Friday, 21 November 2014
Domestic Violence (Amendment) Bill 2014: Second Stage [Private Members]
I move: "That the Bill be read a Second Time."
Molaim an Bille seo. Tá an-tábhachtacht ag baint leis do mhná na tíre. I am happy to speak on this Bill and to propose it to the House. A simple Bill, it seeks to address something that is lacking in the legislation. It is not perfect, as no legislation is at this Stage, but it is worthwhile and does something to help. In this important week, it highlights the issue of domestic violence, which has claimed far too many lives over the decades. The Bill will not solve domestic violence or fix the major problems we have with addressing it, but it fixes something that needs to be fixed. The Bill deals with an anomaly in the law. Many victims of domestic violence are joint owners of properties with their abusers, be it the family home or another property. This means that the victim of the abuse and the abuser are named on the mortgage deeds. The victim is seen as part owner of a property, creating problems for some victims seeking to escape the abuse.
Under the Domestic Violence Act 1996, the victim of domestic abuse can apply for a safety, barring or protection order by either using the address of the family home or house in which the victim resides or from sheltered accommodation or some other temporary accommodation. In allowing the victim to apply from an address other than the address of the home where the domestic violence occurred, the law recognises that victims of domestic violence often do not stay in the home after applying for an order. This makes perfect sense, as the victim who has managed to seek support would be in greater danger if she or he were to remain in the home shared with the abuser. However, the treatment of victims by the State as regards their housing needs is inconsistent with that commonsensical recognition.
If victims in the situation I have outlined are in need of social housing, as many would be, they are prohibited from being considered by the local authority. The fact that the victim is part owner of a property with the abuser is considered to mean the victim does not have a housing need. This requirement makes sense for most other situations. In the case of a victim fleeing an abusive home, though, it disregards the special circumstances and the danger the victim faces in that home. Considering a person who co-owns a property in which her or his abuser resides to have her or his housing needs met by that property turns the concept of housing need on its head. A home is not a roof or four walls. It is a place where one can be safe. The law may as well consider having a better than average place to squat as being housed appropriately.
The Bill seeks to change this situation so that a victim who applies for an order shall not, by virtue of the victim's part ownership of the residence in which the applicant resides or previously resided with the respondent, be prohibited from consideration for social housing by a local authority. The Bill does not dictate that a victim must automatically get a social house. Rather, it states that a victim shall not be discriminated against based on her or his part ownership of the property where the domestic violence occurred. The Bill acts as a waiver of sorts, whereby local authorities in assessing a person's need to be considered for social housing cannot take the part ownership in another property into account where the person is a victim of domestic violence and has applied for a court order.
Yesterday, I stood with party colleagues and other Members of the Oireachtas at the Leinster House gates for a minute's silence in memory of the women and children who had died at the hands of the women's partners or ex-partners since 1996. A poignant event, it came on the International Day Opposing Violence against Women. A shocking 78 women and ten children have been murdered in those 18 years. The event was organised by Women's Aid, which laid out shoes along a blank sheet to mark a timeline of those needless and tragic deaths, flats, heels and sandals standing in silent memoriam of those stolen lives.
More than half of all solved murders of women are carried out by current or former partners. These lives, as the vigil so movingly stated, are stolen lives. They are stolen from their families, friends and communities, snuffed out by abusers who should have been stopped. A life was stolen too often because leaving was never an option.
One in five women experiences domestic violence in her lifetime. This ranges from physical, emotional, sexual and financial abuse to threats to kill, controlling behaviour, stalking and harassment. By their very nature, these are mostly crimes that occur behind closed doors, when the curtains are drawn, when the world around stops looking. However, it also happens right out in the open. We must strive to improve public awareness of the risk factors of domestic violence and encourage people to make their homes, communities and circles of friends places where this kind of abuse will never be accepted.
Unfortunately, we have a culture that subtly teaches young men everyday to do many of the things that can lead to domestic violence. This trend in our society is called the rape culture. Its name is shocking and some dismiss the idea as over the top, but the symptoms are undeniable and its effects, illustrated by those 78 empty pairs of women's shoes, are too horrific to ignore.
Rape culture is the tendency in modern culture to dehumanise, devalue and commodify women. This culture has always existed, but it has become much more obvious in the modern era with the partial successes of the early feminist movements and the 24-hour consumer capitalist culture that has sprung up alongside the Internet. While technology is not to blame, it is often the medium through which this culture finds its most vile expression. This culture is created by a tendency that normalises the idea that women's bodies are not wholly their own. It encourages the blaming of rape victims instead of rapists. It jokes about men who beat their partners. It belittles, demonises and threatens all those who challenge it. This is the culture in which our young men are growing up. Regardless of whether they are propagators of this culture or simply bystanders, they are affected by it. This is not good news for those of us who seek to end domestic violence.
I would like to speak about the emergence of street harassment. Many men will not know what this is, even though they might engage in it or laugh off harassment by a friend. Women in Dublin, in particular, are often plagued on the street. This harassment ranges from behaviour that seems innocuous in isolation to full-blown graphic sexual commentary and physical violation by strange men on the street. If one searches "#everydaysexism", one will find the most depressing barrage of experiences being shared, mostly by young women who have been sexually harassed as they go to work, socialise or spend time with their children. Some of the people sharing these stories are teenagers who are not old enough to drink, but are being sexually harassed on the street on a daily basis. A Dublin group has been set up to tell the story of street harassment in the city, a story that makes for scary reading. This has nothing to do with what a woman wears, or how she behaves or looks. She is seen as prey simply because she is a woman. Women are extremely vulnerable in a society that treats them in this way. Harassment is just the beginning. It is a major risk factor. What will a person who believes he is entitled to do what he wants to women on the street do to a woman behind closed doors?
The State has a hand in teaching young men that violence against women is in some way acceptable, or at least forgivable. It seems that every week, a woman who has been the victim of a sexual assault has to watch her abuser go free because a judge feels sympathetic to the criminal. When judges hand down fines for the most damaging and reprehensible crimes a person can commit, it is a slap in the face to the brave people who seek to have their attackers prosecuted. It tells women and girls who are victims of sexual violence not to bother pursuing the crime because the State will not punish your attackers and they will be put through the mill anyway. The truth is that 78 is the absolute minimum number of women who can be said to have been murdered by their partners or ex-partners. These are just the cases which have been solved.
In 2013, Women’s Aid received 19,694 calls disclosing abuse to its direct services and 17,254 calls to its freefone line. Those figures relate to the people who could call. As with many of our worst social issues, there are many people whose voices are not heard. We have introduced this Bill to try to make it easier for people to flee this kind of abuse. It is crucial for us to promote opposition to this kind of behaviour. It is essential that we encourage society to challenge the risk factors that lead to domestic violence. People who seek to leave and get out must be able to do so. They should be supported, validated and protected. We are seeking to do something to that end in this Bill. That we are discussing this issue in this particular week is important in the context of all these aims. The funding of support groups like Women's Aid, SAFE Ireland and women's refuges across the State has been cut directly or through local authorities. These organisations have a massive task. According to research undertaken by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2012, Ireland has the highest rate of all European countries of failing to meet women’s needs when they seek assistance after the most serious incidents of violence by their partners. The figures have hardly improved over the last two years of cuts. These organisations do fantastic work to highlight domestic violence, sexual abuse and abuse within relationships.
