Seanad debates

Thursday, 13 October 2005

11:00 am

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for raising this matter and for giving me an opportunity to update the House on progress on this important issue. Even before I assumed responsibility for this area, I was struck by the complexity of the problem of domestic violence and of the need for a multifaceted approach to tackling it. Domestic violence is a serious problem, one which we may not have properly acknowledged or faced up to as a society in the past. This has changed significantly in recent years and we now have a much greater awareness of its extent and gravity. I hope this will give us the basis for dealing with it in a serious fashion.

I do not propose to lecture Senators this morning on the scale of the problem or its seriousness. We now know that domestic violence can appear in many forms and is rarely an isolated or sporadic event.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I do not wish to interrupt proceedings but will copies of the Minister of State's speech be made available?

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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They will.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Thank you.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We also know it happens all around the country, that it affects people of all ages and social classes and is present in both urban and rural communities. I consider that it would be useful to outline what the current and planned response is to this problem. The starting point for the State's response in recent years, as many Senators will be aware, is the 1997 task force report. Arising from that, the Government established the national steering committee on violence against women, which I am very pleased to chair. This committee involves all the Departments and agencies tasked with responding to the issue as well as representatives of a wide range of voluntary groups working with victims of violence.

The committee has a number of objectives, including promoting public awareness of the problem and co-ordinating responses from both the State and voluntary sector. Above all, the committee acts as a forum for co-operation and cross-fertilisation of experience and insight between the groups involved. A system of regional planning committees is in place, based in each of the old health board areas. Local State and voluntary groups are also represented on these planning committees.

A great deal has been achieved by the committee and the regional groups since their establishment. Their work has focused mainly on the recommendations of the task force report. However, in more recent times we have realised there is a need to re­focus our efforts. Earlier this year we commissioned the development of a new strategic plan for the steering committee. This will take account of developments since its establishment and chart our work for the next five to ten years. It will also review the effectiveness of the mechanisms in place for delivering on our objectives. I have no doubt there is room for improvement and that we will be able to identify necessary improvements as part of this exercise. This project has involved consultation with a wide range of organisations and individuals throughout Ireland and is now coming to fruition. I expect it to be finalised early next year when we will begin its implementation.

While it is essential that we have a strategic direction for our efforts in this field, it might appear that discussion of plans and strategies are a bit removed from the harsh reality of domestic violence. What we are dealing with is a crime. Society must treat it as such and punish offenders. Unfortunately, it is a difficult crime with which to deal, in large part because the relationship between perpetrator and victim is not a normal one. There are usually barriers of influence, authority, shame and even affection which militate against reporting and prosecution. Ireland is not unique in this; the international experience is identical. The key is for the State to seek to break down these barriers.

I am pleased to report that the Garda has done a great deal to ensure domestic violence is dealt with as a serious criminal matter. A domestic violence and sexual assault unit was given a national role in 1997 and an assistant commissioner has been assigned specific responsibility for the area. To direct its approach, the Garda has a written policy on domestic violence intervention. That policy is arrest oriented which means the decision to arrest or not is not down simply to the stated wishes of the injured person upon arrival at the scene. The policy recognises the vulnerable circumstances in which the victim finds himself or herself. Any evidence of fear or harassment is brought to the attention of the court in the event of a bail application.

The Garda role is, in a sense, to come between the power and dominance of the offender and to seek to break the hold over the victim. This domestic violence policy is an integral part of Garda training and is reinforced continually. The feedback suggests that the policy is well regarded nationally and internationally and has made for an improved response. Nonetheless, the Garda has been involved in a major review of its features, with a view to modernising and honing them further. As is proper, wide consultation has taken place on this and we expect to see the finished product very soon.

In order to respond effectively, however, a legal framework for tackling domestic violence must also be in place. Again, this is an area where good progress has been made. A comprehensive range of offences is available to the Garda with which to charge perpetrators, including measures which take account of previously unacknowledged phenomena such as harassment or stalking behaviour. This is also an area where, I understand, our European colleagues believe we represent good practice. A key element in this framework is that established by the domestic violence legislation. As Senators will be aware, this provides for a range of orders to protect the victim from the threat of abuse and to punish breaches of those orders. The Garda policy is to always arrest where there are reasonable grounds for believing that such an order has been breached.

