is spent in this Chamber discussing the issues of violence against women, assault and sexual violence and the fact that this is a cross-society issue, but the justice system needs to play a part in that. Regarding the journey of a sexual offence from the point at which it happens to the point at which somebody is convicted, the number of times victims do not come forward, the number of times they come forward but the case does not progress to trial or the number of times it progresses to trial but the trial collapses have been very well documented.
There is a huge swathe of victims whose perpetrators have never been brought to justice, so the justice system absolutely needs to play its part. This legislation dealing with sexual offences helps us achieve that and helps us move closer towards it. We need to do better on vulnerable witnesses. This was something that came through loud and clear in the pre-legislative scrutiny and in the report from the Joint Committee on Justice. We are not doing enough to protect the vulnerable witnesses with regard to sexual offences and until we do that, they are very unlikely to come forward, the system is very unlikely to change and perpetrators will still get away with it. The justice system needs to ensure it is playing its part.
I am have been on my feet numerous times in this House to speak on human trafficking and the national referral mechanism and on how, as it exists at the minute, it simply is not good enough. In many ways, given the amount of time we spent on tier 2 watchlist in the Trafficking in Persons, TIP, report, we are probably very lucky we have not fallen down to tier 3. Indeed, as I brought a Bill of my own on reforming the national referral mechanism some time ago, this is welcome. The Bill as it stands before us is not without its difficulties and challenges. I echo the comments of Deputy Pringle before me that we need a bespoke system for children. Children are holders of rights in their own right. We have enshrined that in our Constitution. We have signed up to the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child so they are individual rights holders and that needs to be recognised and vindicated. Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, who has recently been appointed as Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, was before the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, where she highlighted as a significant child protection issue, the failure in terms of identification and support for child victims of trafficking. I have encouraged her to link in with the Department and with the Minister to address this very issue because this is a huge glaring weakness in this legislation.
Another thing is that we need to recognise that victims of trafficking need support before, during, and after the process of coming forward and being recognised as victims of trafficking. The legislation as it is provides that supports “may” be provided instead of using the terministic legal language of “shall be provided”. Again, drawing a parallel with child protection, when it comes to aftercare provision, we see the State “may”, not “shall”, provide aftercare support and in many cases, aftercare support for children in care has been identified as being lacking and not up to scratch. The campaigners in that area have campaigned for a change in the law so that the legislation says the State “shall” provide supports. Similarly here, instead of sticking with the looser language of “may”, we need a stronger black letter law to set out we “shall” provide the supports because we need to provide the supports. We need to provide supports for people coming forward so that they come forward. It is only when people come forward that we can start arresting, trying, and convicting the perpetrators of human trafficking. Thus far, we have barely scratched the surface of human trafficking in this country; both in terms of recognising victims and in arresting and convicting perpetrators. Anything that encourages people to come forward is essential. Anything that blocks them coming forward needs to be looked at. The issue of immigration status is something that is going to block people coming forward. It has been campaigned for that victims of trafficking, who are recognised as such, should have an immigration status that allows them to stay in this country. This is something that is essential to ensure they come forward and they seek out his help and service. Again, we need them to come forward so that we can actually start unravelling the networks of trafficking and hunting down and fining its perpetrators. While the changes are welcome, we need a bespoke system for children. This is essential to vindicate the rights of children and children’s rights experts have said this. We need to do more to support victims; we should be providing services by tightening the law to say we shall and not may provide supports; and the immigration status needs to be addressed or we will not doing victims justice. They will not come forward and we will never catch the perpetrators.