Women's Aid recently launched a national public awareness campaign, Not Happily Ever After, to highlight the crime of sexual violence within relationships. In another report, it has set out its vision of how our society should tackle domestic violence. A major plank of that report calls for women and children fleeing domestic abuse to be given legal protection 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Women's Aid has asked the Government to sign up to the Istanbul Convention, which sets out a comprehensive legal framework and approach to tackle domestic violence, particularly against women. The convention focuses on preventing domestic violence, protecting victims and prosecuting offenders. It categorises violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination. It requires states to make it an offence to engage in psychological violence, stalking, physical violence, sexual violence and other abusive acts. The Government should seek to ratify this convention as soon as possible. This Bill will not stop domestic violence. It will not solve the myriad of problems causing domestic violence, but it will make a small improvement in our law. If this legislation is accepted, we will show that we are on the side of victims and we will make it clear that domestic violence is not something to be tolerated, accepted or forgiven. I ask Deputies to support this Bill.
This Bill proposes to amend the Domestic Violence Act 1996, which is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice and Equality. I am contributing to the debate on behalf of the Government because the change the Bill seeks to make relates to social housing entitlements that are set out in housing legislation. The Government opposes the Bill because, as well as targeting the wrong legislation, it does not take account of a recent change in the law relating to the provision of social housing support for separated households, including victims of domestic violence. Contrary to the impression given in the Bill, a household that has left the family home because of marital breakdown or domestic violence and is otherwise qualified for social housing support can access certain forms of social housing support until the future ownership of the family home is determined in a formal separation agreement or divorce settlement.
I recognise the good intentions that underpin the thrust of the Bill, the aim of which is to assist the victims of domestic violence. We will all agree that such violence is a scourge that causes great pain and distress in families. I welcome this opportunity to outline the arrangements that are in place to address the housing needs of victims of domestic violence. This issue continues to be a blight on our society. It causes untold misery for significant numbers of families. Everyone in this House will agree that violence against women is totally unacceptable at any level in society. Indeed, we all have an obligation to support women and men who are victims of all forms of violence, including rape, inside or outside the home. We should express that support not only in our words and what we say, but also in our actions. I refer to how we respond to victims when they cry for help.
Victims of domestic violence who cannot remain in the family home and do not have access to alternative accommodation, or the means to provide such accommodation from their own resources, generally present at local women's refuges. These refuges offer extensive services to victims of domestic violence, including support in securing barring orders and protection orders to allow the victims to return to the family home.
Victims of domestic violence who seek emergency accommodation from a housing authority are generally placed in temporary accommodation which the council arranges or is operated by a voluntary service provider.
Where victims of domestic violence are unable to return to the family home in the medium term and need continued State support to meet their housing needs, housing authorities are encouraged to work with all service providers to ensure a social housing assessment is conducted in a timely manner and that victims do not end up residing in emergency accommodation for long periods of time. The assessment involves a range of considerations, including whether the means of the victim and any dependant come within the income limits for the area concerned, a review of the suitability of the household's current accommodation and whether alternative accommodation is available to the household that would meet its housing needs. In this connection, section 20 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009 reflects the general principle that the State should not be expected to provide long-term subsidised housing for households that own alternative accommodation that could meet their housing needs. There are, of course, exceptions to the general rule and the social housing assessment regulations made in 2011 under section 20 of the 2009 Act set down a series of situations where the alternative accommodation condition does not apply. One is a case where the alternative accommodation is occupied by a former partner or spouse, from whom a household member is formally separated or divorced. The rationale for this exception is that the terms of a formal separation or divorce will provide for the future ownership and occupation of the family home and it will be clear whether the separated household can return to live in the family home or needs social housing support in the longer term.
These enactments deal adequately with most cases, but we acknowledge situations arose that were not easily dealt with under the 2009 Act and regulations. It can take some time for households to regularise their affairs in the aftermath of a difficult separation or domestic violence issue, but they need to move from emergency to more secure accommodation in the meantime. In recognition of this, the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 amended section 20 of the 2009 Act in the case of households qualified for social housing support, except for owning the family home which they have left because of marriage breakdown or domestic violence. The amendment enables councils to support such households under the rental accommodation scheme or the new housing assistance payments scheme until the issue of ownership of the family home is resolved in a formal separation or divorce settlement. Thus, households will be able to move to more suitable accommodation and have time to sort out their affairs. I inform the Deputy and the House that this new arrangement has been in operation since mid-September this year.
Under the 2014 Act amendment, the provision of support in the circumstances I have outlined will be reviewed by the housing authority at prescribed intervals. The household will not be able to transfer to other forms of social housing support while ownership of the family home remains to be determined, but, where the household ultimately qualifies for the full range of supports, the length of time for which the household was supported under the new arrangement will be reckonable for the purposes of determining its relative priority for a transfer.
Access to social housing for victims of domestic violence is the sole issue addressed in this Private Members' Bill. However, housing is only one element of the State's response to the difficult issue of domestic violence and the Deputy has mentioned many issues in this respect. The Government's overall approach to domestic violence is set out in the national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based biolence 2010-14. Cosc, the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, works to ensure the delivery of a co-ordinated response across government to issues of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I understand the national strategy is under review and that consultation is taking place on a new strategy which is expected to be in place in 2015 and will reflect the up-to-date position on accessing social housing support. Action 10 of the 2010 national strategy identified the need for policy guidance for local authorities to ensure effectiveness and consistency in housing responses to issues of domestic violence. Specifically, it sought to develop policy guidance for local authorities on their housing remit in regard to domestic violence, setting out a clear understanding of domestic violence and the importance of housing as a homelessness preventive and responsive action. My Department is overseeing the development of this guidance in consultation with housing authorities, Tusla, the Housing Agency, the Department of Social Protection and Cosc. The guidance will clarify the housing arrangements for victims of domestic violence, including the recent change to housing legislation that I outlined, as well as bringing clarity to other aspects of housing policy pertaining to domestic violence. I expect the guidelines to be published before the end of the year.
As regards the Domestic Violence Act 1996, the programme for Government commits my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, to introducing consolidated and reformed legislation which will address all aspects of domestic violence, threatened violence and intimidation in a manner that provides protection for victims. I understand the Minister expects to be able to publish draft heads of a Bill early in the new year for scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality and drafting by the Office of the Attorney General.
Deputies are aware that Tusla, the Child and Family Agency established on 1 January 2014, is now the dedicated State agency bringing a focus to child protection and family support services. This role includes responsibility for the development and provision of services to support victims of domestic violence. While Tusla is the primary funder of domestic violence refuges, its funding has been supplemented in many instances by housing authorities from homelessness funds provided by my Department under section 10 of the Housing Act 1988. Discussions are under way between my Department, Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to progress the transfer to Tusla of the section 10 funding arrangements in respect of domestic violence refuge accommodation and services. This transfer is included in the implementation plan on the State's response to homelessness because it is considered that refuges are not homeless emergency accommodation and that a discrete funding stream, with separate reporting requirements, should be in place in respect of State support for victims of domestic violence. The transfer of section 10 funding to Tusla will ensure the State's relationship with domestic violence service providers is managed in a fashion which is more coherent and adapted to the specific needs of service users.