Despite the progress that has been made, there is no doubt that the level of reporting remains low. We know this from a range of studies, the most recent being the authoritative National Crime Council report which found that a little under a quarter of all people surveyed who had experienced severe abuse had reported it to the Garda. The crime council report looked in detail at the reasons for non-reporting and pointed towards areas in which we must work. Lack of confidence in the system and-or the Garda feature in these responses but the overall picture is complex. More than half of those surveyed attributed non-reporting to such factors as a belief that it was not serious enough, that is was the victim's own fault in some way or that it could lead to the end of the relationship. This highlights how difficult an issue this is to tackle and how we need to do everything we can, not just to improve the response of the criminal justice system at all levels, but also to build up the confidence of victims in the system. Victims must feel they can rely on the system and that what they have experienced will be taken very seriously. We must convince them of this through our actions and in continually improving the effectiveness and the co-ordination of our responses.

An important element in our response is also to improve society's awareness of the problem, to emphasise that domestic violence is a crime and that help is available. Some of the best work of the national steering committee has been in this area and I believe it has borne fruit. The steering committee has run national print, poster and broadcast campaigns and the response received has been positive. We have also funded local groups to run awareness raising programmes in their areas. A key element in much of our campaigning work has been to let people know they can play a part in ending domestic violence. We hope these campaigns will encourage members of society to help make a safer and better life for those affected by violence.

Another less high profile but invaluable task has been to make available information leaflets and other publicity material. These are widely distributed. People experiencing violence must be able to easily access information in a simple format about where they can turn for help and what are their rights. We have also provided funding on a pilot basis to programmes which involve awareness raising among older secondary school students and are interested in working with the Department of Education and Science to ensure this is expanded.

There is obviously much more to be done to encourage further and earlier reporting and to improve the criminal justice sector response. I expect this will form a central part in our new strategic plan and we will not be afraid to look critically at every element of what we do. As I stated, however, we will need a multifaceted approach to this problem and thus we are incorporating a range of more novel solutions into our overall approach. Consequently, the Department funds a number of perpetrator programmes designed to promote changes in personal behaviour and prevent future abuse. This is challenging work and far from being straightforward but, in some instances and with the right safeguards, it does have a role to play in tackling the problem.

In recognition of the difficulties experienced by persons appearing in court under the aforementioned circumstances, the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime within my Department also provides funding to Women's Aid and Rape Crisis to assist with running court accompaniment services. We also fund a pilot domestic violence intervention exercise in the Dún Laoghaire and Bray areas which aims to work with all of the agencies in the locality, including the Garda, the courts and the probation and welfare service so as to make the criminal justice system and other response systems work together better. I look forward to reviewing the lessons we can learn from this exercise.

Our record demonstrates that we will examine any model or listen to any advice that may contribute to tackling the problem. If it seems to have the capacity to add to the solution, we will test it and seek to integrate it with other efforts. We also work closely with non-governmental organisations, academics and others in commissioning and funding research into all aspects of domestic violence. We realise that the problem is complex and that the solutions need to be evidence-based. As already stated, the problems experienced in Ireland are similar to those in other jurisdictions and we are involved in regular co-operation with other authorities. In particular, we co-sponsor a very productive forum, Raising the Standards, which involves a wide range of official and voluntary bodies in Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales.

I am conscious that my comments so far have focused on the criminal justice response. In emphasising that we need to treat domestic violence as a crime, we should not lose sight of the fact that victims will need services that are outside the capacity of the criminal justice system. If these are effective, it may encourage people to report crimes but, even if they never do, it is essential that their health and welfare needs are met as a priority.

The Department of Health and Children is responsible, through the Health Service Executive, for the provision of services to victims of violence, including domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. As the Senators will know, these are mainly provided by non-governmental organisations. The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government assists in the provision of crisis accommodation, including refuge accommodation for people who are forced to leave their homes as a result of domestic violence.

