Wednesday, 24 June 2020
Covid-19 (Measures to Protect Victims of Domestic Violence): Statements
It is deeply regrettable that domestic abuse and sexual violence are so prevalent across society that we are discussing these issues in the Dáil. However, I very much welcome the fact that Deputies are here and that people are participating in seeking ways to combat these horrific crimes and to be briefed on the response across the justice sector, particularly during the pandemic where special measures were required.
Over the past week we have seen a number of deeply distressing incidents. We cannot, of course, discuss individual cases in which Garda investigations are ongoing at the risk of prejudicing any eventual prosecutions. However, I want to comment briefly on two cases in which the criminal process has concluded.
No one can fail to have been moved by the tremendous bravery of Philomena Connors, Helen O'Donoghue, Mary Moran, Margaret Hutchinson, Anne O'Reilly, Bridget O'Reilly and Kathleen O'Driscoll, who spoke so powerfully last week following the conviction of their father for a catalogue of abuse against them over a long number of years. I believe there are questions to be answered. I expect that this will be done in due course by the appropriate agency.
Over the time of my membership of this House, we have seen a number of horrific cases, all of which resulted in inquiries and all of which were supposed to have drawn a line under these horrific events of child abuse. I refer to the Kilkenny incest inquiry, the Kelly Fitzgerald inquiry, the McColgan horrific experience, the Roscommon case in the west of Ireland - the "House of Horrors" as it was dubbed in the media - and now the O'Reillys. People are shocked and saddened. I believe it is absolutely essential that we now come to grips with these types of cases and that we ensure that every effort is made to support people. As one of the girls, I think, it was Helen, said last week when she was encouraging women to come forward, people should not be afraid. She also admitted, quite shockingly, "We were thrown to the wind".
It is absolutely essential, particularly for people who are marginalised, that we acknowledge they are the most vulnerable. Child abuse must be dealt with in a different way and, clearly, the State has not learned the lessons of the past.
Equally, no one can doubt the extraordinary resilience of Sonya Lee and her sisters Aisling and Natalie, who spoke this week of the life-changing impact of the horrific assault for which Sonya's former partner was recently convicted. I commend the tremendous strength of these brave women. Their dignified and courageous public comments are a call to action for all of society to fully address the scourge of domestic abuse and sexual violence in the home, both of which we are addressing this evening in Dáil Éireann. Domestic abuse and sexual violence are the most serious criminal offences. No one needs to deal with this alone. If I may, I wish to speak directly to those affected. If you are suffering, please reach out for help. To anyone with a suspicion or concern that such crimes are occurring, I ask you to please report this to the authorities to help us hold the perpetrators accountable.
Combating domestic abuse and sexual violence is a vital part of the national strategy for women and girls and the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The strategy is a living document that informs the direction the Government is taking, in partnership with civil society, to tackle these issues. Over the past number of years, and particularly since I became Minister, there has been a significant body of legislative reform, including the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act 2018. These laws are monitored by my Department to ensure they are effective and to identify whether further changes are required. I have made the combating of domestic and sexual violence one of my core priorities as Minister for Justice and Equality. I was well aware, through my engagement with non-governmental organisations and victims, that crimes in both areas are under-reported and that a better evidence basis was required to drive forward Government policy in this area.
To achieve this, I took a number of actions. I asked an independent expert, the barrister Tom O'Malley, to chair a working group and report to me. I expect the report, which was somewhat delayed by Covid-19, to be on my desk within a matter of weeks. I established an independent study on domestic homicide reviews to inform future legislation, ensuring we can distil best practice internationally and set out the necessary supports for victims of familicide. I brought forward a proposal for another major national sexual violence prevalence study, or SAVI 2, which is under way.
Alongside this work, we are taking steps to challenge societal attitude. I published an expanded victims charter earlier this year and my Department has organised a number of awareness-raising campaigns. The "What would you do?" campaign on domestic violence ran from 2016 to 2018, while the "No excuses" campaign on sexual violence and harassment commenced last year and is scheduled to run through this year and the next. The results of a recent university survey on consent underscore again the importance of addressing societal attitudes to sexual violence and my Department continues to make progress on this vital work. In this area, I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor.
I recognised that the restrictions necessary during Covid-19 would be incredibly difficult for those at risk of domestic violence and, early on, my Department reached out to our family of agencies to ensure that special measures were in place, including additional funding and supports for my Department and Tusla; provision by the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, of emergency rent supplement; and priority by the Legal Aid Board and the Courts Service for domestic abuse and childcare issues, including a helpline. Further information on the organisations involved is available on the Still Here website.
I want to address Garda action at this time. The Garda indicates that for the year to date, it has recorded a 24% increase in the number of calls for assistance in respect of domestic abuse incidents. During the period of the pandemic, the number and rate of incidents have been tracked. Study of these data shows that the number of incidents increased steadily until week 19 at the beginning of May but that, thankfully, there has been a week-on-week decline since then. Of course, the situation needs to be kept under active review. Even before the Covid crisis, the Garda had been continuously improving its specialist services. Sixteen divisional protective services units, staffed by specially trained officers, have been rolled out and this process is ongoing. I very much hope to see it completed within weeks, without further delay. The specialisation will ensure that when victims of domestic abuse present to the Garda, at perhaps their most vulnerable moment, they are met with professional and expert assistance.
Deputies will be aware that Operation Faoiseamh was designed to ensure that victims of domestic abuse would be supported and protected during the pandemic. The first phase involved a proactive contacting of persons who had been victims in the past, while the second has involved a focus on perpetrators and, in particular, cases of persistent breaches of protection orders, safety orders or barring orders under the domestic violence legislation. From 1 April to the end of May, the Garda made more than 8,200 contacts or attempts to contact recorded victims of domestic abuse. I understand that feedback from victims, some of whom I met, has been overwhelmingly positive and that these proactive contacts have led to the identification of a large number of cases in which further action was warranted. I have also heard this positive feedback from local groups and other stakeholders and I see it as fully consistent with the community engagement and focus of An Garda Síochána. There is a lesson in that experience of the impact that a proactive approach can have in this most sensitive of areas.
Finally, I wish to clarify that these issues primarily cut across two Departments, while Tusla, under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs - I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, in that area - is responsible for the provision of services and funding for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The agency has taken a number of initiatives in recent times to augment services in this area.
I look forward to the contributions of Deputies. The cross-agency, interdepartmental approach, which has also included valuable input from the community and voluntary sector, has provided a template to build on, but there is no question of any laurel-resting here. I acknowledge there is a considerable body of work to be done on an ongoing basis. I hope and expect that lessons we will have learned from the pandemic, in this area and others, will allow us to further strengthen our national response to the issues of domestic violence and sexual violence in the home. While domestic abuse is not always immediately visible, the fact that it affects people in all ages groups and walks of life is very evident. The challenge of preventing and addressing it is similarly a task for the whole of Government and the whole of society.
I am sharing time with my four colleagues. The consequences of the global lockdown of 2020 are, at present, not fully known. We can see how damaging some aspects of it have been, such as the damage to our economy, our medical systems and people's health. There are other repercussions, however, of which we are still unaware. I spoke previously in the House about my concern as to the impact the lockdown was having on children and young people, but another area where it is having significant impact is that of domestic violence and abuse. I think we are unaware, at this stage, of the full extent of impact of the lockdown on domestic violence in this country. Regrettably, it appears there has been a significant increase in the incidence of domestic violence since the lockdown commenced.
It must be a nightmare for any woman - to a large extent and by a significant majority, it is women - to find herself living in an abusive relationship in an abusive and violent environment. That problem will have been accentuated by the lockdown that has just occurred. Women in those circumstances now find themselves at home, in their house or flat, with their abusive partner, who now has nowhere to go out to and who is probably consuming alcohol at home. There is a high correlation between alcohol consumption and domestic abuse. We have to be very vigilant to ensure that the State and the services funded by it are available for women who are victims of domestic violence.
This morning, the Minister, Deputies Martin Kenny and O'Gorman, and I spoke in the Chamber about the impact of gangland crime on our society and how dangerous it is.
We should recall that the Garda Commissioner reminded us at the end of last year that in the preceding three years, the rate of homicide related to domestic violence was twice that of homicide related to gangland violence. This is a problem as significant as gangland violence, yet the State is not responding adequately to it.
I want to recognise what is contained in the draft programme for Government that may be ratified by the membership of the Green Party, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael in the coming days. Irrespective of whether others in the House want to see it ratified, there is a section in it on domestic violence with which every Member and party in this House would agree. Page 86 sets out that there is an epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in this country. It is important that we recognise that in this House because, unless we do, we will not be able to respond to it. The Minister was correct in referring to the very brave daughters of James O'Reilly, who was recently convicted. They went through an horrific experience for very large parts of their lives. It is astonishing that he was able to get away with what he did for a period of 20 years without his crimes being brought to the attention of the State and the prosecution authorities. We need to learn from that. We need to ensure structures are in place in order that women can know where to go to avail of the protection of the State if they are domestically abused.