A critical factor in meeting the housing needs of victims of domestic violence and other vulnerable households is the supply of suitable accommodation. We all know that the State had to significantly reduce capital investment in recent years in order to deal with the difficulties with the public finances. The recent improving economic outlook was reflected in the 2015 budget which marks a significant change in the trajectory of social housing funding. Some €2.2 billion announced in the budget for social housing provision will assist in delivering an injection of newly built units in the next three years, with knock-on benefits in terms of increased employment. Off-balance sheet and more sustainable forms of funding will also come into operation, with the announcement of an extension to the NAMA special purpose vehicle, a large-scale public private partnership and a commitment to establish a financial vehicle. The social housing strategy which is being finalised will provide a coherent policy and institutional framework within which these initiatives can be executed, connected and developed. These measures, taken together, will increase the supply of social housing, shortening the time it takes housing authorities to address the housing needs of households that do not have the means to provide their own accommodation.
The Government is opposing the Bill because it seeks to amend the wrong legislation and addresses an issue relating to eligibility for social housing support that was resolved in amending legislation earlier this year. I look forward to hearing the views of other Deputies on the proposals contained within the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate which is timely given the week that is in it, with the highlighting of the issue by Women's Aid and the powerful symbol we saw outside Leinster House yesterday when a large number of women - 78, about whom we know - who had lost their lives as a result of domestic violence since 1996 were remembered. On drilling down further and following discussion one finds that some of the many people who turn up at the constituency clinics of politicians with housing issues are present because of domestic violence.
They might have an interest in the property and very often it is difficult for them to go on the housing waiting list. There is a very big difference between having an interest in the family home and being able to live in it. That is the reality for some people. Very often, it is not in the crisis situation they present, it is post-crisis where they have gone back and decided to plan their exit. It is mostly but not always women. The experience is that, on average, they leave seven times before they finally make their exit.
There is a fantastically run shelter in south Kildare, Teach Tearmainn. It is a modern facility that was built with funding from the HSE. It partially opened a couple of years after it was built when two of the four apartments were made available. The rest of the building cannot be opened due to a shortage of funds, yet there are queues of women and children who require the facility. There are 210,000 people in Kildare. It is the fourth most populated county in the country. I would have thought a modest building of that size could have been funded. There is pressure on it from people who are homeless. People have to be turned away because the facility must be maintained for the purpose for which it was designed and built. I could not speak more highly of the people who run it and operate the outreach service to which, unfortunately, I frequently have to direct people.
On listening to the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, I wondered what Ireland he is living in. He is certainly not living in my Ireland. The rental accommodation scheme, RAS, and the housing assistance payment, HAP, are not on the spectrum in my constituency or in the cities of Dublin or Cork. No private rented accommodation is available. The Minister of State said victims of domestic violence who seek emergency accommodation from a housing authority are generally placed in temporary accommodation which the council itself arranges or which is operated by a voluntary service provider. I do not recognise that situation. I am aware of people who have no home to go to, who sit in housing departments all day long, every day, just trying to get to talk to someone. That includes people who are trying to extricate themselves from a situation of domestic violence. A total of 90,000 are on housing waiting lists around the country. The prospect of someone going on a housing list now and getting a house in the next five to eight years is zero. That is certainly the case in my area. A total of 45,000 of the 90,000 people on housing waiting lists in the country are located in six local authority areas. I do not recognise the scenario outlined by the Minister of State.
I wish to refer to the Garda Inspectorate report and the attitude to domestic violence, which was hugely disappointing. It should not matter where someone is assaulted or who assaults them; it is an assault. We must change the culture. I know gardaí who are hugely compassionate, caring and capable, but if the attitude in the law enforcement services portrayed in the report is true, we have a major problem.
The services provided in this country cannot be separated from the amount of money that is available. I note the troika is in town. We can only provide services if we have the money to do it. That is a central point in terms of the running down of our services and for the 700 children who are sleeping in hotels who do not have a home. It is also a central point for people who are on waiting lists, the fact that we have the second highest class sizes in Europe, and for those in poverty. The ECB can break its own rules yet is surprised when the water charges in this country prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. It is about all of those things – the highest class sizes, domestic violence, the availability of housing and about money being sucked out of people’s pockets. The ECB broke its own rules by flooding cheap money into European banks when they went belly up, then it permitted us to write IOUs, again breaking its own rules. Now, the only thing that seems to matter is that the ECB gets its money back. It does not matter how the country is run down.
The Lisbon treaty contains a charter of fundamental rights, which includes housing as a fundamental right. I think it is in section 35. When it comes to a competition of rights, it appears the ECB wins the competition hands down. The Minister of State must wake up and look at what is happening around the country. The scenario he outlined for the response to domestic violence might be how things are in his constituency but it is not how they are in mine. I cannot comprehend the notion that only two of the four apartments in Teach Tearmainn are open while there is such demand. People who are at risk are being turned away. The only extra person who has been employed in the housing department of the local authority in my area in recent years has been the security man on the door. The situation there is out of control. Everyone who turns up is in crisis. People who are subject to domestic violence are in that queue. They are not protected by the local authority because it has nothing to give them. I am concerned about section 10 funding. If it is to be transferred to Tusla, one must ask whether it is to continue to be a dedicated homeless fund or whether additional funds are needed to make sure people are safe in their homes. I include men, women and children but it is mostly women and children who are affected.
This is a hugely important issue. I am very happy that the legislation tabled by Deputy Ellis was selected from the lottery because it is probably the first proactive discussion we have had on the issue. I cannot help but remark on the certain, sad irony between the attendance in the Chamber and the media fanfare last week, when we discussed one tragic case of rape and violence against a woman, one who deserves justice. Where is the media attention now? Where are all the Dáil Deputies now? The reality in society is that domestic violence is the most prevalent form of violence against women. As much as 20% of women are affected by domestic violence which daily blots the landscape of the lives of many women and children, and increasingly men as well. In that sense I am satisfied that we are finally discussing this issue positively because it is very broad ranging. The State’s inadequate response to it is something that must be tackled.
The information in the Garda Inspectorate report was not alarming; it was just confirmation of the reality that people have experienced when they try to seek help and refuge when they are in a violent situation in their home. The information now exists and is indisputable but when they go looking they do not find it.
In most of our Garda stations it is not even treated as a crime, although there were some positive exceptions to that. The report confirmed that the gardaí displayed negative attitudes towards domestic violence, referring to the cause as problematic, time-consuming and a waste of resources. The attitude seemed to be that it was not a real crime and it should be sorted out between the parties. It is that old throwback mentality that, sadly, we have not shaken off in terms of the institutions of the State, and that must be grappled if we are serious about dealing with these issues.
