Thursday, 19 November 2020
Combating Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: Statements
I very much welcome the opportunity to make a statement on this important issue and to listen to the contributions of colleagues. It is important to look at how we can come together to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is an area that I have prioritised since my appointment as Minister. The Government as a whole is committed to combating domestic and sexual violence in all its forms and ensuring that anyone who is a victim of this most heinous type of abuse is empowered and supported to come forward to seek help. We want people to know they will be listened to and to have confidence in the system and the people who work in it. I hope our commitment in this area is evident in the programme for Government commitments, the considerations taken into account as priorities in the context of managing the pandemic, and the work being undertaken as a priority within my Department and in conjunction with other Departments, agencies and stakeholders.
Since I became Minister for Justice, I have sought to engage as much as possible with those working across the sector and with victims. Unfortunately, due to the Covid restrictions, that has not been as easy as I would have liked. I like to be able to travel to different counties to engage with people in their own workplaces, where they do fantastic work. I would like to assure those working with victims and those who have advocated for change and reform in this area that, as restrictions are lifted, I am determined to meet them in person, if I have not done so already, and in the workplaces where they do so much good.
A number of issues have been highlighted in the engagements I have been able to have to date, such as when I met with people working on the crime victims helpline this week. One of the points highlighted to me is that public information campaigns make a difference. They are not everything but they do have an impact. Requests for help from victims and those in vulnerable situations increase when information campaigns are under way and when there are advertisements on television, radio, social media and elsewhere. We have said on a number of occasions throughout the pandemic that even as we asked people to stay at home because of the restrictions, we know that home is not necessarily a safe haven for everybody in the way that it is for many of us. The Still Here campaign is about getting the message out that services continue to be available to victims of domestic abuse and sexual violence and - I want to emphasise this point - that Covid travel restrictions do not apply to anybody who is in a domestic abuse situation and is seeking help. Further information on the organisations involved in the campaign can be found on the website, .
We are also midway through the No Excuses campaign, the Department of Justice's national awareness campaign to tackle domestic and sexual violence. The campaign is a key action of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence for 2016 to 2021. We are moving to produce a third strategy. The aims of the current campaign are to increase awareness of domestic and sexual violence, bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes, and activate bystanders with the aim of decreasing and preventing this type of violence. On the latter point, we are asking friends, family and members of the community to look out for changes in behaviour which may indicate that a person is being abused.
We are all aware that domestic violence, unfortunately, has increased during the pandemic. It is frightening to see the prevalence of this type of violence, which is mainly directed towards women. In 2020, in response to the impact of the pandemic on front-line services funded by my Department, an additional €327,590 in Covid-specific funding has been made available. That funding has been used to help organisations adapt and continue their services during this period. Much larger and more significant funding for the day-to-day running of these organisations is provided by Tusla. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has been able to increase that funding, which he will talk about presently. Under budget 2021, I have secured an additional €400,000 to continue the Covid-specific funding that is helping organisations working to support victims of crime, including victims of domestic abuse.
While the Covid crisis has undoubtedly been an awful time for many, it has helped us to bring about some permanent changes which would otherwise have taken a little longer to achieve. One of the first pieces of legislation I brought to this House as Minister for Justice enabled the courts to make greater use of live video links and remote hearings. We had a welcome development in the past month when, for the first time, a domestic violence protection order was secured in the District Court by a woman via video link from her own kitchen. This is a really welcome development for many people.
Tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a priority for the Garda Commissioner. I have spoken to him several times since my appointment about how the Department can work with gardaí to find new ways of tackling this issue. An Garda Síochána has shown its commitment in this area by completing the national roll-out of divisional protective services units in September.
The divisional protective services units will support the delivery of a consistent and professional approach to the investigation of sexual and domestic crime. In addition, all serving members of An Garda Síochána engaged in front-line policing will receive specialist training for engaging with victims of sexual crime and vulnerable witnesses.
Both of these are recommendations made in Supporting a Victim's Journey - A Plan to Help Victims and Vulnerable Witnesses in Sexual Violence Cases, which I launched recently. It is a comprehensive roadmap for implementing the O'Malley recommendations. There are, of course, a huge number of recommendations, 57 in total over four overarching themes, all of which I am fully committing to implementing and working on with the agencies, NGOs and, in particular, victims of these crimes. The report outlines measures and supports to protect and help vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences, giving full effect to the actions contained in Supporting a Victim's Journey.
I am committed to ensuring that victims are supported, informed, respected and treated with the utmost compassion and professionalism by all who work within justice system and that everybody with whom they engage is trained at the highest level. It is also important that not only victims feel as though they can come forward but those who are perpetrators of these crimes know that through our support of the victims they will be reported, charged and face the correct consequences.
Combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is not only about the Department of Justice. It requires a variety of supports and services being available. It requires a proactive and appropriate approach by our agencies such as the Garda, the courts, and the Legal Aid Board, it requires appropriately funded community services and, of course, it requires robust underpinning legislation to ensure that perpetrators are held to account for their actions.
It is because of the need for a truly joined-up approach that this Government is committed to conducting an audit of how the services for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are segmented across the different Government agencies. I have just published a request for tender for a suitably qualified independent expert to undertake this audit who will, as part of his or her work, be required to take account of the views of those working at the front line. The results of this independent audit will provide us with an independent comprehensive analysis to inform how we develop proposals for the most effective future infrastructure. This is in line with our programme for Government commitment. It will be completed by the end of March 2021.
Domestic abuse is not only about violence. Coercive and controlling behaviour, whilst more difficult to identify, can have a similarly devastating effect on victims. The landmark Domestic Violence Act 2018, which came into force on 1 January 2019, created the offence of coercive control to recognise in law the devastating impact that emotional abuse can have on those upon whom it is inflicted. It is everything from controlling what somebody can spend to who the person can engage with to what is on the person's phone and monitoring everything the person does. The psychological impact this can have on people is devastating. That is why it was welcome to see last week the first conviction before a jury in the State for the offence of coercive control. It takes immense courage for somebody to come forward and follow through on such a prosecution and the bravery of the victim in this case is to be commended. I hope that as more convictions follow, other victims of coercive control will feel confident to come forward. No doubt my colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill, will touch on this further.
We have also seen in recent days the abuse and exploitation, mainly of women, where indecent images have been spread on the Internet. I look forward to working with all Deputies in this House as we implement the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 before the end of the year.
We all share a deep concern for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and a desire to provide the most effective system to support them. I thanks the Deputies who are here today to discuss the range of actions across the justice sector and I welcome the opportunity to listen to their views or any suggestions or proposals in this area that they have.
I urge all victims of domestic violence to reach out when it is safe to do so. I also urge anyone who is concerned that these offences are being committed against a friend, a family member or a community to please report this to the authorities. I assure the House that I am fully committed to combating domestic violence in all forms. I will work with all my colleagues and with our dedicated community and voluntary organisations to ensure that we do so in a way that serves the needs of victims best.
I thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this important topic.
The Department of Justice continues to work on delivering our vision of a safe, fair and inclusive Ireland. An important part of this is our ongoing and intensive efforts to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We are improving our systems and processes to ensure they protect those at risk, support those who are victims, bring to justice those who inflict harm, and create a society that does not tolerate or turn a blind eye to any type of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence.
The Department of Justice is midway through a six-year, two-part national awareness campaign to tackle domestic and sexual violence. It is designed to help people identify signs of domestic and sexual violence and to make us question our acceptance of some unacceptable behaviours and attitudes. It features both male and female victims and the message was spread at a national and local level through partnerships with local radio stations. This campaign has started important conversations about how, at an individual level and as a society, we have to change our attitudes if we want a country that does not tolerate any form of domestic or sexual violence.
From the outset of the pandemic, we prioritised help for victims of domestic abuse. We work collaboratively with front-line service providers and community groups on the Still Here campaign. We increased funding for organisations offering support to victims to ensure they could continue their valuable work during the Covid-19 pandemic. We worked with the Garda, the courts and the Legal Aid Board to ensure cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence would be prioritised, and this continues to be the case.
I, too, welcome the recent conviction for coercive control and commend the victim for coming forward. I hope it not only encourages other victims to do likewise but raises aware that coercive control is abuse and helps people to recognise that this is the case.
We are planning for the future delivery of services and supports for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The audit of how responsibility is currently fragmented is a key part of this. It will assist in developing proposals for the infrastructure needed to ensure we have a system that deals with all of the relevant issues in the most holistic and effective way possible. The publication of the call for an independent expert to carry out this audit is a major step in delivering this commitment within the timeframe set, and the input of NGOs into the audit will help us design and build our future services around the victim's needs in the most comprehensive, compassionate and appropriate way.