I received a very interesting email from Ms Emma Reidy, chief executive officer of Aoibhneas, which is one of 39 domestic violence services across the country that are members of Safe Ireland. Ms Reidy makes the point that we need a whole-of-government approach to responding to domestic violence. She seeks to have a Minister appointed to deal with the issue. This was discussed at talks. It is potentially a good idea because, at present, part of the problem is that responsibility for domestic violence is spread over a variety of Departments. As I am sure the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, will be aware, responsibility must extend beyond his Department. We need to recognise the extent of this problem. We need to recognise that is has worsened during the lockdown and that we, as a State, are responsible for ensuring that we respond adequately to it.
I wish to make a few points on this important issue. The Minister quoted some statistics. He said numbers have been going down week on week since May. I do not know who compiles these statistics but the lived experience of women is not reflected in them. From speaking to my local domestic violence advocacy service, which is one of 39 associated with Safe Ireland, I learned it had a steady number of calls during the lockdown period. In May, however, when there was a relaxation of the restrictions, there was an explosion in the number of calls. The number was up 420%. The clear message from that is that the many women who were unfortunate enough to suffer from coercive control and domestic abuse were not even in a position to make a call, such was the control exerted over them.
I support what Deputy Jim O'Callaghan said regarding the call from the experts on the front line associated with the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service, which is under-resourced. The new Government must do more than pay lip service to those concerned, who are on the front line fighting and fundraising to keep the lights on in their centres and trying to provide refuges. There are some in some locations but there are not enough. Funding needs to be provided continually in order that the service providers do not have to use their useful time fighting with the HSE to get crumbs from the table. Doing so is wasteful. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan has rightly pointed out that there is a need for a dedicated Minister responsible for domestic, social, sexual and gender-related violence. The Minister should have the cross-departmental reach and resources required to do the job, in addition to the responsibility for acting accordingly. I hope the Minister for Justice and Equality will exert all influence to see this through. Domestic violence represents a silent crisis in our country. All too often, lip service is paid to the idea of addressing it based on a savage attack of a kind we often see in the media but we are not hearing about the thousands of attacks that are taking place nationally.
I extend my sympathy to the family, friends and colleagues of the late Detective Garda Colm Horkan. His death was a reminder to all of us of the stark risks members of the Garda face day in, day out.
Covid-19 has highlighted the shortcomings and failures of the supports for victims of domestic violence. Restrictions on movement, as my colleagues have just said, have magnified the crisis. The Garda has reported an increase in domestic violence cases of 30%. Women's Aid has also reported an increase in calls to its centres. The number of refuge spaces in Ireland is well below what we are obliged to provide under the Istanbul Convention. That convention obliges Ireland to provide spaces for victims in line with its population. Tusla has incorrectly claimed there is a need for one refuge space for every 10,000 adult women. However, the obligation is for one space for every 10,000 adults. Based on this, Ireland should have 472 spaces available, yet it has only 141.
In 2018, Safe Ireland reported victims of domestic violence were turned away on 3,256 occasions. That is nine requests per day unanswered. Thousands of women and children were turned away from the centres and their services because of a lack of funding. These services were at breaking point. Over the past 11 years in Dún Laoghaire, my constituency, I have sought to have a centre for women victims of domestic violence. Sadly, that service has not yet materialised and women are forced to go to either Bray or Tallaght, where services are available. When questioned, local authorities point at Tusla, yet only last week the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government blamed local authorities. This pass-the-parcel approach must end. It is unacceptable.
Budget 2020 failed to provide additional funding for the victims of domestic violence. Spaces are limited, particularly during this pandemic. It is clear the Government has failed victims of domestic violence. The next Government must provide more funding for them and afford them access to emergency accommodation when needed.
I welcome the commitment in the draft programme for Government, especially regarding the immediate review of the accommodation provision. According to Tusla, there are 60 service providers in the sector, yet the service level varies from area to area. Access to support for victims of domestic violence should not be based on a postcode lottery.
Like my colleague, Deputy Jim O'Callaghan, I welcome some of the proposed improvements and responses to domestic violence in the draft programme for Government but, like every Deputy, I will be holding whoever holds the relevant responsible ministerial positions to account because the State has not done enough to address domestic violence. I know this from having visited the Aoibhneas centre last November. I was not prepared for what I encountered. First, I was not prepared for the fact that somebody I actually knew was staying there when I visited. She was too embarrassed to meet me and instead left a letter to tell me how she felt. I was not prepared for the stories about the lengths abusers go to in order to stalk and track down their partners who leave them. For example, they order pizzas or taxis for the centre so the women might come outside where they can be tackled. I certainly was not prepared to hear about a victim who, after completing the programme in the centre, had no choice but to go back to the family home where she had been abused because no instrument could be found to allow her to find safe accommodation and to have financial support.
Right beside the Aoibhneas centre, there is a site on which it proposes it could expand. I ask the officials in the Minister's Department to do absolutely everything they can to facilitate the expansion and provide accommodation. It is not just a matter of family-style accommodation. The Aoibhneas centre is a fantastic centre for anybody who needs help but there are many women who do not have children and find themselves in unsuitable accommodation. As with the Abigail centre in my constituency, there should be dedicated facilities that women experiencing abuse can avail of. I ask whoever forms the next Government to put in place a capital programme to support them.
I want to add my voice to those of the previous speakers regarding some of the measures needed to address domestic violence.
It is fair to say Covid-19 has had a major negative impact across society but perhaps one of the groups most adversely affected comprises victims who suffer domestic abuse. These victims can be men and women, and we may forget, on occasion, that there are men out there who have suffered as well. The Garda indicates a 30% increase in domestic abuse in certain parts of the country, and we know Women's Aid has confirmed that there has been a major increase in the number of calls it has received.
This evening I raise the case of Esker House in Athlone, and I am sure the Minister is familiar with it, as it not only serves my constituency but his as well. It is the only women's refuge service in the midlands. The facility met the challenges of Covid-19 by renting apartments off site, which is a positive development. That does not, however, provide the security that women want when they turn up to these shelters. The facility has a bigger issue in that Esker House currently gets €303,000 in core funding per annum. Comparing that with similar services around the country, including those with the same bed capacity and services like court advocacy and outreach, the facility is significantly under-resourced and underfunded. Esker House has put in an application for supplementary funding to deal with the need to acquire additional accommodation and a centre manager, which the facility currently lacks. I do not expect the Minister to know it today but will he personally look into this and revert on how the application is going? The centre is doing great work and it needs support, and I put this on the record of the Dáil this evening.
I pay tribute to the many organisations around the country that do tremendous work in the area. Many of these are voluntary organisations and they help mainly women who find themselves in these positions. The lockdown caused by Covid-19 has resulted in problems for people under daily pressure because this pressure was magnified when people could not leave their home and, very often, the abusive partner or person who exhibited manipulation was with them 24 hours a day, seven days per week. It is a terrible position.
I am aware the Oireachtas Library and Research Service has done some work on this in the past couple of weeks and produced a short document that examined the matter in an international context. It is acknowledged that the problem exists in every country. That the problem exists and what we do about it is the real question. A number of recommendations were made in the study and I hope the Government is prepared to do a lot more on this.
One recommendation is that a shelter would be seen as an essential service. It certainly does not seem to be seen as an essential service in the part of the world where I live because in Sligo-Leitrim we do not have a refuge, which is a major problem for the women who find themselves in these circumstances.
I spoke today to representatives of the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service, DVAS, in the north west about this matter. They told me the service through the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown got the same amount of requests for help as it had in January and February. In May, however, these requests skyrocketed, and all through June the levels have continued to be high. Much of the contact has come from women who are contacting the service for the first time.
This reflects the problem we have in our society, and at the core we must ensure there is adequate funding in place to deal with this matter. If we are going to put funding in place, it should not just be funding to maintain an emergency service or rescue people. We must put adequate core funding in place to transform the lives of people who find themselves in such a position. We cannot have a society where people are not safe anywhere. We must make it unacceptable to have a position where women cannot be safe in their own home. To do this we must make this issue an absolute priority. It has been mentioned that a Minister or Minister of State should look after this area, and perhaps that is part of the answer. The real solution will be to focus on how we resolve the matter and transform the lives of people who find themselves in this position.
Legislation to tackle coercive control was introduced last year, and it is an example of something we can do right or well. We agreed it and introduced those provisions. However, it is remarkable to think there has been no training for anybody in any of the services around that. There has been no training for members of the Garda on how to identify or deal with a problem. There has been no training for nurses or people in Tusla. It was a case of passing the legislation here and that seems to be it. It is a shortcoming that must be addressed as quickly as possible. It can be done if the correct effort is put in.