Like Deputy Murphy I was shocked by the Minister of State's contribution. We were checking to see if it was 1 April because it did not bear any reality to the real lives on the ground. It is insulting to talk about concern for the victims of domestic violence while at the same time standing over a situation where resources to the groups that work with those victims are being systematically cut in the lifetime of this Government. It is insulting to talk about helping the victims of domestic violence when the Government is cutting resources to spaces to where those people could escape and when education, training and awareness programmes are being cut.
We are standing over an economic situation where women and children have been the hardest hit by austerity. How many women have decided to stay with a violent partner and put up with the beatings and the abuse because the alternative, if they were very lucky, is a room in a hotel that they would share with their three or four children? There is nothing available for anybody in that situation. We have a homeless crisis in this State, and the idea that all people have to do is turn up to the local authority and they will be looked after is not an experience that anybody has met in the real world.
The motion is a worthy one and I will be supporting it. We must strive towards a society where all people feel safe. In particular one should feel safe in one's home and one should not be subjected to abuse in any form but that requires resources, and if the Government does not deal with the resources issue it is not dealing with the problem.
It is fortuitous that the Bill was selected the day after the vigil in advance of the international day against violence against women. I will not repeat the statistics only to say that controlling behaviour, verbal abuse, psychological torture, financial abuse, undermining people's confidence as well as the more physical abuse and sexual abuse is not a new phenomenon. Sadly, there is not anything dramatically different in the statistics available.
I agree that some dangerous cultural changes are emerging in attempts being made to promote misogynistic and violent views which dehumanise women, symbolised by the likes of Julien Blanc, who has been refused a visa to the United Kingdom, and I believe he is looking to come to Ireland also. He is the individual who spearheads the Real Social Dynamics organisation which specialises in how to abuse women. Most people are abhorred by that. There has been a huge outcry. He was deported from Australia and was denied entry into Britain and what that reflects is that most people in society have moved on and recognise that there have been changes in attitudes. Not too long ago there was no such thing as rape within marriage. How could there be when a woman and children were the property of her husband? How could she ever deny her husband sex when he basically owned her? Now, that view is generations from the view of children and teenagers in our schools. It is not where young people are at now. People do not think like that any more.
Not too long ago people brought to court for murdering their spouse would put up the defence, "She was nagging me, Your Honour", and judges would go along with that by saying, "God help you to have to put up with a nagging wife". However, a nagging wife was somebody who was prepared to stand up for themselves. Those sexist generalisations are from only a decade or so ago. Some people are a bit slower than others and have not copped on. They might still have some of those attitudes but I believe most people do not. It is about the way we expected the family to shoulder the care of the elderly, the care of the young and take all the financial strain. The man was supposed to be the breadwinner, the hard person, and when real life meant that those norms could not be delivered upon bad things happened behind closed doors.
We need to create a society where all people are respected and supported as equals, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation and so on. The roots of domestic violence, which is predominantly against women but I will shortly make a point about men, is in a society which devalues women and does not appreciate them sufficiently economically or in other areas. Education and awareness is critical in that regard.
I will deal briefly with the issue of the rise in violence against men because this is a hidden area of domestic violence. For a long time it was not understood and people questioned domestic violence against a man, again displaying a certain discrimination in and of itself. The impression was given that if one said anything about domestic violence against men one was understating the scale of the problem and the fact that it is an issue which predominantly affects women. That is not good enough. Statistics were produced by abused men in Scotland where in 2012 and 2013 there were 60,000 domestic violence cases. Ten years before that approximately 10% of those cases involved men. Obviously, some of those would have been in a homosexual relationship but the figure now for male victims is approximately 18%, and it is something we have to examine.
I want to record my support for groups like AMEN, which does excellent work. It has done some very good projects in areas including Dublin 15 where it has a domestic violence forum where men and women who are the victims of domestic violence come together to discuss the issues.
I compliment the work of organisations like the Do or Die Foundation, a group of women who suffered a phenomenal amount of abuse at the hands of a violent male partner and have used that experience to help others by providing assistance to people who need support going to courts or trying to get out of a violent relationship.
I echo the call made by Women's Aid yesterday that if we are serious about dealing with this problem we must have a facility to issue emergency barring orders. It is not good enough to allow somebody in a violent situation wait until the courts open after the weekend. There must be a facility in place and the key to that is for the Government to look at the gardaí as that interface. A programme of training was being run in Templemore where gardaí were educated by people who deal with rape victims but it was axed because the funds were not available to operate it. We must reinstate that programme to educate not just our gardaí or those in our courts but everybody in society from the bottom up. Housing provision is key in that regard but we need to change the bigger picture also.
I support Deputy Ellis and the Bill he has brought forward. In reflecting on the Bill and the problem that exists, it is important to look at some of the numbers concerned. In 2013 there were 17,855 incidents of domestic violence and 11,756 incidents of emotional abuse. The statistics roll out in those sizable numbers. We must first accept that there is a very serious problem, and that we have to deal with it.
In setting out the legislation, the Istanbul Convention referred to earlier gives a clear outline to countries as to what they should do. It gives them the definition of the violence and a radical approach to how countries would approach that, define it, prosecute, assist and provide the legislation. It also provides for oversight in terms of the various countries that have signed up to it, 25 of which have done so to date.
On 21 October 2014, in answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister outlined all of the issues within her Department that must be examined and the work done by the various working groups and so on, and there appears to be no urgency about it.
We have not signed up but will do so when we have looked at all of the different aspects of it within the Department. While legislators sit on their hands to a degree in the House and fail to deal with it, more and more women and men are being abused and more and more violence is being seen in homes. We are not reacting to it quickly enough, which is a huge problem.
The foregoing is why I welcome the comments in the House today and the Bill put forward by Deputy Dessie Ellis. We must include in the debate violence towards men in the home. One of the problems austerity has brought is a higher level of violence within the family home. Men, women and children suffer.
I am frankly a little shocked by what the Minister of State said, as he is someone who holds clinics in a city constituency in Waterford and must see what we all see. In Kilkenny there are in excess of 3,000 people on the main housing list. The Minister of State mentioned the rental accommodation scheme and the new HAP scheme which replaces the rent allowance scheme. He makes it sound as if all of these schemes are available, but they are not. The rental scheme will provide assistance up to €540 when, in fact, the real rent is €650. It is higher in other counties and certainly higher in the capital, but that is not reflected at all in housing policy and local authorities.
The Minister of State went on to talk about women's refuges and the different supports provided. It is not possible to get into the women's refuge in Kilkenny or receive the supports if one is the victim of domestic violence in the city. The supports and funding are not available. Any judgment of government should be in the positive in supporting those who are marginalised or affected in some way within communities. This vulnerable sector of men, women and children is the one I would prioritise. The housing section should go out of its way to assist the people in question, not just in providing accommodation but also the support required to hold a family together and deal with the fallout of domestic violence. The fallout can have a life-long effect, not just on the person who has been abused but also on the young members of the family who have witnessed it. Quite honestly, the required response is not available around the country. The Minister of State will find very little humanity or compassion in the local authority housing system to encourage officials to go out of their way to help a man, woman or family to get over this problem. As a result, hotels that offer reasonable rates are being used to house families such as this. In fact, they are being used to house families who cannot and will not find housing accommodation.