I also believe the implementation of Supporting a Victim's Journey will also be instrumental. It will create a criminal justice system that supports vulnerable victims and empowers them to report offences knowing they will be supported, informed and treated respectfully throughout the criminal justice process. It would improve the way the criminal justice system operates in real and practical ways to make it work for vulnerable victims at every stage.
The mapping of the victim's journey and the review of our grant schemes for organisations that work with victims are other important elements that will contribute to how we deliver our services in the future. This work will ensure consistent support services are available for all victims throughout the State.
The National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence is a whole-of-government approach and the review of the current strategy, which runs from 2016 to 2021, which will prioritise prevention and reduction, will include a national preventative strategy.
The Government is fully committed to combating all forms of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, not only by doing what is required now but also by thoroughly reviewing how we do things to design more efficient and effective structures as we go forward. We are working with the front-line service providers, listening to them and responding to what they are telling us is required. I am proud of the work that the Department of Justice is doing. Ambitious targets have been set that we are on course to deliver because, as both the Minister, Deputy McEntee, and I have stressed, combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a priority across the board.
I am confident I am not the only Deputy who has seen the reports and been contacted with great concern about the sharing of online images of women and girls. More and more information is emerging about that. We have not seen it to verify it yet. However, the practice of publishing intimate images without consent is a major problem in Ireland today. The effect on the victim is one of complete powerlessness, humiliation and indeed of permanency to them and their perception of their reputation. It is an aggressive act and an assault on their person, even if there is no visible scar.
I am proud to be a member of a justice committee having the privilege to work on Deputy Howlin's online harassment Bill, which makes this behaviour a specific criminal offence. It is welcome, but some of this behaviour, that of sending unwanted intimate images, is already harassment under the criminal law and capable of being prosecuted already. In those cases, what we need to see is the immediate co-operation of social media and telecommunications providers, not the delay of two or six months where gardaí prosecuting cases request information, as occurred in a case with which I am very familiar.
I thank the Minister for her opening remarks. I noticed she mentioned the Still Here campaign. I will briefly say that the issue the Minister needs to deal with is still here. She needs to come in here and answer questions on how judicial appointments happen and what that process is. I am referring to the process she handles rather than the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, process. I invite her again to come into the Chamber at the earliest opportunity to answer questions and engage with the Oireachtas on what happened.
I will move on. The issues before us are very serious and the problems throughout the country at the moment with respect to domestic violence and people living in fear is something all of us are aware of. Over the years, most of us in political life will have dealt with many people, unfortunately mainly women, who have been victims of domestic violence and indeed sexually-based violence. Many of them are very fearful and usually one finds that they only come forward after years of suffering that abuse, neglect and coercion. We need to create a society where it is unacceptable for that to happen and where it is normal for people to come forward on the first occasion it happens, not on the 100th or 200th occasion. To do that, we have to ensure there are adequate resources in place that give people the confidence that they will be believed, the confidence that there will be action as a result of coming forward and the confidence that there are services in place for them. One of the obvious services is, of course, the shelters women often have to go to. In many areas of the country, and certainly in my own region, there is always a shortage. I saw a recent report which I think stated that throughout the country there are nine women and children being turned away per day due to the absence of space in shelters or something of that nature. That is something that needs to be addressed by the Oireachtas because we cannot continually leave these situations to charity. That is what often happens, in that we must depend on charitable donations to various organisations in order to put measures like that in place. This should be something the State is providing to people as a right.
I raise also an issue the Minister is aware of, namely, the ruling on the use of mobile phone records as evidence in cases. The Government has failed so far to introduce any legislation in regard to data retention to comply with the 2014 ruling of the European Court of Justice on data retention. That is something that needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible because we all know of a sexually-based violence case where there is a conviction on the line at the moment because we have not dealt with this. This has been going on for six years so I invite the Minister to enlighten us on what plans the Government has to deal with that and to put something in place to ensure that the Digital Rights Ireland ruling is complied with in this jurisdiction.
The Still Here campaign and all the work that has been done around that is very welcome and is a move in the right direction but, as I said, we still have such a distance to go. I think it was last week that we had a report which stated there were a number of cases where people came forward but did not want to proceed and progress the cases any further. The reason they did not want to progress them any further was that they have seen all the data which shows that few cases are reported and that few cases are actually successful and go the full route. That is why people do not have confidence. We have to put the effort in to ensure we deliver for people. One of the key things is that the first engagement people suffering domestic violence often have is with a member of An Garda Síochána. In many cases the gardaí are excellent and do a great job but there are cases where they are not. Adequate training, not just for gardaí who specifically deal with this issue but for all Garda members, is one of the things that needs to happen as quickly as possible. The State has huge responsibilities around all this. Unfortunately the experience is that so many people have felt let down at the end of it all.
I noted that in the Minister's opening remarks she spoke about working with all the other agencies, voluntary groups, community organisations and so on. Many of those agencies do not have the staff or the resources. One of the first things a woman has to do is to try to find a new place to live. Very often they go to the local authority and the first obstacle they come up against is trying to get on the housing list. When they get on the list, knowing that there is no house available, they are told to go through the housing assistance payment, HAP, process to try to find rented accommodation. Sometimes the rented accommodation they find is not safe for them to go to. There needs to be a dedicated person in each local authority to deal with people who are in those circumstances. There are dedicated people in each local authority to deal with Travellers, for instance; it should be the same for dealing with people who are victims of domestic or sexually-based violence to ensure they get access where they need it. The first thing they need is a house, a place to live.
"I'd gone from being a strong, independent woman to this quivering wreck with no friends, no job, and no confidence. I felt so low, I searched the house for pills for an overdose". This is Siobhan’s story, and her story told and retold thousands of times across the land because domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is an epidemic in our society; it is an insidious form of abuse that takes place all around us.
The Victims’ Alliance has uncovered the leaking of thousands of personally-explicit images of Irish women, and some men, that have been shared on online forums without their knowledge. Some of the mega files uploaded contain as many as 11,000 images. This is a profound violation of women's and girls' rights and demonstrates again the inadequacy of Irish law in protecting them against such abuse. Some 18 months have passed since the previous Minister for Justice secured Government support to amend the Labour Party’s Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017. Deputy Brendan Howlin is to be commended on his work on this legislation. I have no doubt he is deeply frustrated, as are the rest of us, with the glacial pace at which this legislation is being progressed. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, has committed to prioritise this legislation but her predecessor made the same commitment in May 2019, so the Minister must do better.
Sexual harassment remains a constant in the lives of girls and women and, of course, the reality is that for so many the sexual harassment transitions to violence. Some 41% of Irish women know someone in their circle of family or friends who has experienced intimate partner violence and there are so many victims who are too young, too afraid or too ashamed to tell anybody about the abuse that they suffer. The Domestic Violence Act 2018 and Ireland’s ratification of the Istanbul Convention were critical milestones in this State’s armoury to combat domestic violence. Criminalising coercive control has sent a strong message to victims that controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour is not only unacceptable, it is unlawful. Completion of the divisional protective services units rollout is particularly welcome and An Garda Síochána is to be commended on Operation Faoiseamh. Last week’s conviction of an individual for offences contained within the Domestic Violence Act for the first time should give confidence to victims that the law does work. However, this confidence is routinely undermined by the reality that this Government, like previous administrations, continues to get the fundamentals wrong when it comes to protecting women.
Government is not listening to victims and is not listening to their advocates either. I am deeply alarmed by the refusal of this Government, like that of the last, to fully acknowledge, let alone address, the shortfall in refuge places wrap-around services and related resources. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth continues to claim that the State’s current provision of refuge places meets Ireland’s obligations under the Istanbul Convention. He argues that the State only needs to provide one refuge space for every 10,000 women in Ireland. This is not true. Ireland is the only European country to claim it only needs to provide the smaller number of refuge places and this is shameful. The shortage of refuge and accompanying resources has been raised in this Chamber year after year with a depressing predictability. Safe Ireland reported last week that between March and August this year 1,351 requests for refuge could not be met due to lack of space, and yet the Minister has confirmed that no allocation has been made by Tusla for additional refuge places either for this year or next. Of the €61 million allocation to Tusla for 2021 not one euro has been ring-fenced for domestic, sexual or gender-based violence. The CEO of Tusla has indicated a significant portion of the additional funding for next year is already spent covering the organisation’s existing deficit.
We would all love more time to speak on this very important issue but at least we have this time and it is welcome. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this today. I acknowledge that in the budget the Minister prioritised funding for victims of domestic violence. It is the first time in my memory that a Minister for Justice placed it front and centre of priorities, which is very welcome and has to be recognised. She has set a standard for herself, which I am sure she will follow through and we will support her on it. It is difficult but she is the first Minister I can remember who put domestic violence centre stage of the agenda. This needs to be recognised because it has been insidious in our country for many years. We need to tackle it and root it out.