The Government gave an additional €160,000 to various services tackling domestic violence this year, but Safe Ireland looked for €1.6 million to deal with the crisis. The Government provided 10% of the request. There is a major lacuna in taking this matter seriously and it must be addressed. The whole country is talking about this and taking it seriously and yet we put 10% of what was required into the budget to assist the organisations. That €160,000 mainly went to a small handful of organisations in the capital city, and I do not begrudge them in any way, but other organisations, including those in the north west, were left with no money and they got no additional funding.
We must address this problem in a way that will make a difference. It should not just be about rescuing people from a problem or dealing with an emergency. It is about transformation and creating a society where men or women understand it is not appropriate either to coerce, control or act in a violent manner towards anybody, particularly those who are close to them.
As Teachta Dála for Cavan-Monaghan I pay tribute to a past pupil of mine, Ms Sonia Lee, and her family, for the strength they have shown not just in recent weeks but in the past two years since Sonia endured an horrific attack by her former partner that left her with life-changing injuries. I wish her well in future.
The unprecedented levels of gender-based violence is a global problem that transcends all borders, age groups and socio-economic groupings. It causes untold heartache and hardship for families from all walks of life. In Ireland, the mental, physical and sexual abuse endured by women cannot be overstated, and it is truly shocking. Conservative estimates indicate that at least one in three women will encounter violence at some stage in their lives from a current or former partner while one in seven will endure severe or life-threatening abuse. On this small island we have the second-highest number of women in the European Union who avoid places or situations for fear of being targeted for assault. Since 1996 up to the end of last year, 230 women had been killed in Ireland as a result of domestic abuse, which is an average of ten per year. Most were killed in their own homes and 30% of the women who experienced domestic violence were physically assaulted for the first time during pregnancy.
These are frightening statistics and they illustrate the extent of the violence directed towards women in a supposedly civilised society. It is an intolerable position and it cannot be allowed to continue.
To tackle this worsening problem, an inter-agency cross-departmental approach is needed to assist victims and survivors of domestic abuse. It requires closer co-operation between Departments, including the Departments of Justice and Equality, Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and Health. We need resources and personnel to act in a collaborative manner to better protect women from abusive partners.
One of the main reasons many women do not leave an abusive relationship is the shortage of available and affordable accommodation that could rehouse victims of abuse at short notice. According to the Council of Europe, it is recommended there should be one refuge place per 100,000 people, meaning there should be 446 refuge places in Ireland. In reality there are only 143 places, which is simply not good enough. This must be addressed as a matter of priority by the next Government. Otherwise the number of women who suffer domestic abuse will continue to rise.
It should also be noted that not everybody fleeing an abusive situation requires a refuge, but they need options to live free from a violent partner.
Housing is the key requirement that needs to be made available to those fleeing domestic abuse. One in four women becomes homeless as a result of domestic abuse. In my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan, there is a severe lack of emergency accommodation available to at-risk women. This large rural constituency does not have a single refuge and there are only three staff employed to assist vulnerable women across the two counties. Undoubtedly, it is one of the worst funded areas for domestic violence supports and is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. As far back as 20 years ago, there was a site and adequate funding secured to provide a refuge but the support services were not made available. The Department of Health failed to provide enough staff to ensure the supports were in place to help vulnerable women.
In an effort to address that dire situation, Monaghan County Council indicated a willingness to provide five houses in the county as part of a Part V development in housing estates but again the proposal failed to materialise because support funding from the HSE was not forthcoming. It beggars belief that in a supposedly modern, progressive society, women whose lives may be at risk from serious violence have no safe haven to turn to in either Cavan or Monaghan.
Ireland signed up to the Istanbul Convention a year ago. It now needs to fully implement the recommendations to which it committed itself.
Responsibility for overseeing supports should be left with the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence. I understand it is possible that the services will be regionalised. If that is true, and I hope it is not, that would be a regressive step because not every county is properly supported by the services within their region.
On a more positive note, I wish to commend members of the Garda on their response in dealing with reports of abuse in the home and the way they have dealt with breaches of court orders during the Covid-19 restrictions. Similarly, I wish to acknowledge how the courts have dealt expediently with court orders during the lockdown, which has greatly exacerbated the crisis in domestic violence.
I have a number of questions for the Minister on this issue to which I hope he will provide answers. First, will there be a review of sentencing in cases of non-fatal domestic abuse because I believe the sentencing is not reflective of the seriousness of the crime? Second, are there plans to set up a domestic homicide review mechanism with powers to make and monitor recommendations on the response to domestic violence? Third, are there plans to appoint a Minister or to form an Oireachtas group with responsibility for bringing together representatives of the relevant authorities - the Garda, the Courts Service, Tusla, local authorities, the HSE, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the specialist domestic violence services - to ensure a multi-agency approach is taken to deal with this issue? That is something I would strenuously advocate as being absolutely necessary if the Government, and this House, are serious about addressing the issue of domestic violence and the plight of women whose lives are being placed at serious risk on a daily basis. I also call for the restoration of pay and conditions for domestic violence services staff who play a vital role in helping people who find themselves in abusive relationships.
I wish to point out that the media coverage of some of these cases in the past has left a lot to be desired. There have been times when fatal acts of domestic violence have been described as tragedies. A tragedy implies to me an unfortunate incident that could have been avoided such as an accident. Death as a result of domestic violence is plain murder and should be called such. Otherwise, we run the risk of normalising the sickening abuse of women when they are targeted by their violent and often unrepentant partners.
In the few moments available to me I want to address some of the issues that have been raised by Deputy Tully, and indeed Deputy Martin Kenny, in this slot. Both Deputies have echoed what has been a common grievance on the part of Deputies over the past few minutes, that is, in respect of the availability of refuge places which, I wish to acknowledge, is patchy in parts of the country and needs to be addressed. I want to acknowledge the work of Tusla in particular in that regard and say that there is currently a review well under way but I agree with Deputy Tully when she acknowledges that this is an issue for more than just the Department of Justice and Equality. It involves the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, local authorities and, in many respects, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection also. I very much agree that this is an issue on which work needs to be accelerated on the part of the new Government. I believe that there are parts of the country, indeed in my constituency, as well as Deputy Martin Kenny's, where the services are simply not up to a standard that one would expect. I want to acknowledge, however, that while we speak about the need to increase the availability of refuge accommodation, that in many ways acknowledges the fact that the perpetrator of the violence remains in the family home. Obviously, there is the availability of such measures under the criminal justice system as barring orders and place of safety orders to ensure the protection, in the first instance, of the victim but I believe there is no place in the family home for a perpetrator and often what happens in practice is that it is the woman, and we are talking about women in more than 90% of the cases, who leaves the family home, rather than having the perpetrator put under the subject of a barring order.
I want to acknowledge what Deputy Tully said in terms of domestic homicide reviews, as well as the familicide study. I expect real progress on those over the course of the summer. Last year, I commissioned a study into familicide and domestic homicide reviews. I want to acknowledge the work in particular of that great social campaigner, Norah Gibbons, who sadly died during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic. I offer my sympathy to her family but at the same time acknowledge the great pioneering work that she undertook over decades in this area. I want to say that Maura Butler, solicitor, and Grainne McMorrow, senior counsel, have both been members of the advisory group. I spoke to Maura Butler recently. I expect that within weeks, we would be in a position to lay that before the House and I acknowledge the importance of recommendations that I expect to be forthcoming.
There are other issues specifically raised by Deputy Tully on which I undertake to send her an email in reply, having regard to the time.
The lockdown has been a challenge for many people but for victims of domestic abuse it has been hell. Their sanctuary is not their home. They find sanctuary when they find space away from home, and they have been robbed of that for months. Many people spent lockdown walking on eggshells to avoid violent and dangerous outbursts. Calls to Saoirse Womens Refuge in south Dublin doubled in May. Thankfully, their newest refuge, which opened in Rathcoole just six months ago, has provided much-needed safety and stability for six families. I attended its opening with mixed emotions. I was pleased that this facility was being provided for people who needed it but I was really sad that so many people, unfortunately, need that level of refuge.
Just as this Covid-19 crisis has escalated, the public's response to it has escalated also. Vital funds for Safe Ireland are being raised as we speak in this Chamber by 39 Irish female singers who, in solidarity with victims of domestic abuse, came together to release a truly powerful rendition of "Dreams". Their support and the support of the members of the Garda, social workers, organisations like Saoirse and Women's Aid, which I met recently, and the support of the Minister, is to be commended. His Department prioritised this issue during the crisis. Prominent TV and online advertisements did more than just provide information. They provided hope of a brighter, safer future and hope that help is available and is not going away, despite the crisis.