Apart altogether from those who sleep on the streets and cannot find houses, it is incredible that in Ireland one has this growing problem of domestic violence spilling over and at crisis point and the only thing we can talk about is future legislation. The least we should do is ensure all existing refuges have sufficient funds to deal with the numbers turning up for help. As is stated in the European Convention on Human Rights, we should begin to provide these facilities where they are absent and provide more in cities such as Dublin, Cork and Limerick where there may be more incidents of this kind requiring greater resources. Instead, we seem only to talk about legislation or say to Deputy Dessie Ellis that he is proposing an amendment to the wrong Bill. I would have preferred it if the Minister of State had come into the House and said, "We are going to propose the amendment to the correct Bill as Deputy Ellis is correct in his description of the problem. In the meantime, we will prioritise and fund the full range of services required to the best of our ability." I do not see any business of the House which should have greater priority than the support of those who are being treated like this in their own homes in our communities.
It says a great deal about the State that a foreign national whose story will be told next week and the week after and who was violently raped in the State was not even recorded in the hospital or Garda system as a rape victim. The pictures of the woman are horrific. One would not have to be a qualified medical practitioner to look at this woman and understand that she was treated violently. No prosecution has been brought in her case. She speaks very little English, has very little understanding of the law and the system has failed her. The system has failed many others who are still on the waiting list or trying to seek help. If one examines the various complaints made within An Garda Síochána recently, one of them relates to a woman who accused a co-worker within the force of sexually assaulting her. That case has never been dealt with and the woman in question has been left abused, demeaned, broken and, by the way, out of a job. That is what normally happens to people who report something like this. They become the victims of a State without compassion or humanity. That is the problem.
It is a cultural and an attitudinal problem we have to overcome. It is not just about funding or housing. It is a major issue for the Government. I would like to see the Minister of State remove the politics from it and say to the Government that we recognise across the House that it requires priority, funding and immediate action. That immediate action can also be linked with how people who have been affected by domestic violence are treated when they turn up looking for local authority housing. They are treated as being guilty when they come until they can prove they are right. That is not the correct attitude for any state to take to people who are vulnerable.
Deputy John McGuinness's intervention in the debate has been helpful and thoughtful and I hope to follow up on some of the points he has made. There is a responsibility on all of us, particularly as legislators, to identify anomalies or gaps in legislation, which is what Deputy Dessie Ellis is trying to do. The responsibility on all of us is to come up with something comprehensive to improve matters and make it easier for victims and their families. When we talk about domestic violence, we should always focus on the victim.
Domestic violence happens all year round. It does not appear to be something that is going away; in fact, it seems to be on the increase. We also know that there is a spike at different times of the year which, unfortunately, happens around times of celebration and holiday. Christmas, for instance, should be a happy time for children, but for many, it is a nightmare. It is a serious problem which does not seem to be going away.
As I stated, domestic violence is a serious problem. Resources are a major issue. The Minister of State referred to cases where people present at a refuge. While improvements have taken place with regard to many refuges, they continue to face significant difficulties. There are two refuges for women in my locality, the Saoirse Women's Refuge in Tallaght, and the Cuan Álainn centre which is operated by the housing agency, Respond!. The Saoirse centre is one of the older refuges, although it has been up and running for less than ten years. Before it was established, victims of domestic violence in the locality were forced to travel to the city centre and elsewhere for support services. The centre has six safe apartments, separate cooking facilities and victim support services, including support for those going to court. The length of stay ranges from a couple of hours to a couple of months.
The second project, Cuan Álainn, is a shelter providing a safe haven for nine women and their families. Since opening three years ago, it has provided refuge to 55 women and 82 children fleeing domestic violence. It faces a funding crisis and possible closure in January. Respond! has applied to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for further funding. I call on the Minister, Deputy James Reilly, to review the application as a matter of urgency. The Saoirse project also faces funding problems and much of its funding is raised from private sources. Unfortunately, a lack of funding is not unique to domestic violence shelters in south Dublin but extends to shelters across the State. Many of them are operating at full capacity. These problems are part of the wider homeless crisis. It is unacceptable that safe accommodation for victims of domestic violence may close.
The Minister of State indicated that in cases where victims of domestic violence are unable to return to the family home, housing authorities are encouraged to work with all service providers to ensure a social housing assessment is carried out and the victims do not end up residing in emergency accommodation for long periods. Unfortunately, many victims of domestic abuse are living in emergency accommodation for long periods. I could speak at length about the housing crisis affecting many families in Dublin. The options available to anyone seeking assistance at my constituency clinic on the Greenhills Road in Tallaght are limited. While we will refer them to the option of rented accommodation, the housing assistance payment scheme, HAPS, and rental allowance which HAPS replaces, do not cover the costs of rented accommodation. It is clear from browsing Daft.ieand similar websites that rented accommodation is simply not available for people on these schemes.
A further problem that needs to be addressed is the need to secure accommodation for families leaving refuges for the victims of domestic violence.
The purpose of the legislation is to address an anomaly. In the majority of cases of domestic violence, it is the victim who leaves the family home whereas in other jurisdictions, the victim tends to remain in the family home. Gardaí usually visit a home when a violent domestic incident takes place and they will normally ask the victim if she wishes to press charges against the perpetrator. This places the onus on the victim who, given her vulnerability and perhaps psychological state, may not be in a position to make this decision. Other jurisdictions take a much more progressive approach and place responsibility for pressing charges on the police because a criminal offence has been committed. This approach removes the pressure from the victim. We must rebalance our legislation and learn from the much more enlightened and effective approaches taken in other jurisdictions.
A further problem arises when a second violent incident involving a perpetrator occurs and the gardaí who attended the first incident need to be tracked down. We heard about cases where gardaí were unaware of barring orders and safety orders and the difficulties this lack of awareness causes. The process must be simplified. While I accept that this does not come within the remit of the Minister of State, we as legislators need to address the matter collectively.
There is an accommodation crisis. If victims of violence cannot get on the housing list, they must find a place to rent. Many landlords will not accept rent allowance and many victims who leave the family home do not have sufficient funds to find a deposit. In addition, the social housing list is getting longer. While it is not ideal to have people join the queue for social housing, the proposed measure is enlightened and a step forward.
Previous speakers referred to the reduction in funding for groups representing victims of domestic violence in the past four years, during which time demand for services increased. Where should people fleeing an abusive relationship go? Refuges are viewed as the last resort by many women and men. Some of them will seek refuge with family members but for those who do not have this option, the alternatives are narrowing and becoming increasingly difficult to access.
The purpose of the Bill is to try to address the gap in existing legislation by allowing a victim of domestic violence who is living with an abuser and is a joint owner of a home to join the housing list. The Minister of State indicated there is much greater clarity in the system in this regard. Such clarity does not seem to have filtered through to many of the local authority staff with whom I am in regular contact. Changes are, therefore, needed.