All of our work with the relevant non-governmental agencies takes place on a partnership basis and I am very conscious of the need to ensure they are adequately funded to provide their vital services. As many Senators will be aware, the scarcity of resources in this area has been a matter of concern for some time. Funding from the Department of Health and Children, for example, has been increased to €12 million from the base of less than €4 million that obtained when the national steering committee was established but there appears to be a need to consider increasing this further. I am sure this issue has been raised with many Senators — as it has been with me — by various groups throughout the country.

The funding question was, as many Senators will be aware, highlighted last week by Women's Aid when it presented its annual helpline statistics. I do not want to engage in a micro-discussion on the funding needs of any particular group but I appreciate that Senators will have an interest in this instance. It certainly calls attention to the issue generally. I am pleased to say that the Health Service Executive will be meeting Women's Aid shortly and that the funding issues can be raised directly with it, as the responsible agency. My Department already provides funding to Women's Aid under a number of headings and is also in discussions with the organisation regarding certain of its needs that fall within our funding remit. I hope this will enable it to direct resources towards frontline services such as its helpline.

On the more general funding question, arising from concerns regarding this issue I established an interdepartmental group earlier this year to examine funding for the whole sector. The group is examining the needs that exist, the funding already available and the co-ordination of funding across Departments. The aim is to ensure that the sector is in a position to provide proper treatment and support services to all who need them and that the national budget for these services can be planned in a co-ordinated way. The group will shortly be making its report and I hope to be discussing the recommendations very soon and planning their implementation with my colleagues in Government, including in the context of the Estimates campaign.

I pay tribute to the many non-governmental organisations that have, over the years, provided services and support to victims of domestic violence, many of whom I have had an opportunity to meet. As I said, we are open to suggestions on how to take this work forward and I look forward to hearing Members' views on the subject.

Sheila Terry (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, to the House to discuss this very important issue. It is very often neglected and we do so to our cost. If we choose to neglect the many women — it is mostly women — who suffer from domestic violence, we are doing them a great disservice.

The Minister of State will be aware that the Women's Aid helpline received almost 20,000 calls this year. This is an increase of 5% on the number of calls last year. There was also an increase in the number of calls the organisation missed because it did not have enough personnel to take them. I would welcome any commitment to make available to the organisation the funding necessary to provide an adequate helpline service.

It sends shivers up our spines to think of what it must be like to be in a setting where there is domestic violence. It is usually not just the women who are in such a setting because, in general, children are also present. Surveys show that women admit that children were present during the majority of violent incidents in their homes. This is certainly not good for any child.

There is evidence to prove that a person who has been abused himself or herself as a child, or who has witnessed abuse, may grow up to be an abuser or be abused. It is an issue that affects the entire family and others and, therefore, must be tackled. We have been talking about this subject for many years and I feel we are not making enough progress. The problem will get worse because of our changing society. We now have many foreign nationals living in our country who come from different cultures. It is possible that in the countries from which they come, and certainly some of the eastern European countries, women are not as well respected as they are here. I know dreadful violence is perpetrated against many women in such countries. The people are now living here, some of them living in circumstances where there is domestic violence. When the Minister of State is drawing up a report, he will need to consider the cultural differences and practices of people of other nationalities who are now living in Ireland and make them aware of how we value women and the fact that we will not tolerate domestic violence.

Another issue that arises because of our changing society is the trafficking of women. This practice highlights the plight of another group of people who are being abused. I would like to see this issue addressed in any report the Minister of State produces. Only last week we saw reports in the media on the opening or proposed opening of a lap dancing club by a well-known personality from the United Kingdom. The sex industry culture is coming into the country and this needs to be addressed. The question as to whether this is to be allowed might warrant a Seanad debate for another day. However, strict guidelines should be in place to assure the safety of women participating or working in those premises. These are vulnerable groups coming into Ireland and they need to be dealt with, quite apart from Irish people already living in situations of domestic violence.