While the Covid-19 crisis is slowly fading, the scourge of domestic abuse is not. It shows no signs of abating. The chilling statistics from a Union of Students in Ireland study released just this year show shockingly high levels of sexual assault, suggesting that this problem is an issue for the next generation also. It is clear that we need a long-term strategy to tackle this scourge head on.
There have been many calls for a dedicated junior Ministry within the Department of Justice and Equality to focus on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Will the Minister outline his views on this?
I thank the Minister for coming before us. I wish to echo his comments on the bravery of the women whose case concerning the abuse they suffered at the hands of their father was heard last week. As the Minister said, they showed extraordinary courage and dignity in coming forward and going public with that. I have no doubt that those women will do the State and the women of Ireland considerable service by coming forward. I wonder if there is a need for the Department of Justice and Equality, in conjunction with other agencies such as Tusla, to look at services that have historically been provided to minority communities in the State regarding sexual and domestic violence. I know there have been calls for this.
I also wish to echo the Minister's statement on services that are being provided during this period, as highlighted by my colleague. I am particularly thinking of the expert advice requested by the Minister on vulnerable witnesses, the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, and the protection of those witnesses. At this time, when there is a heightened awareness of these issues, it is especially important for the Oireachtas to come together to ensure that instances of domestic and sexual violence are reduced and the services are provided where they are needed.
I commend also the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, on her work in ensuring that emergency rent supplement was introduced in the midst of this pandemic. Deputy McAuliffe, who is, unfortunately, not here, referenced it in relation to a case in his constituency. Perhaps if it had been introduced sooner, the case might have been dealt with in that way.
I would like to highlight two specific issues. I note with great appreciation the work that is being done by An Garda Síochána, in particular a member in Swords who showed extraordinary empathy and professionalism in dealing with a certain instance of domestic violence that came to my attention. His work with a particular family in Swords is a credit to both his station and the service. It highlights a question I have asked before as a former member of the Committee on Justice and Equality in the Thirty-first and Thirty second Dáileanna. I refer to the provision of continuing professional development to An Garda Síochána. This is necessary to ensure that the specialist officers the Minister mentioned in his contribution today and on other occasions are available in each station rather than merely on a divisional basis, where some divisions have them and some do not.
Deputies Tully, Troy and McAuliffe have mentioned the patchy nature of the shelters. Having spoken to victims of domestic abuse and members of An Garda Síochána over the years, my experience is that the provision of specially trained officers can also be quite patchy. While I appreciate the work being done to ensure that more trained specialist officers are available, this training should be available to all officers should they choose to take part. Will the Minister assure the House that this sort of training will be provided on an ongoing basis?
I compliment the publicity given to the supports that are available, particularly in light of the fact that calls to An Garda concerning domestic violence have increased by 25% during this pandemic. It is very important that we keep that going. I refer to the code which a caller can give to a 999 operator, emergency services or gardaí to highlight an issue of domestic violence that cannot be mentioned on the phone. That needs to be publicised more. As Deputy Jim O'Callaghan said, we do not want a situation where a person is not in a position to make that phone call. I am thinking of yourmentalhealth.ie, the 50808 crisis text line and the Still Here campaign that was launched in Swords this week in conjunction with An Garda and the local authority. Services like that are so important, but we must bear in mind that it can sometimes be difficult to send that text message because doing so creates a record. The control exercised over victims of domestic and sexual violence means that doing things like that may be difficult or put them at risk. I call for an ongoing publicity campaign, spearheaded by the Department of Justice and Equality and supported by other agencies. What assurances can the Minister offer that such campaigns will be continued? My other query concerns continuing professional development and the availability of specialist officers across the network.
I acknowledge the importance of the information and assistance campaign undertaken through the national airwaves and at local level during the pandemic. I assure Deputy Farrell that funding will continue to be made available to ensure that information campaigns are evident and are heard.
The other issue raised by Deputy Farrell, echoing the earlier contributions of many Deputies, including Deputy Kenny, is the ongoing roll-out of the divisional protective service units and the training within those units. Training has been somewhat adversely affected by the closure of the Garda Training College during the pandemic, though I understand arrangements have been made to ensure training will be at an operational level at the very earliest opportunity. I assure Deputies that the roll-out of the divisional protective service units will continue. Sixteen divisional protective service units have been set up already in 15 divisions throughout the country. However, the Sligo-Leitrim division, as mentioned by Deputy Kenny, and my own local division are in the course of being provided for. Even though the formal divisional protective services units have not been formally established in these areas, a degree of training and activity is being undertaken. That will continue as part of the commitments in A Policing Service for the Future, the particulars of which we debated earlier this morning.
I will take the time myself and leave a brief opportunity at the end for the Minister to answer a couple of questions. First, I pay tribute to the heroic work of those working on the front line to provide services for women and families fleeing domestic and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 crisis. It is also important to acknowledge the work of the Minister, his Department and especially An Garda Síochána during this period. I welcome the priority response An Garda has rolled out in the context of Operation Faoiseamh and the awareness raising undertaken through the Still Here campaign. Given the fact that so many people were dealing with domestic abuse in the context of isolation, the availability of these supports during recent months was absolutely invaluable.
I also welcome the changes that were made regarding the availability of rent supplement to those fleeing their homes because of domestic and gender-based violence, and the degree of collaboration between the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and various service providers. I engaged with the Minister, Regina Doherty, on this on several occasions. The NGOs in this sector are very pleased with the changes that have been made, particularly the opening and widening of eligibility criteria for rent supplement in these situations and the provision of new and improved referral pathways. Throughout all this, it is essential that we keep in mind those families that have been suffering from domestic and gender-based violence.
We as a society can do much more to tackle the epidemic of gender-based and sexual violence against women. Central to this is reassuring and demonstrating to victims that they are not alone. As well as providing services and support to those who are immediately at risk or fleeing an abusive situation, we need to look at and tackle the root causes of domestic violence. In that regard, I particularly welcome the inclusion in the draft programme for Government the Green Party's proposal that we introduce a national, preventative strategy as part of our next strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. As well as the day-to-day work of meeting the immediate needs of victims as they present, we have to start looking at why domestic violence is so prevalent in our society and what we can do to stop it happening in the first place.
While the lockdown might be easing, service providers and advocacy groups in this area are noticing a surge in demand for their services and are responding to women and children who have suffered the double trauma of months of lockdown and having been locked down with an abusive partner or other adult during that period. A lot of service providers are seeing situations where women with multiple children are coming forward and they have real concerns about the impact on those children of their spending the long lockdown period with an abusive adult. While the responses in this area from the Garda and the Department during the Covid crisis were strong, there is a general sense within the sector that there is a lack of cross-departmental cohesion in the overall response. This has left services without adequate resources for dealing with practical and emergency issues, particularly in the area of accommodation. Many services have had to work creatively and sometimes very quickly to source resources to keep women safe in their own homes or to find alternative accommodation.
Domestic violence services are now facing into a difficult time. All charities are under financial pressure due to the economic situation and fundraising has become very difficult. Alongside the funding issues, there are the co-ordination issues I spoke about. These problems are arising at a time of acute growth in the need for services. Many of the service providers have come together and are working on their national recovery plan so that they can be ready to respond to the increase in demand for their services. I would like to ask the Minister about the supports to be made available to the sector in the coming weeks and months. Will he be in a position to develop a further set of supports which will, first, ensure that the strong justice-led response to this issue can continue and, second, ensure services are adequately resourced to be able to reconfigure and plan to meet the enormous demands on providers following the Covid crisis and to ensure the needs of women and children fleeing after months of lockdown can be met?
Moving on to another issue, I know that some of the service providers in this sector are concerned about Tusla's proposal to decentralise its national remit for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services out to the front-line providers. As I noted, the providers have long been critical of the lack of central organisation, accountability and co-ordination for domestic violence services. They argue that this lack of central leadership is having a detrimental effect on their planning and delivery of services. I have engaged with the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs on this issue. In her response to a parliamentary question I submitted, she stated that Tusla has assured the Department that service provision for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence will not be affected by any organisational reform. Given the key role of the Department of Justice and Equality in responding to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, will the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, detail his understanding of what has been proposed by Tusla? Can he give an assurance that the reforms being undertaken by Tusla will not have adverse effects on the delivery of its services and its overall co-ordination function?
Finally, a number of Deputies spoke about the new offence of coercive control which was introduced at the start of 2019. I was pleased to see in the draft programme for Government a clear commitment to roll out training for gardaí on this offence. In Scotland, the authorities put a particular premium on training police to identify situations where coercive control is taking place. Can the Minister give an indication of how many prosecutions have been successfully undertaken since this offence came onto the Statute Book?
On the last point, which was raised by a number of Deputies, the offence of coercive control was introduced into our criminal law code fairly recently. While there has been just one conviction for this offence, there are a number of ongoing cases, particulars of which have been reported in the national media. During the course of the Covid emergency, the Garda informed me that its members have recorded a total of 62 incidents of coercive control. I would expect that in the normal course of the criminal law investigation process, many of those incidents will result in charges and will be the subject of court proceedings and perhaps further convictions. I acknowledge the importance of specific training in this regard and I echo what I said earlier in terms of that training being made available to gardaí in the context of the expansion of the divisional protective services units.