The purpose of the Bill is to address a gap in the system. The Minister of State indicated changes have been made and the proposed measure is not necessary. A comprehensive Bill on domestic violence is clearly needed.
I welcome this debate on domestic violence. The claim that the issue has not been debate in the Oireachtas is incorrect. In November 2013, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality received more than 40 submissions on domestic violence from various groups and stakeholders.
The committee had two full days of hearings on 19 and 20 February 2014. We produced a large report on all of the submissions received, as well as a final report in October, a copy of which I have before me. There has been a comprehensive debate on the issue of domestic violence and the report contains 23 comprehensive and well thought-out recommendations.
I welcome the opportunity to debate this very important issue in the House and commend Deputy Dessie Ellis for raising it. He has already said the Bill is about the provision of housing for people who have had to leave their homes because of domestic violence. I understand from the Minister that this issue has already been dealt with, although perhaps not completely adequately, but at least it is being dealt with. That does not mean, however, that we should not debate the issue because it is very important that we do. That is why the Dáil reform whereby on Friday mornings we debate issues such as this is so important. I also agree with Deputy Clare Daly that it is a pity more Members are not present to listen to it, including members of the media.
We must start with the issue of violence, as mentioned by Deputy Dessie Ellis, and the mindset permeating society. We saw it last weekend when the Tánaiste was virtually held prisoner for three hours. Violence can occur across society and, as Deputy Dessie Ellis pointed out, is occurring more and more in people's homes. It is not just directed against women but also against men. In the past few days Amen has produced a report and stated it had received to its office 2,200 calls, 1,600 of which were from new callers, about violence against men. We need to start looking at this issue and even at how we treat each other in the House. The way we behave gives a licence to others to behave in the same way. The debate today has been rational and respectful, which is what we need. If we come into the House and wave the political stick all the time with which to beat the other side, we are letting everyone down, including ourselves. We should get back to debating the issues and arguments at which we are looking.
It is appalling that people, mainly women and children, have to leave their own homes because of violence. Women's Aid states that in other jurisdictions such as New South Wales in Australia the perpetrator must leave the home, rather than the woman. This would cut down on the need for refuges. Representatives of the Do or Die Foundation, an interesting group in New York, appeared before the committee. They told us that in New York the police had the power to remove the perpetrator if it suspected that he - it is mainly a man who is involved - has been violent towards the woman. The same happens in New South Wales and other jurisdictions. The perpetrator is removed and the women and children stay in their own home in familiar surroundings. The information I have is that this action in New York has reduced the incidence of domestic violence considerably.
Perhaps we need to go back to the root causes and discover why there is such violence in society. What is happening? Deputy Dessie Ellis mentioned the violence on the streets and he is dead right. People are harassed on the streets; one feels afraid in walking up O'Connell Street and is always looking over one's shoulder. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality has brought forward proposals in respect of community courts and I note that the Minister and the Irish Penal Reform Trust have agreed to them. I was disappointed to hear Deputy Clare Daly say the programmes on domestic violence at Templemore had been axed. That should not be the case. If it is the case, it should be changed.
I will mention one or two of the recommendations made in the report. There is a need for a domestic violence register, as is the case in some jurisdictions. We have called for one to be put in place here also. We have also called for the establishment of specialised units within An Garda Síochána, as mentioned by some Deputies. Other recommendations relate to medical personnel, prosecution lawyers and support services dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of domestic and sexual violence cases. Gardaí tell me that it is a very difficult issue to police. The work is very traumatic for gardaí unless they have been trained and are supported. They are working hard to tackle the issue.
Consideration needs to be given to strengthening regulation of pornography. Perhaps we might have a debate on the topic. The relationships and sexuality education curriculum in schools should be reformed to include a basic course on conflict resolution and mediation which may benefit young people. It should cover how to solve problems. We need to put in place procedures to help us listen to children who are the victims of domestic violence, whatever its source. Children are often not mentioned in these debates. They are hidden and silent, but we need to start looking at this issue, as well as at family law disputes.
A Deputy mentioned that the number of places of safety needed to be increased to ensure no victim would have to return to an abusive environment, but it is they who must leave in the first place. We should remove the abuser, which would negate the need for what many Deputies have proposed.
I also agree with Deputy John McGuinness when he says that if somebody presents as a victim of domestic violence - none of us has any idea of the trauma, hurt and danger endured unless we have been through it ourselves - we should make sure local authorities and social services are linked to immediately provide every possible support for him or her. Very often such persons come to our offices and we examine how we can get help for them. What do we do when somebody presents to us late on a Friday afternoon and tells us that he or she has had to leave the house because he or she was being beaten up? There needs to be some emergency help available straightaway, not bureaucratic help but from somebody who feels for the person involved.
I walked around town last night. Sometimes when one is here all day, it is good to clear one's head. I counted 15 people sitting on the sidewalk with cups. I suggest the Minister who is new to the job appoint a housing czar to deal with the housing crisis. I know that he is working hard on the issue, but it is out of control. We need one person to take national responsibility for this it, to go at it full time, not just in Dublin but also across the country. For the first time ever in my area in east Cork, people are coming to me telling me that they are homeless and have nowhere to go. This is serious and must be tackled. Otherwise, we will see people dead 0n the streets. I have told the Taoiseach this and I am saying it in the House publicly.
We could probably discuss the issue of domestic violence for the entire day because it is huge. I ask Deputies and the media to look at the report published by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, one of about 22 reports produced in the past three years. We say a domestic violence unit should be established within the courts tasked with dealing with the issue. I mentioned the need for a domestic violence register, known as Clare's Law in the United Kingdom. Under this law, somebody in a relationship can go to the police and get it to tell him or her whether a particular man or a woman has a history of violence. In some instances, there is a history, but it is not known about until it is too late. Having a domestic violence register is something the committee recommended as being important.
I spoke about emergency barring orders. That is an issue at which we should look.
I thank Deputy Dessie Ellis for bringing forward the Bill. It might not be hugely necessary, but the debate is absolutely essential.
Like others, I welcome the debate. The legislation was drafted and submitted many months ago and has been a long time coming. Others have noted the scale of the cancer of domestic violence, and it is important that we grasp that one in five women will experience domestic violence during her lifetime. There is also a phenomenon of violence against men. In the course of my work, I have met men who have been subjected to the most horrific trauma in their own homes. Some one in five women will be physically assaulted by someone they love or once loved, trust or once trusted. This means one in five women faces fear and insecurity and is not safe in her own home. It is estimated that 213,000 women are living with severe abuse from partners, boyfriends or husbands. A great many of these women have children and, as Deputy Stanton pointed out, children are central to the debate because they are, at the very least, exposed to and traumatised by the sheer terror of this violence and may become the direct or indirect targets of beatings or verbal assaults. As legislators, citizens and human beings, we need to absorb the statistics as more than numbers. We need collectively, and in a non-partisan way, to resolve that this will change in our lifetimes and that we, as representatives of the citizens - men, women and children - will do whatever it takes.