People living in these situations put up with matters for some time. They may ring the Women's Aid helpline or seek help in other places. When all else fails and the situation cannot be improved, the last resort is to leave home. That is why we need to have a very good support mechanism in place, namely, refuges throughout the country. It is well known that these excellent facilities cannot cope with the demand. It is sad to reflect that if women have to leave home, in many cases bringing their children with them, they cannot find a place either in a local refuge or one that could be many miles away from home. There is the question, too, of children being taken from their schools and environment, thereby compounding the problems. The lives of the children involved are being upset. It is therefore very important to have refuge accommodation in every county.

I was very disappointed to learn recently that the refuge that was planned for the Dublin 15 area in Blanchardstown is not to go ahead. That is a great mistake, given the area has a population of nearly 100,000. If a refuge is located locally, it means at least that if children are brought along, they can continue to attend their own schools so that their daily routines are not upset too much. More direct action needs to be taken. The Minister of State is dealing with this matter through the voluntary organisations but he cannot wash his hands of it like that. If the voluntary organisations are to do this work, which is the way in which the Government is dealing with the problem, they must be given the necessary funding. It is no use paying lip service to the problem by saying the money has been given to the organisations concerned and they should simply get on with it. The organisations say they do not have enough money and need to be adequately resourced. Otherwise it is a matter of paying lip service and that is not good enough. We also need to ensure that the services being provided are appropriate to all women, whether native Irish or immigrants.

As regards the legal system, fewer than one in ten women victims of sexual violence reports the matter to the Garda. We are really looking at just the tip of the iceberg. Very few women will have the courage to go to the Garda. They see reports in the newspapers about rape cases. The number of rape cases brought to court do not reflect the overall number of such incidents every year. Consider what a woman must go through when she goes to the court, say, in a domestic violence case with all that this entails, whether she has been beaten up, emotionally damaged or, indeed, raped. Very few women are strong enough after such experiences to put themselves through the courts. The courts system needs to be looked at to see if it can be made more user friendly. Women in such situations feel an enormous amount of hostility towards them. It is a matter about which people do not want to talk. Men certainly feel uncomfortable talking about this and the issue tends to get brushed under the carpet. We can no longer do that and must address these issues. Tackling the courts area would do a great favour for many women so that this problem can be properly addressed.

I hope the Minister of State will continue to fund the National Steering Committee on Violence Against Women. This committee certainly does a great deal of good work and needs to be funded. I look forward to the report it is to publish shortly. However, it has taken a long time to get this report and the committee is to present a five-year plan. What have we been doing for all those years? Women have been living in this type of situation for a very long time. Let us get on with it without delay and make it work.

I will finish with a statistic to show how serious is the issue. In 2004 Women's Aid reported that 107 women were murdered since 1996, 69 of them in their own homes. This is the extreme when we talk about murder, but it is happening on an increasing basis. A year later those numbers are higher. Obviously this situation is unacceptable. Women are in danger today and want to see action.

Photo of Tony KettTony Kett (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and congratulate the Leader on putting this issue down for discussion. It is almost two years since it was last discussed in the House. It is a matter of such major importance that it should, indeed, be debated much more often. We should be monitoring the progress being made, if any.

I compliment the many voluntary organisations that work at the coalface, in this regard. Women's Aid, in particular, springs to mind as one of the great strengths for unfortunate women who suffer from domestic violence. The level of comfort and commitment that organisation gives to these people is unquantifiable. Unfortunately, Women's Aid is working in a vacuum, attempting to cope with fire brigade situations on a basic needs level rather than in any type of co-ordinated manner. That is regrettable because it means the organisation's efforts do not measure up appropriately, through no fault of its own.

Those of us who have never experienced domestic violence can only begin to imagine how lonely a place it must be for a woman and her children, where these are involved. It is through the tireless efforts of the voluntary bodies concerned that we are now discussing the issue of which there is a much greater awareness. Through their efforts we now realise this is a serious, complex and social issue. We spoke of this matter nearly two years ago when I recall quoting a statistic that out of 81 women murdered, 53 had been killed in their homes. I was reading some of the information that came to us which indicated that these figures related to 1996 and we were talking about it early in 2004. The figure has now gone up to 111, they tell us, with 72 women murdered in their homes. In the intervening period 30 women have been murdered, 19 of them in their homes. That is a damning statistic.