I agree with Deputy O'Gorman's comments about the inter-agency plan. I accept, as Minister for Justice and Equality, that perhaps the lead Department in this area should continue to be my Department, with the active support and collaboration of a number of other Departments, particularly the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. As a former Minister in the latter Department, I would be very disappointed if it were in any way subject to a downgrade in the context of the current programme for Government talks and developments. The Deputy quite rightly notes that, once the new Government takes office, there will be an audit of the agencies involved and the role and function of those agencies. I believe this will affect the need to accelerate and progress the whole-of-government approach. The conduct of the audit of statutory responsibilities in the area should result in a greater level of collaboration, which will be key.
I am aware of the proposed organisational reform of Tusla, as referred to by the Deputy. The matter is not within my remit but it is important that all associated Departments would be very much involved in any reforms or changes in this regard in order to address fully a whole-of-government response to domestic abuse and sexual violence. There was reference earlier to the possibility of having a designated Minister of State in this area. I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in this area and his work on the national strategies, particulars of which have been mentioned in the course of this debate.
This is an extremely important debate to have. I believe one of the greatest fears facing us as we hope to progress to the post-lockdown phase for Ireland is what we have yet to discover behind closed doors across this nation. We already know about, or at least have some glimpse of, the mental health issues that are going to be uncovered, which are of a scale that we have yet to come to terms with. We know the impact the lockdown has had on elderly people. Many of the older people to whom I have talked say they felt disempowered by being told that they are particularly vulnerable and must cocoon. All of that has taken a terrible toll on elderly people. It has taken a terrible toll too on the families who are at their wits' end coping with children with special needs. I spoke to one such family in my constituency yesterday.
It is heartbreaking to hear about the pressures on so many different categories of our citizenry in this unprecedented time.
We may never get a complete picture of the extent of the domestic violence that has happened over recent months. We know that domestic violence reports to An Garda Síochána have increased by some 30% in certain areas, but how many of those in lockdown, in close proximity to their abuser, have been unable or have had no opportunity to reach out and seek help? Women's Aid has reported huge levels of stress and violence. This is not a pattern unique to Ireland. All the international data that have come on stream in recent days and weeks have shown that this is happening across the world, and the UK is predicting millions of additional cases of intimate partner violence during the pandemic.
In that context, it is of the utmost importance that from the outset of this crisis there have been clear instructions to every member of An Garda Síochána to arrest perpetrators of domestic violence, notwithstanding the general Covid-19 difficulties. I commend the Minister and the Commissioner on this. That has had an impact we are thankful for.
The time involved in Covid-19 lockdown has sometimes resulted in what psychologists refer to as the practice of gaslighting. I was unaware of it until recent times. Apparently, it is a reference to a play in which a woman is subjected to psychological torture. To be in a confined space and to have emotional games played, to be told the violence and coercion is not real, that a person is making it up, that it never happened, and that he or she is imagining things is a phenomenon now. Women, in particular, have been subjected to this psychological torture. Severe isolation, as we have endured in recent months, can make victims rely on their abusers to define their sense of reality and normality, and over time, what is horrific and unacceptable is presented as acceptable and somehow normal.
In that context too, the importance of the Still Here campaign, as other have referenced, is, has been, and remains extremely important, whereby agencies are telling people in clear and repeated fashion that those agencies are still here and for those people to reach out if they are in difficulty. However, there are people, particularly vulnerable women, who are in close proximity to their abusers and who simply do not have the facility to do that. We must find new ways of giving assistance and allowing them to reach out.
The Minister in his own contributions made reference to child abuse, and unfortunately we have had a long and sad litany of investigations and subsequent revelations over the past 30 years. The Minister referenced the very first one of the modern era, the Kilkenny incest case. I happened to be Minister for Health when that arose, and I asked the then senior counsel, Mrs. Catherine McGuinness, to head up that investigation. That was a very good choice.
That is the truth at the time, I remember. Catherine McGuinness, in her report, was the start of a groundbreaking insight into a hidden world, certainly an unacknowledged world, of abuse that has, unfortunately, continued. We have had many reports and investigations since, but in terms of Catherine McGuinness's work, I am aware that the Children's Rights Alliance established the Catherine McGuinness fellowship on children's rights and child law in memory of her work.
We need to ensure that the recommendations which flowed from all of these investigations are completely and absolutely acted upon. I am delighted to hear what the Minister said with regard to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, because again I was fortunate enough to be a Member of the Government that established a bespoke Department with responsibility for children in 2011. After all the reports we had that recommended a stand-alone Department with responsibility for children, there is now some talk that it might be relegated to a junior Ministry again. That would be an extraordinary backward step and I hope it will not happen.
Many Deputies have talked about services that are available to women in particular but also to families and sometimes men who endure coercive behaviour, violence, or abuse of any kind. As others have referenced services and the inadequate services in their own constituencies, I want to pay tribute to the Wexford Rape Crisis centre and to Wexford Women's Refuge, both long-standing institutions that have done extraordinary work in my home town and county of Wexford. I acknowledge the sterling work of the voluntary people who are the drivers of those centres, and the superb co-operation between the statutory and non-statutory groups, between An Garda Síochána and the HSE, and in particular with Wexford local authorities, namely, Wexford County Council. Brand new and modern facilities are now in train in Wexford to improve those that have been there for many years.
Others have referenced the fact that we need to co-ordinate our response to domestic abuse and violence of the kind everybody has instanced and discussed. One of the suggestions put forward has been for the creation of a Minister of State to haul it all together. Perhaps that is a good idea, but in the one minute I have left I am interested to hear the Minister's view in terms of the politics of that, and how best we can respond to some further horrors that will be revealed after the lockdown ends.
Again, I acknowledge the work of my Department and, in particular, the work of my hard-working colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, in terms of national strategies. I do not disagree with what Deputy Howlin has said insofar as having an overarching Minister of State who would have responsibility for a number of Departments. I am thinking of housing and the matter of refuges, accommodation which I acknowledge is less than adequate, the area of social protection, and of course children and youth affairs.
I refer to what Deputy Howlin said earlier, and I very much agree, on the need to ensure we learn lessons from the experience of the emergency. It should be remembered that it was unprecedented over a range of Departments, and Departments and agencies were often challenged because of the suddenness of the pandemic and the speed at which the virus spread across the world. In the moment I have left, I will commit to Deputy Howlin that we are leading efforts to identify lessons to be learned from the inter-agency plan, and that will continue. Indeed, I or my successor will be happy to report to the House regularly. I do not disagree with any of the points raised.
I am sharing time with Deputy Cairns. There have been a number of devastating stories in recent months, including some of the cases the Minister has referenced. There are so many of them, and the 25% rise in the number of calls tells us that is probably just the tip of the iceberg.
People, mostly women, but also men and children, are stuck in lockdown with their abuser. There is none of the usual respite, whether school, work or another activity, that would allow them to get away. I cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like. It is important to note that abuse does not always take the form of physical and sexual violence. Sometimes there is extreme emotional, mental and financial abuse that erodes a person's confidence and chips away at his or her sense of self, whatever form the abuse takes. We often ask people, mostly women, to take sizeable steps when their confidence is at its lowest. These include leaving their home and taking their children out of school and away from friends.
Any response to this has to put the victim at the centre. The Minister indicated that the abuser should be the one to leave the family home. The relationship is often so unequal that the situation becomes untenable without support. Those of us who are public representatives and have ample experience, from long before the lockdown, of people presenting know that they often present with very different issues, such as housing, matters relating to children and social welfare queries. It quickly becomes evident that there is an underlying reason, which is most often some form of domestic violence or abuse. Shocking as the statistics are, they are probably only a snapshot of the overall reality of what is occurring and remains unreported. It is easy to look in from the outside and make grandiose statements. I often hear people ask why a person did not just walk away. There is a good reason that a person will walk away up to seven times before staying away.
Where a myriad of services are available, it is practical to walk away. This is why measures such as the one recently announced by the Minister of Employment and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, were practical and made a difference. Going on a housing waiting list where one's name is attached to the title on a house can be problematic. That kind of thing makes people stop and think, and they may decide not to take the step they need to take. Real life, practical measures are worth a lot and it is essential that we put them in place. In many cases, it is only the woman who leaves home, as children may also be involved, and other matters may be in play. I acknowledge the refuge services that are available, limited though they are, and the outreach services provided by those refuges, which are often as important as the refuge itself in putting a strategy for safety in place and giving confidence to victims of domestic violence to the point that they feel they can leave. While this costs money, the cost of not doing this is much higher given the impact of abuse on the victim.
