T1. Ms Ní Chuilín asked the Minister of Justice whether she believes that the laws that cover drink spiking are adequate and, if not, to encourage a review of those laws, given that several Members have raised concerns about the increasing number of incidents of drink spiking, with recent reports of a young woman needing to be hospitalised in Derry. (AQT 1731/17-22)
I thank the Member for her question. I have been extremely concerned by the recent reports of drink spiking and drug injecting, both locally, in the Foyle area in particular, and nationally. It is an extremely serious issue, with very damaging consequences for the individual. I want to reassure not just Members but the public that there are laws in place to deal with that type of behaviour in Northern Ireland. The Sexual Offences (Northern Ireland) Order 2008 makes it an offence to cause a person to engage in any type of sexual activity without consent. Where it is proven that drugs or alcohol were administered, there is an evidential presumption that the person did not consent. Depending on the circumstances of the case and the nature of the sexual assault, offenders can be liable to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. There are also a number of offences under the Offences against the Person Act 1861 that could apply where drinks were spiked or drugs injected where the intention was not sexual assault but to cause harm in some other way.
I urge those affected to come forward at the earliest opportunity so that the matter can be properly investigated. The drugs that are often used in drink spiking metabolise very quickly in people's systems. If people feel themselves becoming dizzy, disorientated and woozy when they have not had much to drink, or if their reaction is out of proportion to their usual reaction to alcohol, it is important that they secure their glass, with whatever liquid is left in it, and report what has happened immediately to the bar and the PSNI. That is the best way in which to ensure, first, that people get the hospital treatment that they need to ensure that they are safe, given that those drugs can have long-term side effects, and, secondly, that the evidential chain is maintained in order to test for the drugs in their system and, indeed, in what they have been drinking.
I thank the Minister for her response. She outlined some of the physical and, indeed, psychological impacts that drink spiking can have. Again, it is carried out with the overwhelming intention in mind of sexual assault or rape, the majority of which offences are committed against women and girls.
Will the Minister agree that the issue could be examined as part of the strategy to prevent violence against women and girls? I am sure that she will also agree that it is terrible that, in the 21st century, we are having to educate, overwhelmingly, women and girls on how to protect themselves. The penalties for those offences should be the deterrent rather than the focus being on trying to teach women and girls how to be safe when they go out for a drink, a walk or something else. It is ridiculous.
I completely agree with what the Member has said and with her sentiments. We will listen very carefully to victims, as well as to the police and other partners in the justice system. If there is a need for us to review the law if it is deemed to be inadequate in any shape or form in dealing with emerging patterns of behaviour, of course we are open to doing that, as we would always be.
The Member is right to say that it is not fair for society to transfer the responsibility for the safety of women and girls to women and girls. Women and girls are not raped because of women and girls. They are not raped because they have been drinking. They are not raped because of what they wear. They are raped because of rapists, so we need to tackle those who are the perpetrators of those crimes and not transfer responsibility for that kind of behaviour to the victims of those crimes. It is so important that women and girls, and everyone in our community, be alert to the risk but also that they be free to socialise without constantly having to be aware of predatory individuals who may take advantage of them.
I encourage people who are socialising in groups of friends in bars or wherever they go to watch out for the people around them, not just themselves. Watch out for people interfering with other people's drinks. Watch out for suspicious behaviour, and, more than just watching, do something about it. Report it, because you could be the difference between somebody being assaulted and not being assaulted. In a number of recent cases, the reason why those young women were not assaulted was that their friends got them to hospital, got them help as quickly as possible and protected them.