The world has experienced an incredible year in 2020, and we all know this, but one of the many things that shocked me during Covid is the number of news articles we have seen stating the levels of domestic abuse and how far and how quickly they shot up when we went into lockdown in March. This was not a surprise for any member of the NGOs or charities on the front line dealing with victims of domestic abuse. It pierced through some of the narrative early in the pandemic but not enough.
We all know Covid has disrupted many aspects of our lives but for those living through violent domestic abuse situations it has done so even more. Many victims of domestic violence feel they have nowhere to go now that many parts of society have locked down yet again. Outlets that abuse victims may have in more normal times are no longer available and the long nights feel even longer for these victims of domestic abuse. It is incredibly hard when they feel they have nowhere to turn during these hard times and dark nights. The usual social circles and support networks they may have, and not many do, are that bit harder to reach when we are asked to minimise our contacts.
I commend the work of Women's Aid, which has seen an increase of up to 39% in calls to its helpline over the course of the pandemic. It has been operating in an environment in which is it difficult to get out to meet victims and provide one-on-one support to them. Its ability to raise funds for its work has also been made incredibly difficult because of the pandemic. These organisations are an absolute lifeline for so many women, but they are operating on diminished budgets because of the difficulty in fundraising during the pandemic. This is why it was most welcome when the Minister mentioned the funding in the budget.
The fact An Garda Síochána has been undertaking Operation Faoiseamh since April has offered some comfort to victims. Since the beginning of the operation, the Garda has seen a 25% increase in reports of domestic violence and abuse. Since the beginning of this year, we have seen cases of coercive control make their way through the courts. This is something that is a positive development in our legal system, as difficult as those cases are to hear. To see them come through our courts is welcome. Non-violent domestic abuse can have lasting mental effects on many people, as has been referenced by other speakers. Trapping people in violent and abusive relationships that make it impossible or dangerous to leave is a grim reality for many people. Controlling behaviour can cause women and some men throughout the country to lead nothing but a shell of a life.
Another issue that needs to be dealt with immediately by the Government is the passing of the Labour Party's harmful communications and harassment Bill. I welcome the comments of Deputy McDonald in this regard. We have been frustrated by the glacial pace. Our justice spokesperson met the Minister in recent weeks and it will go to the committee on 1 December and we welcome this. We do not want to see this as a false start but as progress to getting the Bill through the House.
We have mentioned the data dump and the leaking of images. I want to send a message to the perpetrators. If men and lads think this is acceptable laddish behaviour or the behaviour that men accept, nothing could be further from the truth. This has to be refuted by every man in the country. They are the actions of a degenerate. It is scummy and the lowest and most indecent act one human can commit upon another. I hope that when our Bill goes through, with the support of the House, it will be a criminal act in the eyes of the law. This is something we want to see pushed through.
One of the biggest impacts on society, particularly for women and children, is the massive surge we have seen in domestic violence. Shocking and disturbing figures have been announced. In the first six months of the pandemic, An Garda Síochána called to more than 27,000 domestic violence incidents. I dread to think what the figure might be today, nine months on. At the same time, the capacity in our refuges for women has decreased by 25% to comply with social distancing requirements. Behind all of these staggering figures and statistics are real people, with vulnerable women and children living in constant fear. In a report from Women's Aid, women disclose high levels of emotional, physical, sexual and financial abuse from their partners, in some cases as a direct result of the lockdown and pandemic, which, of course, had to be introduced to slow the spread of the virus. The mental health impact of domestic abuse on women has also been heightened during the restrictions, with some women reporting suicidal thoughts.
Only this week, we heard from the CEO of Parentline, Aileen Hickey, about the growing problems for parents in experiencing anger and aggression from children. There has been an increase of 27% from January to September this year. She described parents feeling loneliness and embarrassment trying to cope and revealed the shocking figure of a 400% increase in parents availing of the non-violent resistance programme.
The country was shocked to its core when the news filtered through of the murder of Clodagh Hawe and her three beautiful sons, Liam, Niall and Ryan. This brought into sharp focus the lack of provision of refuge and support for women and families when they find themselves trapped in this position, particularly in County Cavan. Our joint policing committee and many public representatives in our constituency have done their best to raise the important issue of the provision of a women's refuge in Cavan. The joint policing committee wrote to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and Tusla in the summer requesting a refuge for women and families. It is interesting to see that Tusla did respond, acknowledging the distinct gaps that exist in rural constituencies such as mine. It acknowledged there is no emergency domestic accommodation for women experiencing this awful tragedy in their lives when it comes upon them.
We are also aware that Tearmann Domestic Abuse Service in Monaghan does terrific work to support women and provides a wraparound service for families who need accommodation. However, we do not have constant accommodation in a refuge. We do not want to see any more deaths. We do not want to see any more families experience what the Hawe family did. We want to see a refuge in the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. My constituency colleague, Deputy Tully, and all of us feel very strongly about this particular issue. We know there is a commitment under the Istanbul Convention and from Tusla that these facilities would be put in place. The Minister has ring-fenced funding for domestic violence. The closest accommodation for women and families in Cavan is in Navan, Dundalk or Drogheda, which are all miles away. The Minister is from close to the constituency. This is not practical for women or families who find themselves in this position. I ask the Minister to work with the Tusla and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, to close these gaps in constituencies such as Cavan-Monaghan so that accommodation and safe shelter is found for those women and families who find themselves in these horrific circumstances.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to today's debate on this very important issue. Since the onset of the pandemic it became quickly apparent that domestic violence services were under intense pressure. Safe Ireland recently published a new report, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic, which affirmed this.
The report showed that a total of 3,450 women and 589 children who had never contacted a domestic violence service before looked for support and safety from abuse and coercive control during the first six months of Covid-19, from March to August. I also understand that recent figures released by the Department show there has a been a 14% increase in the number of domestic abuse incidents reported to the Garda in 2020. In my own county of Cork, in the first eight months of this year, 910 domestic violence cases were reported in the Cork city division, an 11% increase on the previous year; 448 cases were reported in the Cork north division, an increase of approximately 20%; and the figure in the Cork west division increased to 254 cases, an increase of almost 42%. Although we do not yet have the year-end figures, unfortunately the total figure is likely to increase. The Director of Public Prosecutions stated there has been an 87% increase so far this year in the number of files submitted to her office related to domestic violence or the breach of a court order.
The Safe Ireland CEO, Ms Mary McDermott, highlighted the enormous strain on services throughout the country during the first lockdown and, unfortunately, that has continued throughout the second lockdown. She states: "The study exposes, yet again, patterns of domestic violence heightened by this pandemic." She also stated that, on average, there are 191 women and 288 children staying in domestic violence accommodation each month. It is my understanding that 1,351 requests were made for refuge, or seven requests per day, and these could not be met as there was no space. I know the Government has committed to making domestic violence a priority, and the Taoiseach stated previously that funding would not and should not be an issue. However, I am concerned that for the organisations on the ground, none of this has been backed up with the resources and infrastructure a modern organisation needs. I ask the Minister to commit to providing the additional funding and resources to ensure victims and their children are supported.
Safe Ireland was gravely disappointed with the lack of targeted provisions in budget 2021 for women and children dealing with violence and abuse. As legislators, this is something we need to review next year, given the demand and strain on these services throughout the pandemic.
I take the opportunity to commend the dedication and commitment shown by organisations, like Safe Ireland, that have been operating under very difficult circumstances. As I mentioned, the refuges were inundated but, as the CEO of Safe Ireland stated, services worked creatively to find alternative accommodation in the community. They provide a vital service and this pandemic has highlighted the importance of the work they do. In addition, great credit must be given to Garda programmes, like Operation Faoiseamh, which have helped to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
The programme for Government contains a number of commitments in regard to domestic violence and sexual abuse. There are numerous commitments, including the development of a third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the conduct of an immediate audit to be concluded within nine months of the formation of Government, the implementation of a plan for future refuge space, the publication of a review of domestic violence accommodation provision, and other aims such as to adopt and implement a comprehensive strategy to combat the trafficking of women and girls. I urge the Minister to take action on these immediately.
Last week, Safe Ireland, working with 39 front-line services, presented a new report, Tracking the Shadow Pandemic, which traces the prevalence of domestic abuse and coercive control during the months from March - the start of the first lockdown - to August. The figures are stark. Over the six-month period, 3,450 women and 589 children contacted a domestic violence service for the first time. Almost 34,000 helpline calls were answered, which is an average of 184 a day.
During the six months from March to August, 1,351 requests for refuge could not be met. Although service providers worked tirelessly to find accommodation in the community, 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 10,000 people, meaning there should be 446 refuge places in Ireland, whereas there are only 143 currently, and even fewer due to Covid. This is simply not good enough and it must be addressed as a matter of priority by the Government. Otherwise, the number of women who suffer domestic abuse will continue to rise.
