Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Topical Issue Debate
Rape Crisis Network Funding
The Rape Crisis Network Ireland, RCNI, represents 11 of the 16 rape crisis centres. Funding for the network was withdrawn in 2015 because Tusla wanted to take direct control of the data collected by the centres. This potentially includes significant personal data associated with rape survivors. Tusla has essentially made funding dependent on the rape crisis centres sharing the data of rape survivors who present to them. The agency has since entered into individual service level agreements with each centre in which it tied funding into the provision of data. Furthermore, the centres must compel consent from rape victims, which is ironic in the most horrific way.
There are serious concerns that the information used to generate statistics could inadvertently reveal the identities of rape survivors. These concerns are genuinely held by the rape crisis centres and many survivors who are fearful of identifying themselves to the rape crisis centres, not to mention Tusla. It is important to note that the same contracts that are being forced on rape crisis centres are also being forced on domestic abuse centres and similar organisations, although these are probably fewer in number. It is understandable that the centres are worried about highlighting this new requirement for data sharing as they fear it may scare victims away from using their services. However, this fear must be weighted against their desire to make people fully aware of how their data may be used. Given that this information is highly sensitive and personal, concerns about how it is used are legitimate.
A European Union directive on victims specifically states that victims of sex crime must be afforded an independent non-state option for assistance and contact. Tusla is trying to circumvent this requirement through its contracts. Writing recently inThe Irish Times, the executive director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland pointed out that while the State had a duty of care to survivors, "critically, the State itself at times presents risks to survivors - a principle acknowledged in EU laws on victims' rights". This appears to have been totally ignored with the introduction of these new contracts by Tusla.
The RCNI seeks the restoration of its funding, as I do, in order that it can continue to use the database it developed for this specific purpose more than a decade ago. The database has been recognised by the European Institute for Gender Equality as a model of best practice in data collection and protection. Given recent grave revelations regarding how data were treated in Tusla, it is understandable that people will be reluctant to provide such sensitive data to Tusla and trust in the organisation will need to be rebuilt.
Serious question marks arise regarding the reason Tusla is seeking this data and the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has not been satisfied with the reasons given thus far. The entire process has been fraught and certain aspects of it have been difficult to believe. I had to double check when I learned that Tusla had used the SurveyMonkey tool to collect some of the data from rape crisis centres.
Notes of an internal meeting released in response to a freedom of information request reveal that when asked if it should consult the Data Protection Commissioner regarding its new regime, Tusla's response was "that there was not necessarily advantage in making contact with the Data Commissioner as it would largely depend on the view of whoever responded and that there may not be a black and white view on all aspects of the query". In other words, Tusla decided not to ask because it might not like the answer. This is a worrying development.
I thank Deputy Catherine Murphy for raising this issue. She and I both support the work carried out by rape crisis centres nationwide. I am very pleased that this year an additional €1.5 million will be allocated to domestic, sexual and gender based violence services. In my instructions to Tusla for its 2017 business plan, I highlighted these services as a priority for me and the Government. This brings funding for 2017 to €22.1 million. This funding is much needed and a step in the right direction following cuts to these vital services in recent years.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic, sexual and gender based violence, whether in the context of the family or otherwise. In this context, it allocates funding to 16 rape crisis centres, which are part of a network of 60 organisations providing services and includes 20 services providing emergency refuge accommodation to women and children and 24 community based domestic violence services.
It is my job as Minister and Tusla's job as the agency responsible to ensure that limited resources are targeted in order that vulnerable people who find themselves in desperate circumstances get the support they need. We cannot do this without data and information about where and what the need is and what services are available to address this need. Public money is being used to support citizens and we have a duty to members of the public and an obligation to those in need to ensure, in as far as it is possible, we meet those needs.
Tusla is developing its information capacity to do this and working with the organisations which support people in crisis to help us to get the right information to improve our services. All organisations need to count the same thing. We will only provide the right services to the right people in the right place at the right time if we have standard data gathering and reporting mechanisms. We need better quality data. In addition, Tusla requires all funded organisations to be compliant with data protection legislation and obtain the necessary consent from service users and others.
Deputy Murphy raised a question concerning the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, RCNI. As has been previously outlined in the House, Tusla made a decision not to renew funding to the RCNI in 2015. The agency was concerned that the RCNI database was not representative of all rape crisis centres and did not collect all of the data required by Tusla. This is a matter for the parties involved.
In 2016, Tusla established a project to address its data and information needs in respect of these services. The goal is to improve the data and knowledge systems. This will result in evidence based services being provided and will enable Tusla to meet national reporting obligations and forthcoming international obligations.
Tusla is very aware of the importance of striking the right balance between the rights of individuals to privacy and the ability of organisations to use data for the purpose of improving their services. It is important to highlight that Tusla only gathers aggregated data from funded services and does not require provision of personal data. I am sensitive to the concerns raised by the Deputy and other organisations and I have asked Tusla for further reassurance relating to concerns about anonymity.
My interest and energy are centred on maintaining a focus on the provision of services to the individuals and families who need them. Tusla is also planning for next year and the year after. We need to get it right for those who, unfortunately, will need these services in 2018 and thereafter. I will continue to prioritise the development and improvement of services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse. I am open to suggestions from Deputy Catherine Murphy who has been committed to the improvement of these services for many years.
The Minister and I both know how difficult it is for a person to present to a rape crisis centre. Very often, a survivor of abuse will be unwilling to provide information and will need time to get to know and trust the person who will provide counselling and assistance.
Where information is an upfront requirement such that it ensures somebody feels they have to turn and walk away from the service, the question must be asked whether the collection of data supersedes in importance the work the Rape Crisis Network is doing. As I said, the information gathering and database collection and protection system of the Rape Crisis Network is highly regarded at European level as best practice. In terms of some of the material I read relating to data protection legislation and Tusla's involvement here, the rape crisis centres have total responsibility. Even if Tusla has a data breach, it can fall back on rape crisis centres. I can provide the Minister with the legislation and material that highlights that.
I have no problem with the provision of high level information but far more than high level information is being sought. The rape crisis centres are compelling victims to provide information because if they do not do so they will lose the funding for their services.
The Deputy has raised a couple of key points, which it is important for me to reflect on and consider. The Deputy referred to the centres compelling data from people who are already in a traumatic situation and are victims of some form of violence. I understand what she is saying. This would have to be done very sensitively, in a way that does not scare people and assures them that the data they provide will be safely held by the provider. We need to have this data available to Government and other agencies such as Tusla in order to find ways to improve services for those same people. In my experience of working and getting to know some of the people who work in this context I know how sensitive they are in terms of the collection of that data. The concern is that this information is protected appropriately, especially as it is passed on to an agency collecting it from a national perspective. I take on board what the Deputy is saying.
In regard to the Deputy's question on whether there is a legislative basis for the collection of data, under the Istanbul convention and the EU victims' directive, which the Deputy identified, parties and member states are obliged to collect data for reporting purposes, again on the basis not only of improving services but ultimately to ensure we provide what is required for those people who seek to avail of these services.