The research also indicates that one in five women suffers this type of mental, physical and sexual abuse. Imagine how difficult it can be for a woman to leave an environment such as that. Research indicates that those who take this step are in greater danger than they were while in a violent relationship, which is hard to believe.

It is imperative that we take all necessary steps to ensure women experiencing domestic violence are adequately supported when they take the onerous decision to leave a relationship. We must remember that a woman who makes such a decision leaves behind all her aspirations and desires for herself, her partner or husband and any children she may have. Many victims leave their homes accompanied by their children and with only the clothes on their backs. It must be a devastating physical and emotional experience for a woman to risk leaving a violent relationship knowing full well the mind of her abusive partner. She will experience the trauma of leaving home, the apprehension that her partner will carry out reprisals and the emotional distress of worrying about her future and those of any children she may have. I cannot even begin to imagine what must go through a woman's mind in such circumstances. Mothers will put their lives on the line for their children and many will stay in violent relationships and endure the pain in the belief that it is the lesser of two evils because leaving would result in their children having no roof over their heads.

It is a sad reflection on society that so many women live in fear. As Senator Terry noted, domestic violence is primarily a women's issue and most perpetrators are men. The fact that it occurs in the home, supposedly a loving and protective environment, makes the experience even more devastating for victims. It is dangerous to regard the fact that perpetrator and victim live together as a mitigating circumstance or a grounds for preferring a lesser criminal charge. The opposite is the case as there is nothing more distressing that having one's partner turn on one in a violent manner. One cannot repeat loudly or often enough that domestic violence, rape and sexual result are heinous crimes, which are committed against people of all ages, colours and creeds and impact both on individuals and their wider family. Such violence can also take place in a loving environment.

One need only imagine the confusion felt by an innocent child faced with domestic violence. Research indicates that children are in close proximity when 80% of recorded cases of domestic violence occur. As a result of this exposure, they have difficulty adjusting to particular circumstances, become withdrawn, secretive, silent and bitter and, in certain circumstances, engage in self-blame. I can imagine the confusion they must feel about their parents' relationship. They tend to suffer sleep and eating problems, experience sadness and depression, have trouble with learning and school and, in certain cases, inflict self-harm. This is a terrible start on life's journey for a child. God knows life is tough enough without having to deal with domestic violence.

It is clear from these facts that action needs to be taken quickly and resources provided to deal with the problem. I am pleased to note the Minister of State's comment that he is open-minded in this regard. Senators should meet those working on the front line of domestic violence as often as possible because they can give us a great insight into the action required to address this dreadful problem.

There is probably no one present in the Chamber who does not know someone who has experienced domestic violence. Unfortunately, the terrible silence surrounding the issue means we probably do not know half of what takes place. The fact that women will be assaulted an average of 35 times before reporting it tells us a great deal. Thankfully, stronger laws have been introduced which I hope will alleviate the problem. There is an onus on the Oireachtas to do whatever possible to improve the horrible position in which women affected by domestic violence find themselves. We need to create an environment in which it is easier for those affected to come forward in the full knowledge that they will receive the protection of the community. We need to establish education and awareness programmes to highlight the many forms this terrible crime can take.

Sometimes I believe the name given to the crime is inadequate. Domestic violence should be seen for what it is, namely, a cowardly act, carried out by a cowardly individual who preys on someone he knows to be weaker than himself and carries out acts he would not do to a person who could fight back. The Oireachtas has a primary responsibility to make a major effort to bring about change in this area. We owe this to the women and men — one in 16 males will suffer domestic violence — who experience domestic violence and the voluntary groups working in this area. These organisations have my support and I encourage the Minister to allocate more resources to tackling the horrible cancer of domestic violence.