It should also be noted that not everybody in 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 become 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, as mentioned by Deputy Niamh Smyth. Although it is a large rural constituency, it 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, a situation that cannot be allowed to continue.
I commend the service provided by Tearmann Domestic Violence Services, which is excellent in the support it gives. However, like all domestic violence services, it is at its wits' end dealing with the level of contacts it is receiving.
Safe Ireland recommended in its prebudget submission that €7.5 million was needed for domestic violence services. Some €61 million in additional funding has been allocated to Tusla, and while that does not come under the remit of the Minister for Justice, I ask whether any of this funding will be earmarked for Safe Ireland. Within the Department of Justice, €2.7 million in what is called additional funding has already been allocated to the new strategy, Supporting a Victim’s Journey, a plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases. Again, domestic violence services may be included in this but there is no clarity yet and they are looking for clarity in order to sustain current services and plan for services going forward.
Funding is allocated to awareness training, which is very important. People need to be informed early of the signs of controlling and coercive behaviour. If somebody is continually contacting a person, it is not because they are madly in love - it is because they want to know exactly where the person is at every moment in time. If a relationship is working, one partner should not fear the other. Arguments, which every couple will have, should be about an issue and not become personal or aggressive. Nobody should be walking on eggshells in a relationship.
In addition, Safe Ireland has consistently looked for a resourced national service development plan to be led by Safe Ireland in consultation with front-line services. This service development plan would be the start of a comprehensive national and long-term response to the enormous everyday problem of domestic abuse and coercive control.
I thank the Minister for this session in response to the alarming increase in domestic abuse and gender-based violence. Safe Ireland has rightly called it the shadow pandemic. During the first six months of Covid, there was a massive increase in people fleeing domestic violence and 3,450 women and 589 children contacted domestic violence services for the first time. The impact is being felt across the country. West Cork Women Against Domestic Violence saw a 35% increase in calls. We knew this was coming. Advocates and support organisations warned us and sought emergency measures and additional funding months ago.
I acknowledge the initiatives taken by the Government, including some additional funding to organisations in the sector and the access to rent supplement for victims of domestic violence. However, more must be done. The Government needs to ensure additional capacity for the duration of the pandemic. It is important to note issues around refuge spaces would not be as much of a problem if Ireland lived up to our commitments under the Istanbul Convention, which requires us to provide one refuge space for every 10,000 people in Ireland. Unlike every other European country, we only provide one refuge space per 10,000 women and, needless to say, this means we provide 50% fewer refuge spaces than what is required. Is it any wonder we are in a situation now where we do not have enough spaces? This has to change.
Clear infrastructure is necessary. Responsibility for this area is spread across several Departments, which leads to confusion and abdication of responsibility. The support organisations - the experts in this area - are looking for one Minister who leads the Government response. Intersectional issues are relevant in this regard. Regrettably, older women, women and girls with disabilities and those from migrant and ethnic minorities are more vulnerable. Speaking at last week's meeting of the Joint Committee on Disability Matters, Dr. Rosaleen McDonagh highlighted the importance of intersectionality, and Ireland’s appalling record on and relationship with disabled people. Migrant or undocumented women and girls are also at increased risk due to Government policy. For example, issues around translation in State services are a barrier and people are reluctant to approach gardaí for fear of subsequent deportation. We need firewalls between State services and immigration services. Women, girls and other vulnerable populations need to be assured they can safely seek medical help, access social welfare and approach the police without fear of subsequent punitive action by the State. We need an acceleration of the programme for Government commitment to regularising the status of undocumented people. Policy choices by this and previous Governments are making more women vulnerable. The Minister can change that.
This week there have been serious issues with image-based crimes and so-called revenge porn. There are online folders with thousands of images that have been taken and shared without consent. This primarily affects young women, and some of them are underage. I would like to send a clear message to anyone whose images have been shared without their consent: it is not your fault, you did not do anything wrong, and you are not to blame. However, unfortunately, despite warnings about situations like this one, image-based sexual abuse is still not a crime here. These violations of women have been facilitated by the State's inadequate policy and inaction. There is legislation on this before the Committee on Justice that needs to be accelerated now. I welcome what the Minister said about doing it in the next year, but it is not soon enough. It has to happen now.
This House must be clear that consent has to be at the heart of this. Where consent is not present the law must step in. Currently, there are incredible activists and support groups working on the issue to help victims. The Minister needs to assure them today that this Government has their backs. This House can move quickly, not before the end of the year but now. We saw this yesterday with Dublin Zoo and we have seen it in the past with the banks. I ask the Minister to move immediately to protect victims of what we all know is a crime but today is still not considered one.
I am glad I am speaking to the Minister about this. I admire the work she has been doing in relation to rape trials. I ask her to please take action on this now. We will all support the Minister.
As a nation we also need to have an incredibly serious and difficult conversation on this and related issues. Thousands of Irish men are sharing images of women and girls without their consent. There are horrific levels of sexual violence in our colleges. We all know victims of domestic abuse, rape or sexual assault, and this should not be the norm. It is international men's day today. I ask all men, if they see or receive an image being circulated without consent, to call it out. They can and should speak up in WhatsApp groups, in conversation and in any given situation. They should call it out. When they do not, they are complicit, and they are supporting a culture that facilitates gender-based abuse. We need zero tolerance. To achieve that, we need men to act.
One of the biggest challenges facing us in the world is the extent and impact of violence against women and children. The global Covid pandemic shone a bright light on this darkness and we saw a staggering increase in the reporting of domestic violence. Women's aid services engaged in 20,763 support contacts in 2019, during which 20,049 disclosures of domestic abuse against women and children were heard. Women disclosed being beaten, strangled, burned, raped and having their lives threatened. Others told that they were denied access to the family income to feed and clothe themselves and their children as they were being stalked and humiliated online.
During the Covid-19 emergency, Women's Aid saw a 43% increase in response to the 24-hour national freephone helpline, between March to June 2019 and March to June 2020. It also reported seeing a 71% increase in visits to the Women's Aid's website. Many children were trapped with abusers and denied outlets that may have offered them respite in the face of abuse before. Many women came up with ways to get in touch, calling from their cars, the garden shed, or from the bathroom where the shower was running, so that they would not be overheard. The results of an independent survey of 937 victims and survivors outlined in an annual impact report for 2019 shows that despite improvements in public awareness and legislation, fear and stigma remain serious barriers to seeking help. To see that the fear and stigma are still there in 2020 is worrying. The pandemic has stretched Women's Aid's services to the limit and I ask that as part of our strategy to combat domestic violence, we follow through on the Government's commitment to audit and improve existing State responses to domestic and sexual violence, infrastructure and other reforms.
A whole-of-government response is required to prevent domestic abuse, to protect those suffering and to hold perpetrators to account. This must include a commitment to fully resource specialist domestic violence services, prioritise family law court reform, and legislate effectively to tackle the growing problem of online abuse. In Ireland, we have come an incredibly long way. We have criminalised domestic violence in the Domestic Violence Act 2018 and now domestic violence is a far greater crime than violence against a stranger. We now have a robust legislative foundation that recognises and responds to the dangerous pattern of control, dominance, inequality and psychological abuse in the home. Because of this Act, barriers for victims are breaking down, but there are still barriers. There are days where we walk past many doors and we do not know what nightmares could lurk behind those doors.
We need to ask questions about what we could do. We also need to look at how we help victims in bad situations to get out and be free before it turns more sinister. While there are services and supports, they are not enough, especially in housing. Housing is one of the most significant issues faced in my constituency. Urgently providing housing needs to be a priority and I know from working with Women's Aid and other agencies that it is not prioritised enough and more is needed. We need to look at how we can listen to victims and help them after they have suffered. We have come far with legislation but I think that we can come up with more. The Domestic Violence Act should be extended so that it is not limited to persons who are in an intimate relationship. The Act should also be amended to empower HSE safeguarding social workers to have authority to make applications directly to court for protection orders on behalf of vulnerable adults.
I want to talk about Carlow. I know earlier speakers spoke about women's refuges. It concerns me that Carlow has been crying out for a women's refuge for years. Carlow is growing. I regularly deal with women in this situation. We have a duty of care to these women to have a women's refuge, particularly with Covid where we can see that figures are rising. We need to deliver on this. I ask the Minister to give a commitment that we will get a women's refuge for Carlow and surrounding areas. I know that Kilkenny has Amber, which is a great service, and we have Women's Aid in Carlow. The local authority recently got a small premises for emergency accommodation for two families, but that is not enough. We need to make sure, in the times that we are living in, that we have those services and can give the most vulnerable women and children in our society a place where they know that they can go when they need help.