Last week, we saw the most horrific case of the O'Reilly family who experienced a lifetime of abuse. It took a great deal of bravery to come forward and I commend the sisters on doing that. The point was made that what happened may well have been because they were from the Traveller community. They have a double disadvantage. Let us acknowledge that. The truth is that there have been plenty of high profile, horrific cases outside the Traveller community to which State agencies have, collectively, taken a blind eye. I hope we learn from this high profile case.
There is a "mind your own business" culture in Ireland with regard to family and marital issues. An important issue is perhaps how we classify things. Is domestic abuse or domestic violence the most appropriate description? It is assault. It probably does not hurt any less. We need to consider that. One of my staff had cause to dial 999 about a violent assault that she witnessed and the dispatcher queried whether it was an assault or a domestic incident. That may have been for good reason but my staff member queried why that mattered. A woman was being viciously beaten and my staff member was told that the response would be decided according to classification. That was the first time I had come across that approach. If that is done, it needs to be considered. As I said, outreach is important. There needs to be sufficient funding for that kind of core service, for which funds often need to be raised. This is a practical measure that could make a significant difference.
Is the Minister aware that there is only one domestic violence refuge for all of Cork city and county? It has space for just six families and now, due to social distancing requirements, that is down to two families. At a time when calls to gardaí about domestic violence have increased by 25%, the shamefully inadequate refuge space has been reduced by 66%. Will the Minister please address this shortcoming with immediate effect? Over the last week, we have seen horrific details emerge about the epidemic of gender-based violence in Ireland, from the violence and institutional failures suffered by the O'Reilly family in Tipperary and the tragic murder of Jean Eagers to the recent #MeToo disclosures on social media and the results of the NUI Galway Union of Students in Ireland study, which exposed the terrifying rates of rape and sexual assault among college students. Regrettably, as predicted, there has been an increase in domestic violence since lockdown was initiated.
We need to have a coherent, fully resourced response to ensure that all of the women, children and men affected feel they can come forward and will be believed and supported. To achieve this, organisations which support victims and survivors of domestic violence are seeking a single Department with one point of contact and one funding model. At present, they are forced to deal with numerous Departments and agencies with different operating systems and disparate funding models. This creates an unnecessary barrier for organisations providing an essential service. This failure in joined-up thinking was demonstrated recently by the struggle to get an emergency rent supplement for victims in need of emergency accommodation. It is still being demonstrated now when victims meet bureaucratic obstacles when they seek safe accommodation. This kind of disconnect further traumatises victims and can be a disincentive when leaving a dangerous environment. Local authorities need training, multidisciplinary staff and adequate resources to support victims and survivors. We need a single section within a key Department that will harness the required expertise and investment to tackle this issue.
I understand there have been efforts in recent years to work towards better support. We need to go further. The support organisations, the experts I always refer to, are highlighting these problems right now, and they tell us what the solutions are. We must listen to them. Victims and survivors need more support and my colleagues and I will do anything we can to achieve this.
An answer about the Cork domestic violence centre would be great. There is only one refuge centre in all of Cork city and county, which provides space for six families, and only two at the moment.
I acknowledge shortcomings in the provision of appropriate refuge accommodation. This is the subject of a review being undertaken by Tusla. I expect that will take place in the course of the summer and early autumn. I acknowledge the provision for an audit in the programme for Government which, if agreed, will be the subject matter of an early debate in the House.
It is 50:50. We are for equality. Although we are having this discussion in the context of Covid-19 and the horrendous consequences of the lockdown, which, as the last Deputy stated, were predicted because stay-at-home measures have driven the markers that make domestic violence abuse and psychological abuse stand out, the thing that strikes me the most is that we have had this awareness almost all of a sudden. Even the Minister's last statement regarding wanting to acknowledge the shortcomings in the provision of refuges, that did not happen yesterday or when the Covid-19 virus landed on the planet. This situation has been going on all my life. I do not know how many campaigns I have supported or been involved in to help fund, start, protect or defend a refuge here in my city or in another part of the country.
In fact, that was probably one of the first campaigns that any councillor ever elected for People Before Profit was involved in, be that in Wexford, Sligo, Dún Laoghaire, where there is currently no refuge, or indeed in Carlow, where the councillor is fighting to have a refuge provided. The people of Carlow who need to flee domestic violence and abuse rely entirely on one refuge in Kilkenny. Nine counties are without a refuge, so it cannot be just shortcomings in the lack of provision. It is an absolute outrage that, for decades, Governments - not just the Minister's but also previous ones - have ignored this issue. Now it is being really highlighted because of the tragedies exposed through the impact of Covid-19, the pressures on people and the increase in the consumption of alcohol. There are myriad other issues, however, that relate to the consequences of domestic violence and abuse.
I have to laugh when I hear the proposal for a Minister of State for this area. Appointing a Minister of State just to deal with this issue is hiving the issue off and putting the responsibility into his or her lap. The responsibility is holistic. We lack housing and healthcare provision. We have shortcomings in our justice system. We do not look after our children well enough and we are even talking about getting rid of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, which is only newly formed. It is not, therefore, about someone over in the corner having responsibility for this area but about all of us having responsibility for it. Creating another job is not going to deal with this endemic, pandemic and cultural problem that we have around the world but which is particularly strong in Ireland.
A few things really need to be done. The first, of course, is the provision of refuges. The WHO, in its recommendations in the lead-up to the Covid-19 crisis, made several suggestions about how to deal with the issue of domestic violence, which people could see was probably going to emerge as a real issue. One of the recommendations was that we need to declare shelters an essential service. I agree completely. Outside the pandemic, shelters should be an essential service that any modern democratic government should be responsible for providing, where they are needed. I refer not only to one for Carlow-Kilkenny but where they are needed. The statement from the previous Deputy regarding Cork is absolutely frightening.
We need to scale up the awareness campaigns, which are very helpful, but we really need to target them, especially at men and boys in this country, because it is learned behaviour and many men who are coercing their partners today, or even thumping or beating them, did not pick that behaviour up off the stones. It is learned behaviour that they have seen around them. It is a wider societal problem and we need to scale up that awareness campaign.
One of the biggest tragedies I witnessed in my time involved in community politics were the cuts after the bank bailout, when the then Minister for Finance referred to picking the low-hanging fruit. In my area certainly, the first and the hardest cuts came to the family resource centres, centres for children, drug addiction centres and alcohol centres, and they have never been fully reinstated. The community sector, which had an eye on this problem and knew who the children were and was able to intervene and help the women and the families to try to get over problems or find alternatives, has been decimated. That sector needs to be wholly funded and reinstated.
My final point is an obvious thing to state. I have a cousin who recently retired as a court assistant for Women's Aid. She retired early because she stated that she could not send another family back into the arms of abusers because there is no housing for them.
"I'm the oldest sister, and I was abused from the age of four upwards, so I would say to all women, never mind Traveller women, all women out there, that was abused, or anything happened to them, come forward, [do not be afraid]." The nation was shocked by the horrific rapes and abuse meted out to the O'Reilly sisters and to their aunt. In equal measure, however, the nation was powerfully impressed by the brave words of Helen O'Donoghue and the brave actions of all those women. I support their call for an inquiry into how those responsible for child protection allowed that abuse to be perpetrated against Traveller women for so long without detection or without action being taken.
The O'Reilly sisters are just a few of the many victims of violence against women in this country, including Jean Eagers, who died so tragically last weekend. Before the pandemic, the National Crime Council told us that 213,000 women had been severely abused by their partners in this State. It was an epidemic before the pandemic, so to speak. Now, however, the WHO tells us that emergency calls increased 60% globally during the pandemic and by 33% in Europe. The Garda tells us that calls increased here by 25% in April and May this year compared with the same months last year.
I want to look at this issue under the headings of funding protection, social conditions and sexist culture. In the previous budget, domestic violence services were funded to the tune of €20 million and sexual violence prevention and protection to the tune of €5 million. To show how these issues ranked in the scheme of Government priorities, we need only note the fact that the same budget provided €17 million to the greyhound industry. Last year, the Sonas Viva House refuge and outreach service, based in Blanchardstown in west Dublin, was forced to turn away 500 families for lack of funds, three times more than it was able to help. That experience mirrors that of other refuges throughout the State.
The previous Dáil introduced coercive control legislation. It was a welcome step. Then, however, the Government undermined the initiative by failing to put in place the finances needed to drive the initiative forward. At the start of the pandemic, a once-off funding increase of €160,000 was shared between Women's Aid, the rape crisis centres and the Men's Development Network. That increase needs to be maintained, but it is also just a small portion of the extra State funding needed now by this sector.