Yesterday, I, like others, joined with Women's Aid to commemorate women and children murdered by their violent partners since 1996. These are citizens the State failed to protect. All these citizens would have had previous experience of beatings, threats and violence. We stood, holding a pair of women's or children's shoes - and there is something very intimate about a person's shoes – symbolising lives needlessly lost as a consequence of the violence and crime of the abuser but also of our long-standing collective indifference to this pervasive problem. Yesterday, we were forced to confront the low priority decision makers place on this social crisis. Yesterday's event was the launch of the annual 16 Days of Action campaign that starts on 25 November, the United Nations International Day of Elimination of Violence Against Women. It runs until 10 December which, as we know, is UN Human Rights Day. I was aware, even before the debate began, that some in Government had briefed journalists against the Bill. It is very unfortunate that any advance, however modest, would be underplayed or belittled because we must do all we can for victims, even if it is step by step.
The Minister mentioned the need for reformed and consolidated domestic violence legislation, and this is the case. There are many legal and administrative malfunctions and gaps in the system, and we need to see the legislation. I have asked, month after month, since the beginning of the Dáil term, to see the legislation. The fact that we will not see it until next year tells us this has not been a priority matter for the Government. I have correspondence from the former Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, in which he played the matter down. In written correspondence, he told me he had bigger fish to fry and other priorities because the troika had told him so. I have that in black and white. We need the consolidated legislation soon. I would hate to think we would go into another general election and await the next Dáil before it is brought forward. In the meantime, we need to do what we can.
At the beginning of his contribution, the Minister of State said he would oppose the legislation, and I challenge him on it. He has no reason to oppose it. Although he said it would amend the wrong legislation, it would do nothing of the sort. It is a simple paragraph, written, perhaps unusually, in very simple language, to amend the Domestic Violence Act 1996 to ensure a woman – generally the victim is a woman – will not be precluded from accessing her right to housing because she has been a beneficial owner of a property. It is very straightforward and comes from hard experience through the clinics of various colleagues. Women have come and described their situations, in which they cannot go anywhere, and are being told by their local authority to go away. This simple amendment does not claim to resolve the myriad issues around domestic violence, but addresses one of the problems. I see no rhyme nor reason for the Minister of State to oppose our addressing one of the issues. It would be one small step forward.
The Minister of State referred to the changes he has introduced recently and others very eloquently set out how those changes have not filtered down to the level of local authorities. Others very eloquently set out the experiences of victims of domestic violence, who find themselves left high and dry with nowhere to go, no shelter or emergency accommodation, fearful, traumatised and back in the home where they experienced violence. Why are the Minister of State's changes grounds to oppose the Bill? Surely, it makes sense that domestic violence legislation would echo, underscore and underpin the changes. It is a terrible pity, and we will call a vote at the end of the debate. It is most unfortunate and sends every wrong and negative signal that the Minister of State has chosen to oppose something which is sensible, necessary, modest and which, given the Minister of State's contribution, crystallises the intention of the changes the Minister of State has made to housing legislation.
As legislators, it would be wrong to think that an issue such as this can be boxed into a single piece of legislation. If we are going to protect victims of the crime of domestic violence, their rights need to find an echo and resonance across multiple pieces of legislation. Their rights cannot be set out often enough. I ask the Minister of State to reconsider his position. We are told we will see the consolidated legislation in 2015 and that Ireland will, hopefully, ratify the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention on combatting and preventing violence against women and domestic violence, which was concluded in 2011. These are very slow in coming. While I appreciate Deputy Stanton’s commitment to the issue through his committee work, there must be more than that.
I acknowledge the report, but again it has to be more than that. We need changes in the law. Not least because of its own slowness to act, I appeal to the Government to support this modest Bill.
Some parts of the human experience are beyond the language of Parliament to describe. Anyone with direct knowledge of those who are experiencing this awful crime in their own homes will know that language is not adequate to describe the trauma and violation of basic trust these victims endure. In recognising all of that, I ask Members across the House to support Deputy Ellis's Bill because, modest though it may be, it is a step forward.
I commend Deputy Ellis on introducing this Bill. As we have heard today, domestic violence is a country wide problem. One often hears the old saying, "when poverty comes in the door, love goes out the window." Over the last seven or eight years, people have been subjected to what I would call silent violence. People were made unemployed, left with massive mortgages and mistreated by the banks. Some people might go to a pub at certain times and cause major problems when they return home. As someone with a family member who had a problem with drink, I realise that when we look for help, everything is loaded against us. We have gone so perfect in this world that the system is loaded against whoever is trying to do good for somebody. If someone wants to try to go in every day to help him or herself, that is taken away. If we do not change some systems and face up to some realities, this will continue.
Families are in distress because of mortgages. Judges have to apply a certain amount of commonsense in this regard. I have seen cases where barring orders were applied in respect of houses located a few hundred metres of each other, which had the effect of denying an alternative to social housing. The distance required under the barring order meant that one of the houses owned by the same family was left empty.
We speak about solving these problems but then we see cuts to funding for organisations like Roscommon Women's Network. It is estimated that a person goes back to the same house seven times. I can understand that because, when one is trying to keep the kids together in a hostel, one might ask whether it is better to be at home. I acknowledge that the budget announcement included funding for social housing. I have been contacted by several directors of services who are trying to put in place procedures in order to be ready for next year. The sad reality is that nobody is there to make the decisions. I have seen people from outside the country buying several properties and now we are trying to buy them back. I have also seen housing agencies and councils bidding on the same NAMA property. Joined up thinking needs to take place. Over the past several months, some good people have lined up land and properties but there is nobody at the top to give direction to these people. If we are to reach our targets for social housing next year and in 2016, we have to build the foundations first.
I thank Deputy Ellis for introducing this modest and relevant Bill. Having listened to Members' contributions and appraised the situation in which we find ourselves, I believe there is an onus on all of us to support the Bill. In attempting to address part of a bigger problem, it will create its own momentum and encourage the Government to bring forward consolidated legislation at a quicker pace. Deputy McDonald eloquently put flesh and blood on the figures. One in five is a colossal number. Violence is expressed physically, psychologically and silently. As Deputy FitzMaurice pointed out, there is silent distress and violence in the banks' bad behaviour in respect of 100,000 distressed mortgages. These are distressful situations for families and they can be the tipping point at which people can no longer cope and enter into drinking habits. Their ensuing loss of control can advance into mental and physical abuse. That is just wrong but we can correct it by taking the first steps suggested in this Bill. In that regard, it is like the crack that breaks the iceberg.
The issue of domestic violence affects 213,000 people. They could fill Croke Park two and a half times. Members of the press should be here for this debate, and it is shameful that they are not. It is also shameful there are not more Members on the Government benches.