We all welcome the biggest budget in the history of the State. As a Government Deputy, I welcome it. As a woman, I ask the Minister to make these women and children a priority, to make sure that every county in Ireland that needs a women's refuge gets one. They are crying out for them and for services. We need to look at all Departments to see where we can support those who are vulnerable to exit that situation safely and with support, and not just leave this violence with the Department of Justice. We all have a role to play in combating domestic violence. I will work with the Minister, as I know other Deputies in this room will. We all want to make sure that we look after the most vulnerable in our community to help them, give them services and funding, so that they know that when they get sorted, they will not be there for a long time. The services should be there for them so that they can access what we call a normal life under Covid. They should be able to live a normal life in society, so that we do not pass a door every day wondering what is going on in a house that no one knows about.
The Minister works hard and is committed to this. I know that as a woman the Minister will deliver on this.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this topic. We have had a number of debates on domestic violence in this Chamber. As we know, there has been a significant increase during Covid, or it has just highlighted it more rather than there being an increase. Domestic violence and coercive control are unfortunately widespread. It is often hidden. The situations that people, mainly women, find themselves in are extremely complex.
Between March and June of this year, 21,000 calls from women or from other concerned citizens were answered by various domestic violence services. This is, unfortunately, a significant increase on the same period last year, but as I just pointed out earlier, it is possible that Covid-19 has just put it all into stark focus.
Earlier this week my colleagues, Deputies McDonald and O’Reilly announced that they would introduce legislation to create a statutory entitlement of up to ten days' paid leave in a 12 month period for employees as a consequence of domestic violence. This would just be one small measure to help and assist mainly women in this situation. There is a huge emotional, psychological and personal cost to domestic violence and it is devastating. There are obviously also significant economic costs associated with this crime. It is often due to financial and economic reasons that women find it so difficult to leave in the first place, particularly because there are often children involved and they are very worried about how they are going to be able to be provide, especially where the man has control of the finances or if they are on social welfare and are all part of the one claim. Situations like that require us to have a lot more common sense and need to be able to be dealt with much more quickly if a woman is leaving such a situation.
There is also, and some Members have touched on this, a direct correlation between domestic violence and homelessness. Domestic abuse is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children in Ireland. I find it so frustrating when dealing with people who are forced to leave their home, and in many situations that has to be the first step because it is the safest one and the only way for someone to get out with their children, that the man who has been involved in domestic violence is sitting at home on his own in a three-bedroom house while the lives of the women and children have been completely upended and they are stuck in a refuge somewhere. I understand why it has to be a first step but we need to get much better at dealing with that situation more quickly for women so that they can be the person to return to the home much more quickly than we see happening currently.
As legislators, it is incumbent on us to invest time and resources to create a framework and policies that seek to prevent domestic abuse. We must have a long-term vision to protect women and children in this country. I know, and I am even guilty of it myself sometimes when we talk about this debate, that we talk about the domestic violence services, but we need long-term thinking. We need to realise that we have to try to break that link, where if a person is growing up in a domestic violence situation and those issues are not dealt with, that person will carry that into his or her own adulthood and possibly visit it upon his or her own children. We need to realise and deal with that with counselling and supports in order that people can break that cycle.
I just read a press release from the Irish Council of Civil Liberties calling for urgent action on image-based sexual abuse. It says that the creation and distribution of private sexual images without consent is not revenge porn but is image-based sexual abuse. I learned this morning of a good friend and councillor of People before Profit who suffered from this a number of years ago when she was a student. Clearly, it has been rumbling on for too long, but now it has been escalated to an extent that it is becoming viral. Like any virus, it will spread unless we deal with it. I add my voice to those calling on the Minister to deal with this urgently. It is pretty sick behaviour of weird predators and we need to stamp it out.
I will make a couple of points. To tackle domestic violence seriously we need to understand its social roots. It is not just a question of individual bad men. It is that, but it is also the product of a society that for centuries has treated women as second- and sometimes third-class citizens and, worse, at one stage regarded them as the property of men, in particular seeing wives as the property of husbands. We all know what people can do with their private property. They do what they like with it. The days when we turn a blind eye to this and say it is only a domestic are over. Women now are saying not just "Me Too" but "enough is enough".
It is then asked why they do not leave these relationships. That is the reaction that many people will get when the abuse of a woman or of a family is heard of. Fear is one reason, the fear that if they do not succeed in getting away from the abuser, it will be worse for them. They are right, because research shows that some of the most horrific cases of violence are against those who try to leave.
There is another huge factor in that they have nowhere to go. This situation has become worse during the pandemic, with about 2,000 women and 400 children each month since March seeking refuge from a violent situation. The fact that support for vulnerable women and children is left to charities is an utter disgrace. The State should and could adequately fund essential services, providing refuge in the immediate situation and support for women and children. There are 63 organisations listed by the Minister’s Department who receive funding. It is a bit reminiscent of the Magdalen institutions where the State is wiping its hands. This should be a fundamental role of State services without the reliance on charities. Nine out of 26 counties have no refuge. The entire domestic violence sector about a quarter of the funding that the racehorse and greyhound industry receives. That is where we are at, and while I know that the Minister’s Department is trying, it is not enough.
Some commentators have described image-based sexual abuse as revenge porn. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. Revenge? Revenge for what? Is it for breaking up with someone? Is it pornography, when the person concerned never consented to the sharing of the image? In some cases the person never consented to the picture being taken in the first place. We need to stop victim blaming and we need to stop the language of victim blaming. The finger has to be pointed here at the creeps who harvested these images and then put them up online. The finger must also be pointed at State.
In New York when an image-based sexual abuse scandal broke legislation was strengthened within 24 hours. Here in Ireland, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill has been stuck in these Houses of the Oireachtas for a full three years with zero action or urgency from Government parties. The wheels seem to be beginning to move now but the pressure needs to be kept up. It took pressure from below on the streets of this country to start the change that resulted in the Repeal the Eighth campaign. Congratulations to Megan, the young woman who started the mass petitioning on this issue, and good luck to the organisers of the online protest on Saturday week. I hope that supporters of change can and do take to the streets on this issue very soon.
There has been a terrifying growth in domestic violence during this pandemic, which has added great strain to services which were already overstretched and underfunded. We have also seen a rapid growth in image-based sexual violence. It is epitomised by this Discord server which has been uncovered which involves horrific abuse of women, including some under 18. I was shocked when I asked the Tánaiste about this earlier and he did not know that it is not currently a specific crime. We need action immediately to ban this image-based sexual abuse. It is time to tackle those distributing explicit images or videos of people without their consent. We need that State action and we also need to challenge the sexist culture that allows anyone to think that it is in anyway acceptable or okay to share images or videos of people without their consent. We are seeing the consequences of this in the suicide of Dara Quigley after the Garda shared her video.
Covid-19 has really highlighted the virus of domestic violence. We have seen a report tracking the shadow pandemic that shows that almost 3,500 women and almost 600 children who had never sought support or safety before are now reaching out to support services. That is a huge number of people who are reaching out, on top of people who may already be linked in and who may already be trying to survive through lockdown and through these moments, and where any social supports that are so necessary and that are often cut off very deliberately by perpetrators are being cut off due to the lockdown.
We all accept the idea that domestic violence is a very important issue and something that we need to respond to. We have seen from excellent work by the Garda and from awareness-raising that it is an issue that we all need to be aware of and provide support to.
Since 1996, 230 women in this country have died violently, with 61% having died in their own homes. The numbers are terrifying. I am not saying nobody is taking it seriously but this is where this kind of violence can lead us to. It is a very dark place. Long before we get to that, it is a dark place for the families and children involved.
I am very glad to see both Ministers responsible for this area here in the Chamber. I have been saying for a while to both of them and their predecessors that the divisional protective services units within An Garda Síochána are an excellent development and will provide an excellent service but I feel strongly that social workers, particularly duty social workers from Tusla, need to be seconded to and work full time in these units. Domestic violence is a family problem; it affects the victims and their children. We need different supports for different cases. We need to acknowledge the affected children, who are suffering just as much. They are victims also. It is only by providing a link between the social work services and the Garda protective services units that we will ensure a holistic approach. This is a really good model in terms of combatting child abuse generally and I hope it may be expanded to take in all issues where the work of social workers and the Garda overlaps. It is a model that has worked in other countries quite well. It is a model on which I wrote my thesis when doing my master's degree in social work, which was too long ago. I have spoken to both Ministers about this and I acknowledge they are taking it very seriously, but I want to take the opportunity to put on record again that the model would comprise a very positive service innovation if we could deliver it.