I do not have time to look in detail at the way in which social conditions are impacting negatively on people dealing with intimate partner violence. I will mention just one example, the housing crisis. In Cork, Tusla and the Good Shepherd homeless charity carried out a study which found that women who left their homes because of violence were often unable to find alternative accommodation and were forced to return to violent abusers. Almost 50% of the women interviewed for the study said they returned to live in an abusive situation due to homelessness and wanting to keep their children in a home.
Finally, on the issue of sexist culture, in recent weeks a global youth movement has kicked into gear to challenge the racism that pervades societies. This movement has drawn inspiration from the global women's movement, which in recent years has risen to challenge the sexism endemic in capitalist society. Racism and sexism have deep roots in capitalist society. A system based on inequality and division sets one group up as more than and another group as less than. A movement which fights discrimination and that fights for equality, inevitably clashes with this system. Proper funding for services to protect people from gender violence, strong measures to tackle the housing crisis and the profiteers that lie behind it, and a battle to the finish against sexist culture, all point towards the need for a new society based on solidarity and human need, a genuinely socialist and democratic society.
There is no excuse for domestic violence, and while it is women who are in the main the victims of such abuse, men may also be victims, and we should not forget that.
The Domestic Violence Act 2018 has some welcome provisions. For example, section 29 allows a court to recommend that a perpetrator of domestic violence engage with certain services, such as a programme for perpetrators of domestic violence, addiction services, counselling or psychotherapy services, and financial planning. These are essential services, the provision of which assist all concerned. They are particularly important for victims and their families who need to be safe in the knowledge that perpetrators have engaged with professionals to address their abhorrent behaviour. Are these services readily and speedily available? Are they provided free to those of limited means?
My next question relates to section 5(2)(p) of the 2018 Act. This section allows the court to take into consideration whether the victim of domestic abuse is economically dependent on the perpetrator. While I understand that section 15 allows for maintenance applications to be heard together with the Act of 2018, there will, given the necessity for speed in applications of domestic violence, be circumstances in which the application for maintenance under the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act 1976 may have been overlooked or may not be before the court at the same time. Where this scenario arises, there should be provision in the Act to allow a court to make the equivalent of a financial maintenance order without the necessary paperwork, if only on an interim basis. Will the Minister outline his thoughts on implementing such a provision?
Whereas ex parteapplications for interim orders in domestic violence cases are heard expeditiously, the hearing of final orders can take as long as six months, and longer in some instances. Delays cause great anguish for victims and all parties concerned. Does the Minister accept that such delays are unacceptable and will he tell the House how he intends to address the matter?
I thank the Deputy for her contribution. Notwithstanding that we have been in an unprecedented pandemic for the past few months, I was pleased to liaise regularly with the Courts Service, which has a long association with my Department, and the Garda Síochána in order to ensure that the system responded where appropriate and necessary. For the benefit of the Deputy and in response to her question about civil proceedings, I should say that from 16 March to 12 June, a time during which a number of pandemic-related measures were implemented, 1,761 protection orders were granted by the courts. This corresponded to 87% of protection order applications. In addition, a total of 312 interim barring orders were granted, many of which are still in place, and 188 safety orders and 192 actual barring orders were also granted.
I acknowledge the point that the Deputy made about interim orders and the need to ensure a prompt and adequate response from the Courts Service in respect of a final order. In sensitive cases, in particular, any delay will add unacceptable levels of further trauma, upset, worry and anxiety. I do not have evidence of inordinate delays. I am pleased to report that the family law District and Circuit Courts have been in operation in Wexford and the south east. Obviously, as restrictions are now easing, there will be more court hearings to ensure that justice is delivered in a timely fashion.
On the matter of the maintenance payment, there were issues at the beginning of the pandemic when there was less certainty around than was desirable. They included access, visitation rights and how such rights would be implemented having regard to the travel restrictions. I am pleased that both the Garda and the Courts Service, through their information campaign, quickly dealt with whatever less than certain narrative was out there. I do not believe the level of confusion was as high as might otherwise have been the case.
In respect of financial orders, I am satisfied that, in terms of attachment of earnings and investigative means testing, the courts are equipped with an appropriate level of powers to allow for due diligence and justice, particularly in the matter of maintenance payments for women and children. The family law code and its legislative provisions remain constantly under review. For the past three years, I have engaged with the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and Deputies in this House. I am satisfied that we have made considerable strides in improving our legislative framework in that time. That will continue in this Dáil. If the Deputy has any specific questions or queries, I would be happy to have them examined and I will communicate further with her in respect of the issues she has raised.
I acknowledge that the Garda has remained active in the course of the emergency, as has been acknowledged by the Deputies who have spoken, through two phases of Operation Faoiseamh in particular. The Garda victim services offices make daily proactive contact with victims who have reported domestic abuse in the past in order to update files and calls. I had a number of meetings with gardaí to assess how these undertakings were developed and a number of victims used the opportunity to request further assistance, not only from An Garda Síochána but also from local service providers. I am happy to assure the Deputy that we are in receipt of reports and that lessons will continue to be learned for future plans and development.
I appreciate that. That assistance is not only provided for the perpetrator. It is an essential service for victims of abusive domestic violence and their children and families. Many of the organisations involved in this area, of which there are not enough, depend on charity to provide these services. As we know, one of the big travesties of the Covid-19 crisis is that none of these organisations has been able to raise funds. This will put pressure on these services which, in turn, could result in a judge deciding not to recommend the services because of the pressure they are under. We do not want that to arise in society. We need to transform the lives of victims so that this behaviour does not impact on the whole of their lives. I thank the Minister.
I am sharing time with Deputy Mattie McGrath. There has been a 25% increase in domestic violence since the start of Covid-19 from the Garda figures. The figure from the national helpline of Safe Ireland is 39%. Safe Ireland has stated that the Department of Justice and Equality and the Garda were phenomenal during the Covid crisis and I commend them on that. They are now dealing with an onslaught of women and families emerging out of their homes seeking help. At a time when we had Covid and we had less traffic on the roads, there were restrictions in place and the Garda was able to put a lot of its services into helping these families. Now the country is opening up again and we will have a lot of families emerging again and looking for help. The Garda resources are far from what is needed, even down to the vehicles that are required in each area. I ask the Minister that we look at this and invest in our Garda force and in the equipment it needs in order that it can provide these services. Does the Minister have a follow-up plan or sustainable package for the supports required for a Safe Ireland domestic violence service across the country? It wants the Government to build a positive response during lockdown and, importantly, to ensure that services can be guaranteed going forward. It wants a front-line-informed recovery plan which can be implemented to meet enormous demands on it after the Covid crisis. Safe Ireland wants to ensure that women and children fleeing violence after months of lockdown will not be forced to return to their unsafe homes. This was brought up earlier. Do we have the facilities across the country to help these people so that they will not have to return to their homes?
On Garda resources, I acknowledge the tremendous work on the part of the Garda Síochána during the course of the emergency which, as the Deputy acknowledges, has been lauded by many of the non-governmental organisations and indeed by the population generally. As Minister for Justice and Equality, I have been pleased to preside over a situation where we have managed to invest record resources in An Garda Síochána to the tune of €1.8 billion. The Deputy specifically mentions Garda vehicles and reference was made to the hiring by the Garda Síochána of in excess of 200 vehicles. I wish to inform the House that most if not all of those will be purchased by the Garda and will be available alongside the 300 new vehicles purchased last year and the 200 new vehicles that will be purchased this year. That is in excess of 700 new vehicles over a period of a little more than a year, which is quite substantial. We will keep matters under review.
I acknowledge the work of Safe Ireland and all of the agencies. As I have said previously, the measures adopted by my Department and all of the agencies will continue to be the subject matter of development in the form of an inter-agency plan. I would be happy to report further to the Deputy as this develops.
Recent media reports indicate an increasing level of domestic violence, 30% in some areas. Shockingly, in my own area of Tipperary, calls from distressed women, in the main to Cuan Saor refuge centre in Clonmel, increased by 100% in the month of May. The number of calls went from 82 in January to 165 in May. This is very concerning. These absolutely shocking statistics illustrate just how much the level of violence has increased during this lockdown. The lockdown had an enormous impact on our economy, which is one thing, but also on human life from the cradle to the grave, mental health, domestic violence and God knows what. The sooner we get out of it, the better. Within the level of demand, the organisations must be supported. They are heavily dependent on fundraising but could not do fundraising in recent times. I compliment John and Liz Nallen of Hotel Minella, Clonmel, who held a number of drive-through concerts fundraising for different organisations. The last one was for Cuan Saor in Clonmel. A very enjoyable day was had by the volunteers there. I salute also Geraldine Mullane, manager, and Verona, Lynne, Breda and all the team at Cuan Saor in Clonmel. They do remarkable work. They normally have a music event in September under the arches in Clonmel. I do not know if they can have it this year. They would expect to bring in €13,000 to €15,000. It depends on the goodwill of the people. The Government should be doing this.
