Tuesday, 21 May 2019
Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill 2019: Second Stage [Private Members]
I join the Minister in thanking Deputies O'Callaghan and O'Loughlin for their work and other Members for their contributions. I express sincere condolences to those who have suffered the unimaginable tragedies about which we have spoken this evening and I commend the extraordinary courage and selflessness which people have shown in seeking to ensure their experiences are not endured by others. Domestic homicides must be taken in the broader context of our response to domestic violence, which must take into account concrete State actions and deep-rooted social and cultural change. The State's ratification of the Istanbul Convention was a milestone but significant reforms are continuing.
The Minister has gone through some of the legislation that has been enacted recently, such as the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 and the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act 2018, in which the new criminal offence of coercive control was introduced. I was very much involved in that legislation in the Seanad and in my role as Chair of the committee in the last Oireachtas, when we produced a major report on the whole area. We are the third country in the world to introduce the new criminal offence of coercive control, which is very important. Another significant piece of that Act was the fact that the relationship between the defendant and victim can be taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing for certain offences. That was new, was called for and is very important.
Legislation is only one element and implementing the second national strategy on domestic and gender-based violence is ongoing. The Department of Justice and Equality is providing €1.712 million in funding for services for victims of crime and Tusla will provide a further €25.3 million in 2019 for support services for victims of domestic and sexual violence. The budget increased by €200,000 in 2016, with a further increase in 2017 to €22.1 million, rising to €23.8 million in 2018. There has been an increase of €3.4 million, or 17%, in funding since 2015.
Housing is vital for victims of domestic violence and according to a report of the Council of Europe Ireland is one of only nine member states where the ratio of shelter beds relative to population is higher that 1:10,000, which is the recommended rate. Ireland has 1.29 shelter beds per 10,000 of population. While refuge places are very important, however, we should also question if they are the best answer. The Domestic Violence Bill will increase access to court protection for victims of domestic violence. Making orders easier to obtain should increase the number of women who can stay in their own home. Why should the woman have to be the person to leave the home? The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has issued guidance to local authorities on how to assess victims of domestic violence in need of housing.
This guidance has been brought to the attention of local authorities in order that they are familiar with it. It draws attention to improvements in housing legislation to assist the victims of domestic violence. Ultimately, the funding of places in refuges is a matter for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Tusla.
As the Minister for Justice and Equality outlined, the Department has commissioned a research study, led by Ms Norah Gibbons, to examine the provision of supports for families that are victims of familicide and the introduction of domestic homicide reviews. We need to have a stronger collective State response in supporting families that experience such traumatic ordeals. This study will examine in an in-depth and independent way how such supports can be provided across relevant State and other services in a more systematic and integrated way.
I note the views expressed by Deputies regarding the introduction of domestic homicide reviews in the UK. I have no disagreement in principle, but as the Minister outlined, a direct transposition of the UK model would not be workable without appropriate tailoring to the structures that are in place in Ireland. This is also the view of the NGOs and officials on the ground. It is necessary to define best practice in an Irish context in order that reviews here can be effective. The study will examine in a comprehensive and independent way the experience of reviews operating elsewhere. Based on its findings, it will be able to make recommendations on how we can effectively introduce such measures in Ireland.
Prior to the Minister's announcement of an expert study, he and his officials had been laying the groundwork for several months. This underlines the seriousness and care with which the Government is approaching this sensitive issue. It is just a week since the Minister announced the appointment of Ms Gibbons and published the terms of reference, and already offices have been secured on St. Stephen's Green and the fitting out with ICT and so on is almost complete. Arrangements to appoint a small expert support team to assist Ms Gibbons in her work are at an advanced stage. The Minister and I look forward to the support and engagement of Oireachtas Members. At the launch, the Minister and Ms Gibbons expressed the hope that affected families would engage with the study. We see their experiences and views as being central. I echo that call.
I draw attention to the fact that the first pillar of the study seeks recommendations on arranging enhanced information and supports for those affected by these crimes and the identification of potential warning signs and possible responses and actions, including the development of protocols to allow relevant information to be shared. I hope the study will also focus on the important issue of prevention. Is there information on warning signs that could be shared earlier? I know of a few instances where, if that had happened, a tragic event might have been avoided. Another consideration is the development of clear protocols by State agencies and other agencies and individuals for the sharing of information with immediate family members. These are sensitive but very important issues. The development of an emergency team protocol would bring together key officials as soon as possible after an incident to review information known at the time, identify agencies that might hold relevant files and, crucially, identify what supports were needed by families and communities and who was best placed to provide same.
It is important to ensure the perpetrators of homicide cannot benefit financially. This is an area where there is ongoing discussion between the Department and the Office of the Attorney General in the context of Deputy O'Callaghan's Civil Liability (Amendment) (Prevention of Benefits from Homicide) Bill 2017. The pre-legislative scrutiny process in March highlighted just how complex the relevant issues were and how easily unintended consequences could be introduced.
The fundamental goal of the Bill before us which is to improve our responses to domestic homicide is one that the Government supports and the amendment is proposed to facilitate the completion of the study. When it has been completed, we will inform the Government and the Oireachtas on our future approach to the Bill. I understand colleagues have already agreed to it.
This is an important and a sensitive area, one on which the Government has been working and for which it has been legislating, but much more needs to be done. Tonight's debate has been important, effective and timely, but the study is ongoing and we have agreed to postpone further work on the Bill for nine months until the study has been completed. The study team will take into account this legislation and give a view on it. The Minister and I are anxious for this legislation to proceed after getting the advice of the study group following its work.
I congratulate Deputy O'Callaghan on the Bill and look forward to the rest of the legislative process in time.