A positive innovation that we cannot deliver quickly enough, on which I know the Minister for Justice is working, is the new Family Courts Bill. Often perpetrators make excuses for their behaviour, perhaps blaming alcohol or passing it off. Sometimes we see judges, lawyers and gardaí buying into this. Specialist training in and sensitivity to domestic violence will help to address that. Specialist judges and specialist family courts will help to provide safety and security such that the system will not re-traumatise victims. I appreciate the Minister understands this and is working on this issue, but it is important to put it on the record.
I thank my colleague for sharing time.
I very much welcome the opportunity to speak on combatting domestic violence. Taking that issue alone, these statements could be entitled, "Why there should be no more national lockdowns". If one suffers from domestic violence, the national lockdown makes one a prisoner, a hostage in one’s own home. We have all read the statistics indicating the incidence and reporting of domestic violence have increased this year. Imagine for a second that one suffered abuse, physical or verbal, at the hands of a partner or parent and then heard the Government was contemplating six weeks of national lockdown. Imagine how terrified one would be.
No one has approached me personally on this but they have approached me on mental health issues. People with existing, diagnosed conditions and others who fear they have been affected in some way by Covid-related issues despaired at the thought of level 5 for six weeks. They look forward to the lifting of level 5 in just a couple of weeks, for December, but they know they are not going to enjoy the Christmas period because the threat of another lockdown will be hanging over them for the entire month. As others go about meeting family and friends and enjoying the festive season, all they will see is the likelihood of another lockdown increasing. That will do more incredible damage to them.
To change policy is not to admit a policy is wrong but just to admit circumstances have changed. They have changed. The understanding of the virus and our ability to combat it have changed. Our understanding of the damage of a lockdown, by comparison with the risks of the virus, has changed, and our expectations about a vaccine have changed. Therefore, it is time we changed our plans. The first lockdown, earlier this year, was the right thing to do. We can all accept that now because we did not know what we were facing into and we had to move quickly to protect our citizens. The current lockdown may be the right thing to do; it is too early to know. However, what if we now committed to a strategy that involved no more lockdowns, or no more levels 4 and 5, and that took the word "lockdown" out of our Covid lexicon? Knowing what we know now, what if we did that? What if the Government said it would move heaven and earth to prevent another lockdown and keep us safe from Covid? It can do both. We are aware of what we are capable of as a country now given what we have done over the past year. We know what we can do, that is, put rings of steel around communities that are vulnerable and increase our tracking and tracing, focusing on areas we know are at higher risk. There are also other things we can do that could prevent us from having to go into a lockdown. Imagine what it would mean to people if the Taoiseach made an address in December saying 2020 was tough but that 2021 would be better. He could say it and mean it if we changed our policy to have a no-lockdown strategy while still doing everything we could to beat back this virus. There are other ways, and it is time to debate them as we come out of level 5.
Slapping and kicking, stabbing with kitchen knives, penknives and scissors, burning with gas jets and cigarette lighters and belting with open hands, electronic equipment or furniture, whatever happens to be handy, are just part of what women and children face in circumstances of domestic violence. Men are also victims of such behaviour but, for the most part, it is women and their children who experience or witness it. It is one of the greatest perversions of domestic violence that women, as they lie on the floor or curl up in a ball, think that their children are not at the receiving end. They are, however, because the children are traumatised by what they know is happening to their mam. In some cases, they believe they themselves are to blame, in the belief that if they were better, nicer or cleverer, their mam might be spared. For so many women and children, home is not a refuge but a prison. They are locked in, locked up, monitored and scrutinised. Their belongings and sanity are ransacked, often by someone regarded as "a great fellow altogether" or "a pillar of the community" who looks like butter would not melt in his mouth. We have seen it in the newspapers.
The situation has been magnified by Covid-19 restrictions, leaving many women with no break from their bullying partners. So many women and children are dreading Christmas, with the pursuit of the perfect Christmas magnifying every problem, every slight. "My brother has a new car." — dig. "My mother never had time for me." — punch.
The refuges are wonderful and they are a miracle, a harbour in an unbearable storm. I visited Teach Tearmainn in Kildare. It is beautiful and it really does confer dignity immediately, along with protection, but we need more refuges. Many women who have come to me have said that when they reached the stage of going to a refuge, they preferred to leave their county. Therefore, every county needs a refuge. A woman thinks about what is going to happen to her and her children in the longer term, fearing homelessness because of the housing crisis. They would be homeless. This is where domestic violence and abuse become State violence and abuse. Our housing crisis is keeping women and children trapped inside four walls that are prisons, not homes.
I very much welcome this debate and the initiatives the Government has taken, but we must do more. The sharing of intimate pictures has been mentioned during this debate. I remember standing outside the Dáil a few years ago at a demonstration after the death of Ms Dara Quigley. Her brother was speaking. Dara's death was also a form of State violence. It brought great shame to An Garda Síochána. I was talking about my dad having been a member of An Garda Síochána last night. When the incident concerning Dara occurred, I was never so ashamed. I was glad that my dad was dead when it happened. Dara was a brave star. She was an ideological person working to shape a better future for society and she was let down by the State and by An Garda Síochána. We have to do better.
I am happy to be here to speak on what is a silent epidemic. It has been prevalent in Ireland not just recently but for many generations. When we speak about domestic violence, we need to contextualise it to a degree. It includes abusive relationships, taking many different forms. Included are the physical abuse of hitting, pushing, denying medical care, emotional abuse, manipulation, threats, name-calling, sexual abuse, rape, sexual assault, pressuring a person to have sex, and image-sharing, as has been discussed. It also includes economic abuse, the withholding of funds to put someone in debt and deliberate neglect.
One of the areas we should look at in the Dáil this year is the issue of the school food programme. Many schools are running it. It provides a necessary function for children who are suffering neglect in their family homes. All of these issues encompass coercive control, predominantly against women, but men suffer too in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. Significant emotional damage occurs and results for victims.
What is the nature of domestic violence? Is it nature or nurture? Can we look for it in our environment? Does it come from our families? Is it something we see? Who are the victims? We know they are wives. They are also partners, children and adolescents. In many cases, those who have been subjected to domestic violence may well find that they bring it into future relationships. There are significant triggers which people in these situations talk about, including alcohol, other addictions, unemployment, jealousy, anxiety, suppressed rage, personality disorders and social-media related jealousy, which is a new phenomenon. I would also highlight gambling. Online gambling has been a silent epidemic that is bringing more and more financial hardship. In itself this brings more domestic pressure. The sufferer's state of mind is relevant, as is the fear that the person has. There may be esteem issues. The person may feel she is not worthy to counter someone who is predating on her in this way. Shame, financial insecurity, vulnerability and previous psychological traumas that the person may have suffered may allow the person to continue to suffer in future and ensure the person will not see a new or genuine opportunity come along.
, Ireland has only one third of the recommended capacity of refuges - something which has been spoken about today. Many are communal and therefore unsuitable in the context of a pandemic. What role can the State play? What about refuges and family law support? I applaud the Garda for the ongoing operations. I would like to see an increase in barring orders. How does the PULSE system record domestic violence? Should a register of offenders be complied? I believe it should. If we are going to have a sex offenders register, then we should have a domestic violence register as well. We know that people who break the law in this way will probably do it in future. It is likely the person will take it from one relationship to another.
We know domestic violence has risen as a result of Covid-19. Some 15% of women and 6% of men in Ireland have experienced severe domestic violence from a partner. That most women in Ireland who have been killed were intentionally killed by a current or former intimate partner is a source of concern.
Some of the Deputies have spoken about Safe Ireland and the results of the recent surveys. It is no harm to restate briefly the results. Some 3,450 women and 589 children contacted domestic violence services for the first time in recent months. On average, at least 1,970 women and 411 children received support from a domestic violence service each month. Some 33,941 helpline calls were answered representing an average of 184 calls per day. We assume they are not all coming from the same households. At least 150 households every day are looking for help. On average, 191 women and 288 children were living in domestic violence accommodation each month. We know they want to get out and have the opportunity to move on. Some 1,350 requests for refuge could not be met due to a lack of space. Those providing the services have worked tirelessly to create and find accommodation in the community. The numbers are rising and the present lockdown, as has been discussed, is a difficult time for many.
This all serves to highlight this problem in Ireland today. It signals the personal stress in people's lives. It signals the stress in our system and the State's response to deal with it.
I will offer some things in terms of initiatives to combat domestic abuse. As I have said, one proposal is an offenders' register. I know legally it may be difficult but I believe if a person has abused and assaulted a partner in the home, that person should be recorded publicly. People need to have the idea that this might be in the public domain. We need pro-arrest policy continuation. If gardaí are called out to a door, they should nearly seek to arrest if there has been a significant case of assault. The gardaí should not return a woman to the situation knowing the consequences of lockdown and that someone has nowhere to go to vent frustration.