I followed with interest the contributions of all speakers. This debate has shone a spotlight on an important issue, especially in the week that we have had. I acknowledge that the views articulated by Deputies are sincerely held. All of us are Deputies who represent our constituents and we all meet people who are vulnerable to or have been affected by domestic violence. This has been a wide ranging debate, with many aspects of domestic violence brought to the fore. As I am responsible for housing, I will address that aspect of the debate in more detail. A number of speakers expressed concerns about the resources provided to refuges. Support services for victims are also very important and require constant support. Reference was also made to the need to reform the Domestic Violence Act 1996. The Minister for Justice and Equality expects to publish draft heads of a Bill in early 2015 to consolidate and reform this legislation and address all aspects of domestic violence. All Deputies and Senators will have an opportunity to contribute to this new Bill in a more detailed and comprehensive manner.
I acknowledge the work done by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Deputy Stanton outlined the debate and consultation that has already taken place with stakeholders who work with victims of domestic violence. The committee has produced a report which makes a number of recommendations in this area.
All Members recognise the wider societal charges and that, as parliamentarians, they must respond to this challenge insofar as it is possible to do so.
I will reiterate the reason the Government opposes the Bill. While I acknowledge Deputies Mary Lou McDonald, John McGuinness and others stated the Government should support it, the Bill, as tabled, refers directly to housing legislation. I have acknowledged the genuine thrust behind the Bill and everyone has welcomed the debate on it, but with the greatest of respect, recent changes in housing law give local authorities the flexibility they need to meet the housing needs of persons affected by marriage breakdown or separation until such time as they can regularise their situation. The legislation in question was passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, having been finalised in the Seanad last July, and has been enacted and in place since September this year. I will go so far as to state the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has and will again issue instructions to the housing offices of the local authorities to ensure the legislation, as enacted, is being used in the best interests of those who are most in need. They include they victims of domestic violence, as well as those who are vulnerable owing to homelessness, and the rental accommodation scheme and the new housing assistance payment scheme are being made available to them. To clarify, the housing assistance payment scheme is being run on a pilot basis in a number of local authorities until the end of this year, but the Government and my Department are determined to roll it out nationally in early 2015.
To address other aspects raised, another important point is that the national strategy on domestic sexual and gender based violence is under review. Action 10 of the strategy states clearly that policy guidance for local authorities on their housing remit regarding domestic violence will be published by the end of the year. This will be important because I have picked up from a number of contributions made by Members that the supports available in housing departments in local authorities nationwide are possibly not what they should be. I must acknowledge on the floor of the Parliament the concerns being expressed and will ask my departmental officials to do what they can to ensure this policy guidance is issued and gives the clear instruction requires to the various housing authorities.
As for some other areas about which Members have expressed concern, Deputy John McGuinness castigated the Government and legislators for sitting on their hands. This is odd because, as noted previously, the Government has implemented housing legislation this year that specifically addresses the problem for separated persons, including victims of domestic violence, and the issue of social housing supports. This is not future legislation; I reiterate that it was enacted in July and has been in operation since September.
Deputy Catherine Murphy, among others, expressed concerns about housing in general and the huge housing challenge the country was facing. Members must acknowledge that there has been little or no direct funding for local authorities to provide houses in the past decade. The social housing strategy, to be published shortly, has been given the highest of priority by the Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, and the Government which in budget 2015 is putting its money where its mouth is, with the provision of more than €800 million in funding to provide housing supports. This will amount to more than €2.2 billion in the next three years to fund the social housing strategy. This will address the social housing challenge in a number of ways, prioritising, first and foremost, the existing stock and bringing housing voids back into beneficial use. Additional funding has been provided for local authorities nationwide in this regard.
This has been a highly beneficial debate. I commend Deputy Dessie Ellis bringing the Bill to the floor of the Chamber. The Government will oppose it on the basis that it has enacted legislation that will address the concerns outlined in the Bill. However, I welcome the imminent publication of the social housing policy strategy which will address the acute shortage of social housing. I hope Deputies on all sides will see the determination of the Government to address the deficit in that area.
I thank everyone for his or her contribution and spent on contributing to the debate on what is an important and serious issue and a plague on communities. It is a pity the Minister of State has adopted the approach of opposing the Bill. The Domestic Violence Act must be strengthened when it comes to the rights of women trapped in an abusive relationship and who are seeking accommodation for themselves and their children. The guidelines to which the Minister of State refers and which the Government intends to bring out shortly, as well as some of those already used, are precisely that - they are guidelines. Sinn Féin seeks legislative certainty for those who need a safe environment for themselves and their children. Men also find themselves in abusive relationships, albeit not on the same scale, but nevertheless are worse off when it comes to accessing accommodation. The tactic of seeking a diversion and providing misleading information by stating Sinn Féin's Bill is aimed wrongly is typical of the failure to address this issue in a serious manner. Moreover, it is an excuse to do nothing because this issue could be addressed and the legislation strengthened easily in the House.
Local authorities vary nationwide. For example, Dublin City Council has written into its guidelines that it can consider certain cases "in exceptional circumstances". Once again, however, this is a guideline; it does not provide certainty. Some local authorities eventually will allow a woman to obtain a housing need letter and avail of rental supplement. However, there is no certainty and I refer to the challenges in finding a place where rental supplement is accepted. Members will have seen the widespread practice of not accepting rental supplement and how people cannot access housing. Rents have gone sky high and, in many cases, landlords are repossessing places simply because they wish to increase the rent or, in other cases, are genuinely selling places. Consequently, people face a crisis in finding accommodation and even if people such as a woman and her children in a serious situation can avail of rental supplement, they simply cannot find places.
Hostels, while needed, are not the answer; focused social housing is needed. Moreover, such housing that can be allocated temporarily is needed, after which people can be brought into more permanent housing. I cannot count how many times I have met women who have been abused. I have met them in their homes and in my clinics, as I am sure have all Members. Some have physical scars; others have mental scars , while fear is written all over them. One need only look at the faces of some of the victims I have met to see the fear written all over them. It is fear of uncertainty as to where they will go, what they will do, where they will end up and what will happen to their children. In many cases, the children do not even know what is going on and sometimes are being brought into homelessness, which is absolutely scandalous. Their needs are both obvious and urgent, as is the necessity to protect the lives of women in such situations. Domestic violence is a scourge and a blight on the community. Members must send a clear and coherent message to any abuser or potential abuser that his or her deeds and acts will not be accepted but will be pursued rigorously by society, the Garda and the authorities.
People should be looked after by way of accommodation. That is the crux of the Bill, namely, to ensure a person in a dangerous position can secure accommodation. It proposes a simple amendment to take into account the circumstances of women caught up in domestic violence. A more comprehensive debate is needed on the issue and I note that the Minister of State has indicated that such a debate will be held.
Discussing this subject today has been a very small step. I hope we will have further and comprehensive discussions. I am sure many more people would like to make a contribution and share their experiences.
I do not agree with the Minister of State that the Government cannot accept the Bill. I believe it would strengthen the law and give certainty to women who are caught in a very dangerous situation. Many of them are forced to stay in the home or close by, and in many cases they have returned to the home. We need to recognise there is a major problem. I appeal to the Minister of State to rethink what he has said. The Bill represents a simple amendment. I do not see why it should not be accepted. I feel it is being opposed simply because it comes from the Opposition or from anywhere other than the main party. Rejecting it is the wrong approach. We need to take this on its merits and recognise the need for such legislation.