I am pleased to note that following campaigning from Safe Ireland, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Regina Doherty, whom I compliment - she is retiring - has done a lot of work in government since she lost her seat in dealing with the rent allowance. That will free up places in these refuge centres, which are as scarce as hen's teeth. That will free up people who will not be holding on to the beds when they can get rent allowance without issues in respect of the name on the family home and all that, which were very difficult. The income support to women and children in urgent need of accommodation is very serious.
I also welcome the setting up of the Garda special Operation Faoiseamh on domestic abuse. That is a great initiative. In Tipperary there was great take-up by the members from sections in our towns such as Tipperary, Clonmel and different places. They were willing. Indeed, Detective Garda Horkan has been praised for the work he did. I heard his retired former inspector praising him as well. They do great work. It is a difficult, sensitive area with children and families. It must be rooted out, as must the abuse against men, which is getting quite prevalent also. I have to deal with some cases of that as well. While I welcome the many rape crisis and refuge centres committed to in the programme for Government, will they be delivered? They have to be.
Covid-19 has certainly brought much-needed attention to the scale of domestic violence in the country and must be an opportunity to focus on it. It must be stamped out. People have said it is learned behaviour and maybe it is, I do not know what causes it but it is the most horrific, heinous crime. The bullying, silent intimidation and subtle behaviour reaching down to money and everything else must be dealt with. We need the resources to do it. These rape crisis centres such as Cuan Saor in Clonmel are overwhelmed with work. They do tremendous work. It is the only place people have to turn to and it takes great courage for the women to take that step, especially if they have a young family, to be in there in a small area and out of the family home, and threats may still be coming through the telephone and through all kinds of sinister ways of threatening and intimidating a partner, whether they be male or female, but mainly it is the women who suffer. The staff of many of these services took a huge cut of 12.5% in the last cuts and they have not been restored, despite numerous requests to Tusla. This must be addressed as we move forward. We cannot expect them to continue providing that service day in, day out on those kind of cuts. I note that the programme for Government is not talking about any tax cuts now but we will have to see how far that gets us. These people should be brought up to a decent level of service. They provide a tremendous service, as the Minister knows. We all know it from dealing with families that we have referred to them. I urge the Minister to give them support and try to restore some of the salaries to these wonderful angels of mercy.
I, too, acknowledge the work of the non-governmental organisations working alongside the statutory agencies in a collaborative manner. I have to say, however, that Tusla's funding of services is currently over €25 million this year. The work that was done by the organisations referred to by the Deputy - I would add in the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre - was instrumental in the introduction of the "Still Here" campaign. I am really grateful for their efforts and collaboration in that regard.
The Department has been in a position to allocate additional funding to the sexual violence services. I refer to the programme for Government which will ensure an audit of all the statutory services which I expect will be undertaken between now and the end of the year.
I thank the Minister for a copy of his speech. It is helpful when it is set out in written form.
I will take up a theme raised by Deputy Bríd Smith. As I listened to the debate, I went to my office and came back to the Chamber because I thought my memory was not serving me right. I went back to the Kilkenny incest case and the report from 1993. One of the comments that stood out for me then was that the level of violence was not untypical for the area. There is a big warning sign there for us. When that report was published Kelly Fitzgerald died the same year and shortly after that there was what was known as the west of Ireland farmer case, until the brave family allowed its name to be used, with Sophia McColgan and her sisters. It has continued on - we have had the Roscommon case since and the recent O'Reilly case and so on - so we know. In case we do not know, Safe Ireland and Women's Aid have told us repeatedly, as have various international bodies. The Minister stands here today and acknowledges that we have a shortage of refuges. I welcome that but we know that. His responsibility today should be to tell us why he has not done something about that, why previous Governments have not done something about that, because we are utterly failing to protect our women. The Minister has made progress, which he has outlined. All the legislation has been absolutely forced by women's organisations on the ground and by our international obligations under the Istanbul Convention which we took four years to ratify and another four years to sign and we still have not fully implemented it. It is positive but I would not clap myself on the shoulder in regard to it. We have done it on the backs and the deaths of women. Earlier someone referred to the silent crisis but it is not silent. There was a time, which the book by Erin Pizzey, Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, showed how domestic violence was dealt with, but that has gone. We know the figures. The 2002 SAVI figures show the prevalence of violence among children, boys, adults. We have fought solidly since then to get a second SAVI report but we still do not have SAVI 2.
The Minister mentioned various reports which are due. I welcome them all. If he does not get to it in my time, the Minister might send me a note on when the four reports will come to us: the SAVI 2 report, the Tom O'Malley report and the report started by Norah Gibbons. The Minister rightly paid tribute to her. There is a fourth report due on how victims are treated in the criminal justice system. Where is that one? When we look at the figures they are overwhelming, are they not? Almost one woman a month is murdered, the majority in their own home by a husband, partner or someone known to them. One would think that we would do something about that. The most basic thing we might do would be to provide a refuge, an asylum in the true sense of the word, where someone can go and get peace for a while and go back but we have not done that. It is the most basic requirement. There are nine counties without that most basic protection.
We stand here tonight and debate this when there is no need: the debate should be around the implementation of the recommendations by various organisations such as Safe Ireland and Women's Aid and our obligations under the Istanbul Convention and how we are, or are not, complying with them. The day before yesterday we read of the most recent woman murdered. A samurai sword and a cleaver were used. On the same page of the paper, I read of a man charged with threatening to kill his wife. The previous day we had heard of Mr. O'Reilly, and the Minister rightly praised his daughters for coming forward. Had I time, I could mention any amount of other cases. I repeat: the Kilkenny incest case, the Kelly Fitzgerald case, the Sophia McColgan case, the Roscommon case and the most recent one in Tuam that I have spent three years trying to secure the independent report of, and finally did, and so on. Surely at some stage we would deal with this, say we cannot go on like this and say we are not protecting women. It is costing at a conservative estimate €2.2 billion annually to the economy alone.
We should deal with this and stop the murdering of women, the abuse of women and the violence against women. It is for the good of society not only the women. That is the most pathetic statement I have made in this 15 minutes because it does not capture my sense of outrage at the way we treat women in this country for no good reason other than we do not take it seriously.
Listening to the debate, I have heard several Deputies speak of the rise in domestic violence incidents since the outbreak of Covid-19, here and globally. The increase here has been 25%. The UN Secretary-General spoke of the horrifying global surge in domestic violence. We might ask what is causing this increase. There are risk factors such as stress at home, losing a job, alcohol abuse, relationship difficulties, etc. If that is coupled with a decrease in the level of support for victims, one sees the awful outcomes. It is important to say that 90% of the victims are women but 10% are men and we need to remember that. Whether the victim is male or female, domestic violence is always about an abuse of power and the ability to exercise that power abusively can only happen in a society that tolerates it. In that context, I agree with my colleague, Deputy Connolly.
Yes, we have made progress. The Minister spoke of the legislation on coercive control. That is a positive response. It is slow burning but it can be built on. The "Still Here" awareness campaign and operation Faoiseamh are indications that we as a society are taking steps that we will not tolerate it. Several Deputies have spoken of the positive steps taken by the Minister, Regina Doherty, to allow victims of domestic violence access the emergency rent supplement scheme. However, something is really wrong. The Minister and others spoke of some of the most horrifying cases of domestic violence in Ireland which shake us to our core but we know there are so many more cases. The recent Sexual Experiences Survey makes for shocking reading. Some 6,000 third level students were interviewed, with 38% of first years reporting being victims of some form of sexual misconduct. This rises to 50% by the time they leave college. One of the survey's most awful findings was that students with disabilities report higher levels of abuse. This tells us that domestic violence is across all generations. Unfortunately, we cannot look to the younger generation and say things are going to be better because there is no indication that they are.
There are two issues: first, how do we stop or decrease domestic violence and second, how we respond to the victims. For the latter, I have acknowledged that progress has been made but the resources are still woefully inadequate because of the size of the problem. There are black spots. Deputy Connolly spoke of nine counties. My constituency does not have a domestic violence refuge. The county council has helped but it is still an issue. We cannot speak of an escalating problem and at the same time not have refuge for the victims.
Finally, the really difficult question is how we can prevent or reduce the number of domestic violence incidents in the first place. I do not have all the answers but we need to recognise it and to put it out there and make it very visible, because it is widespread.
It is in every gathering, and is in this House. In every house there are victims and there are perpetrators. We have to accept that it is here and that it is not always in somebody else’s house. We need to look at our schools and see how they shape our attitudes to domestic violence and find ways of influencing attitudes right across society. I have said that it is a great challenge.
Finally, one of the ways that we might look at really dealing with this challenge for once and for all is that the next Government might look at appointing a Minister with specific responsibility for domestic violence.
I thank the Deputy. This concludes the statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality on the measures taken to protect the victims of domestic violence during Covid-19. The House will suspend for 20 minutes prior to the commencement of the next session.