We need to see the protection of women across all sectors on the road to recovery from social housing protection to education. We must find education and access to healthcare and the criminal justice system. We need a specific law. I want to see legislation enacted on the sharing of images without consent.
That is basically it. I reiterate what the other Deputies have said. Most important, what needs to be recognised about domestic violence is that it is a cowardly thing. It is done by people with little esteem to people who may be suffering esteem issues. Education, social services and integration can help but the State must give support. We must do more to shine a light into this area. We must show people they are not alone. We must show that the State can create future opportunities outside the relationships that people may have.
At the outset I commend both Ministers on their early work and immediate impact in what is a difficult area. Covid-19 and the ancillary restrictions have brought the issue of domestic violence sharply into focus. The reality is that no community or parish has been immune. In Longford, the team at Longford Women's Link provides a first-rate support service. It has seen referrals and contacts spiral during the past year. September and August in 2019 saw the team deal directly with 94 cases. Yet, this year has seen a near 50% increase. Over the same two months the team has dealt with 140 cases. Unfortunately, that is heading towards three cases per day. That only reflects those victims who have been able to come forward. Unfortunately, there is a silent majority of mothers and sisters who are being subjected to violence, intimidation, coercion as well as mental, physical and online abuse. We welcome the launch of the dedicated protected persons unit in the Longford Roscommon Garda division. The unit is providing an important, informed and victim-focused service and support.
Unfortunately, the statistics show that our mothers and sisters are among the least likely in Europe to come forward and report crimes of domestic abuse. A victim blaming culture is often cited as the reason for this. There is an urgent need for cultural change in how crimes of this nature are viewed. I believe the consequences of Covid-19 have given all the agencies working in this area an opportunity to reflect on the challenges and difficulties facing victims in coming forward. Tusla is undertaking a strategic review of emergency accommodation for victims of domestic violence. This is a critical issue for us in Longford, where there is no dedicated refuge. Instead, victims from throughout the midlands are dependent on the excellent Esker House facility in Athlone. However, at that facility there are only four family units. I hope the review will provide insight into the current distribution of services and unmet needs. Certainly, based on the figures reported to us from Longford Women's Link, the region needs a dedicated refuge with the necessary facilities and supports for families caught in this nightmare.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this important and timely debate. I thank the two Ministers present for their obvious commitment and factual work on this. I pay credit to my county colleague, Deputy Carroll MacNeill. She has contributed a great deal of time, professionally as well as politically, not only to the issue of domestic abuse but coercive control as well. It shows the power each of us have in the roles we hold.
Unfortunately, when we are dealing with this topic we know we all have constituents who have made representations to our offices and who need a transfer on the housing list. They need to have a conversation about it because, ultimately, barring orders do not always have the required effect. Prison sentences do not last forever. Many people, nearly all of them women, are living in fear and their children are living in fear. What will happen when the knock on the door comes or when the person might see someone in the street? We need to bear that in mind with all our statements. We need bear in mind not only the anecdotal evidence but the statistical evidence that we have all poured through. Indeed, the statistics are shocking. Deputy Funchion made the point earlier that perhaps they have always been there but now they are actually being reported.
We know the reporting levels in Ireland are painfully low compared to other European jurisdictions. The fact that reports to An Garda Síochána are up 25% is a worry and perhaps those reports only scratch the surface.
I will put one practical suggestion to the Minister. The system used in the UK is the silent solution, whereby one makes a phone call but, as we have seen in the advertisements and we know the situations, one might not be in a position to talk through fear or anything else. Simply pressing 55 on a mobile phone, however, alerts the police who make their way to the caller's location. That is the sort of practical solution that may play a part in allowing or encouraging more people to come forward. They should not have to come forward because these disgusting acts should not be happening. They should not have been happening 50 years ago and they certainly should not be happening today. Every one of us is right to stand here in this Oireachtas and condemn it from a height.
I concur in the comments from Deputy Duncan Smith when it comes to the sharing of revenge porn and sexual abuse images. I welcome the commitment by the Minister and the justice committee to proceed with this legislation as quickly as possible. As Deputy Smith said earlier, there is a particular responsibility on men, particularly men of a similar vintage to me and Deputy Smith, to call this out, not just in the Chamber when we are speaking in refined parliamentary tones, but to call it out on WhatsApp and social media and to say to our peers, friends, acquaintances, the lads in the team or whoever it may be that this is not on. The sharing of the personal, private details of a friend or someone who thought you were a friend, of a loved one, or of someone's sister, daughter or mother is abhorrent and disgusting. It needs to end and we need to provide for legal ramifications for it.
I am delighted to speak in this debate. It is timely that we are discussing this today on International Men's Day. All men should have a sense of shame and abhorrence to see what has happened in recent days with the images that were shared on the Internet on different sites. People can call it coercive control or revenge porn but there are no adjectives to describe it. It is disgusting and abhorrent. It is concerning to any of us who are parents or grandparents to know that these things can happen and that men can do this. This seems to have been done in an organised fashion. A lot of effort and intuition was put into it.
The Minister must act. We must act and cannot wait to act. We acted in the banking crisis, we acted with Covid and we acted recently in health legislation. The Minister brought in measures to allow vulture funds to use hearsay evidence. This is shocking. I am not saying anything personal to the Minister because I know she will act. We have to act immediately to have legislation in place that stops these images being shared. They are often, as previous speakers have said, taken in good faith. They are sometimes taken with people under 18. It is truly shocking and it must resonate with all of us in our core values. It is not acceptable.
I salute the Cuan Saor women's refuge in Clonmel and the Tipperary Rape Crisis Centre. The volunteers who man those centres - there are some paid people as well - have to go out fundraising. These are the only refuges people have and I salute the people there. I know many of them from being involved in the day under the arches each September, where they do a huge fundraising campaign and raise awareness. Musicians, singers and other talented people come along to entertain, people pay and there are bucket collections. It is a shame they have to do that. They should be funded. I salute Geraldine Mullane, Breeda Bell, Verona Nugent and the many others who are involved in the huge organisation that day entails. They could not have that day this year because of lockdown.
When will we learn about lockdown? Look at the trauma. The figures that have been put out show a 25% increase. I heard Deputy Eoghan Murphy with interest. He was a member of the Cabinet when, as Shane Ross said, Dr. Holohan frightened the - I will not use the word Shane Ross used - out of Cabinet members. We were all frightened but Dr. David Nabarro has said clearly that lockdowns do not work. Lockdowns are regressive and particularly harmful to poorer people and people with less income. Can Deputies imagine being in a house, flat or area where there is violence? It can work both ways and some men are affected as well by domestic violence. This is occurring during the dark, dreary, desperate days of lockdown at the moment with bad weather and short days, as we look forward to Christmas while being fed the line that we will have another lockdown after Christmas. We need to listen to the WHO. Ministers quote it when it suits them. The WHO has said lockdowns do not work. We know they do not work. It is interesting to hear it coming from Deputy Eoghan Murphy and I welcome it because he was in the Cabinet that brought it in.
I salute An Garda Síochána across the country, especially in Tipperary under Chief Superintendent Derek Smart and superintendents including Denis Whelan in Cahir; Pat O'Connor, who has just retired; and Willie Leahy.
When this new sexual unit was being set up some months ago, An Garda Síochána was oversubscribed with interest from gardaí. They wanted 12 gardaí and two sergeants. I wish that unit well. It is badly needed.
Time has evolved and education is important. It is a bad day when we do not learn something, but it was a horrific day when we learned about the events of recent days. We must act in the coming weeks and not after Christmas. We cannot leave it, especially with the crisis of lockdown.
I salute all the gardaí who gallantly join the force. I pay tribute again to Sergeant Niall O'Halloran, who was laid to rest on Tuesday. He was a great man who worked in the community. He had the trust of the people and the people had his back. They could call to his house and he dealt with issues sensitively, as all gardaí do. They need further education and we need stronger legislation. We need emergency legislation there. Unfortunately, when those units are set up, the community policing unit is affected and the traffic corps is diminished because the units recruit from within the force. We need more gardaí and I know the Government is recruiting more. Issues are turning up now. We have to deal with the issue of porn and other issues on the web. Cybercrime is dangerous as well. We have to deal with this sensibly and urgently. I appeal to the Minister to introduce legislation to deal with this matter in the near future. I am talking about days, not weeks, because we cannot face Christmas with this situation. This will stir up more by being debated and put more fear into the people we are trying to help.
I do not share the sentiments of Deputy Mattie McGrath in relation to Deputy Eoghan Murphy. He is like a well-placed product who has come in on three occasions to sell a message on the lifting of lockdown. In the context of this debate, I think it is a misuse of the time. He was part of a Government that failed to deal with domestic violence, failed to prioritise it and failed to provide enough shelters. Perhaps he might have addressed all those issues today. That would have been welcome to me as a woman and an Independent Deputy.
I welcome the Minister for Justice's written speech, as always. I welcome the layout of it and I accept her bona fides when she says she is giving this priority. The first District Court order by video link and the first conviction under the Domestic Violence Act 2018 are very welcome. I welcome that the audit will be published and the Minister has given a date for that in March. That is all positive.
The figures are truly horrifying. I have less than two and a half minutes so I will not go into them. Without a doubt, they increased during Covid. The victims are predominantly women and children. However, any government that is seriously interested in dealing with domestic violence must provide sufficient refuges. That is simple so I would like to have seen the Minister deal with that today in her speech in the first instance. Different measures are used but, taking the measure in favour of the Government, we are still short of 45 refuges for women. If we take another figure, we are 350 refuges short. That is number one. We cannot talk about dealing with domestic violence unless we have a sufficient number of safe places for women to go to. They can be multifunctional. When we have dealt with domestic violence, those refuges can be used for something else in the future so it is money well spent.
I will conclude by talking about the cost of domestic violence.
I am glad that we have moved on from the term "domestic incidents". These are serious assaults and crimes and we should be talking about them as such. A conservative estimate of their cost is more than €2.3 billion per year. I would like to see a cost-benefit analysis or some other analysis by the Parliamentary Budget Office or another group showing what domestic violence is costing us.
This debate is timely, given that it follows the publication of the Safe Ireland report, entitled Tracking the Shadow Pandemic: A report on women and children seeking support from Domestic Violence Services during the first 6 months of Covid-19, which makes for harrowing reading. Since the statistics have been well aired, I will not repeat them.
I thank the former Minister, Senator Doherty, the Government and the Department of Social Protection for putting in place the emergency rent supplement pilot programme for victims of domestic violence. From speaking with many of those who work in the field, this speedy, non-means-tested avenue to help victims transition from abusive situations is working well locally. One practitioner to whom I spoke stated that the responses from the Department had been open-hearted and generous. The pilot is working in my constituency. It is crucial that this programme be mainstreamed.
There is good co-operation between the Departments of Social Protection and Justice, but notwithstanding the fact that combating domestic violence is a national priority, no money for it appears to have been ring-fenced in Tusla's budget and its domestic violence unit seems to have been abandoned. This is what I have heard nationally and locally. For example, we have heard of €800,000 being provided, but fundraising that depended on the generosity of the public, corporations and artists raised €500,000 during the same period. This issue needs to be addressed.
The Minister is aware of another issue, but I want to raise it again. The Sligo-Leitrim constituency does not have a dedicated domestic violence refuge, and there seems to be little to no progress in putting one in place. There is good co-operation between local authorities, housing and homeless agencies and landlords, but we need a dedicated refuge. Does the Minister have positive news for us in that regard?
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV. I am grateful for the heartfelt and genuine contributions from Deputies across the House. I had just joined the House when the first wave of Covid-19 restrictions were announced this year, and there was a concern shared by every Deputy and the general public at large about the restrictions' possible impact on people who were at risk of DSGBV, including the potentially volatile situations that lockdown created and the separation of vulnerable people from their support networks and the wider social services on which they relied. It was a source of deep concern for us all. There were specific risks for victims of domestic violence during Covid-19, for example, social isolation and their particular vulnerability. These presented additional challenges in victims accessing supports.
It is important to acknowledge the considerable work being done by the many voluntary organisations that work in this sector. They have gone above and beyond in recent months to ensure that services and refuges are kept open. The vital lifeline these represent for those at risk of DSGBV has remained in place. The organisations have shown great care in supporting victims.
We have seen a change in society's approach to the issue of DSGBV in recent months. That is evident in the context of the Irish Women in Harmony campaign organised by Safe Ireland, but there has been a wider response within communities. In my community in Dublin 15, various GAA clubs and Scouting Ireland groups raised money for the constituency's Sonas shelter. Deputies would have seen similar instances in their own constituencies.
Since its formation, the Government has made it clear that tackling DSGBV is a key priority for all of us. Our programme for Government calls out the fact that there is an epidemic - that is the word we used - of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in this country. It is a multifaceted problem that requires all arms of the State to work together to address the issue and support those who are experiencing such violence. In the Government, the work is being led by the Minister, Deputy McEntee's Department and mine, but it involves all Departments and State agencies.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of DSGBV and provides funding to more than 60 organisations across the country that support them. Tusla supports emergency refuges in providing services for adults and children fleeing domestic violence and supports organisations involved in the provision of rape crisis services and a range of community-base domestic violence supports.
At the time of budget 2021, I made it clear that I wanted to focus investment in these services, thereby supporting the most vulnerable in our community, particularly during Covid-19. An increased provision for Tusla and the organisations it supports is central to this. As part of budget 2021, my Department secured the largest increase in funding for Tusla since the agency's foundation.
Recently, I engaged with my officials and Tusla's senior management on Tusla's business plan for 2021, which will determine how it funds the various services it provides across the country. I emphasised to them the importance of resourcing DSGBV services to sustainable levels, particularly in the current circumstances. In 2021, a total of €30 million will be made available by my Department to Tusla to fund DSGBV services specifically. This includes a €2.7 million increase in core services, bringing core service provision to €28 million, with an additional €2 million of one-off contingency funding being made available to help services cope with the ongoing effects of Covid-19. This is a total increase of €4.7 million for 2021 over the initial 2020 figure. I am pleased that we have been able to announce a significant increase in DSGBV funding for next year. I hope it will enable services to expand their vital supports for victims and their families. The additional funding to Tusla in 2021 will also allow for increased levels of services to child victims or witnesses of DSGBV, which is a key aspect of our commitment under the Istanbul Convention.
While I understand that much of the media's focus in recent weeks has been on refuge capacity, which I will address in a moment, Tusla funds a wide range of services in this regard and it is important to note that more than 75% of referrals to its social workers involve domestic violence.
Deputies will be aware that Tusla is undertaking a review of emergency accommodation nationwide. This will assess the current and requisite distribution of safe emergency accommodation. It is important that we provide funding where services are needed the most. The review process involves consultation with key stakeholders. The review's findings and the recommendations of the monitoring committee of the second national strategy on DSGBV will inform Tusla's future decisions on priority areas for investment in and development of services. Tusla has advised me that the report will be published next April.
It is of the utmost importance that the needs of those who experience domestic violence are met in the most appropriate way possible. I strongly support the work of Tusla and its funded service providers and I am committed to supporting the agency in meeting the needs of individuals who experience domestic violence. I look forward to responding to Tusla's audit of refuge accommodation across the country and to it ensuring that new refuges are appropriately designed to avoid congregation.
While funding will be crucial to our success in tackling DSGBV, it is imperative that we have the right structures in place to allow the Government to respond as effectively as possible. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, referenced this matter. Under the programme for Government, we have committed to undertaking an audit of responsibility for DSGBV across Departments and State agencies.
The procurement process to secure the expertise to conduct this audit is under way. We expect that audit to be completed in the first quarter of 2021, and this Government will act on the basis of that audit.
I take this opportunity to condemn image-based abuse. Under no circumstances should any photographs of an intimate or sexual nature or any video be shared online without the consent of the individual involved. This sexual exploitation is happening online and is incredibly harmful to those whose images have been shared in groups or posted online. It is a violation of privacy and intimacy at the highest level. There must be a zero tolerance approach to image-based abuse.
Our programme for Government commits to the enactment of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill, which will be a positive step in preventing the sharing of intimate images online and combating this criminal and sexually abusive behaviour. This is an issue where women are the primary targets and the outcome of this abuse can be catastrophic. It can often have severe repercussions on a woman's mental health, family life and reputation. Women face the constant threat of sexual abuse and violence and should not have to live in fear that this abuse could happen to them. Without laws in place to combat these crimes, women can continue to be victims.
Everyday sexism, sexual violence and the all-too-familiar framing of that sexual violence as the fault of the victim cannot continue. There must come an end to victim blaming and victim shaming. As part of my Department's remit on gender equality, including the national strategy for women and girls, we will work to tackle the culture of domestic and sexual gender-based violence and harassment in our country.
I thank Deputies for their contributions. As I said at the outset, I know that concern about the instances of DSGBV in our country is something that is genuinely shared by all Members of the House. The programme for Government has identified the scale of the issue, and the Government is already implementing measures to better equip our country to deal with it. We are outlining how we will better fund our services to support victims. I am committed to working with my colleagues in government, in particular the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, with service providers and all those working the sector to provide the best possible help for those who need support and developing strategies that prevent domestic, sexual and gender-based violence from occurring in the first place.