12:00 pm

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I am moved by the sensitive approach taken by Senator Kett in his excellent contribution. I always find non-confrontational debates of this kind very useful because they provide the Seanad with an opportunity to play a positive role and it is good the House discusses these matters. I was reminded the other evening that it was only 25 or 30 years ago that women Senators, for instance, the then Senators Mary Robinson and Gemma Hussey, tried to raise issues such as violence against women, contraception, the law on criminal conversation, which allowed a cuckolded husband to sue his wife's sexual partner for the value of her sexual services which had been distrained from him. These and other issues, including rape within marriage, were first raised in the House by a series of courageous, forward-looking women who were roundly trounced from all sides for having the temerity so to do.

At roughly the same time, organisations such as Women's Aid became involved in the issue. I salute the presence of a number of distinguished representatives of these organisations in the Visitors Gallery. I recall doing a James Joyce one-man show to raise money for the women's refuge in Rathmines around ten or 15 years ago. This was one of the first concrete examples of a building being constructed to house women who had been victims of violence.

I was interested to read in one of the briefing documents I received about the immense impact of Roddy Doyle's television series, "The Family", shown on RTE in 1994. This general artistic theatrical presentation resulted in an immediate and enormous increase in the numbers of calls received by organisations working in this area. I salute Roddy Doyle, an author sometimes dismissed rather too easily, not only for the programme but also for an immensely moving book, The Woman who Walked into Doors. The interesting title tells it all. That was immensely moving because it looked at the syndrome, mentioned by Senator Kett, of women who wait until the 35th attack and justify it, make excuses and pretend it did not happen or their injuries were the result of an accident.

We last looked at this issue in January 2004 and it is important that we continue to monitor it. I am glad to see that there have been a number of advances since we last debated it and I compliment the Department on this. Civil legal aid has been given increased resources. Waiting times have been reduced to four months. This is not ideal. A situation where one feels one's welfare is in danger is a critical and urgent one. Even though it may be an improvement, a waiting time of four months is simply too long. There is no doubt that in the case of domestic violence, in particular, justice delayed is justice denied.

The in camera rule has been amended and women now can be accompanied to court by a third party in support of them. One aspect I appreciate very much about the work of Women's Aid, in particular, is that it engages in one-to-one interaction. In these circumstances that sort of humane approach is important.

However, the situation is not entirely rosy, as the Minister of State knows because he has responded to it during the week and also in a glancing reference today. There is further support needed from central resources because of the frequency with which the telephone service, for example, is used. The freefone helpline is open every day, except Christmas Day, from 10 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night. In 2004, 19,901 calls were made to the service, an increase of 5% on the previous year. Women's Aid responded to 12,147 calls. That leaves some 7,700 missed calls because Women's Aid did not have sufficient resources of personnel, offices, machines, etc. Those 7,700 missed calls are the ones which should worry all of us because there should not be any missed calls.

If people are in situations where they are being subjected to violence, they are desperate if their calls are missed. It is our responsibility to support those agencies to make sure they are not missed. There were 30% more missed calls last year. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who has done good work in this area indicated, according to newspapers, that he also was concerned about this and that he understood from Women's Aid that a sum of €70,000 might resolve the situation. That is a tiny amount of money. If that would mean that next year 7,000 calls were taken rather than missed and 7,000 people in misery were given some support, that would be the best spent €70,000 imaginable. I hope this comes about, although I noted that the Minister of State in his speech spoke of the need to increase the amount. We must salute and acknowledge the fact that, historically, it has been increased. This is an issue which should be looked at.

There is also the question of the origin and nature of the calls. It is worrying that so many of the cases of violence are generated domestically. We can tell this from the figures. Another aspect of Women's Aid I like is that it does not collect statistics because it is interested in the human dimension. When the telephone call is made Women's Aid wants to support that other human being and the gathering of statistics is only incidental. It would be inappropriate in a cold-hearted way to ask a caller's age, marital status, etc. People want support and they get it. Women's Aid is quite good at getting statistics of various kinds, however, not just the number of calls received but a profile of the perpetrators of the abuse, which needs to be addressed.

It is shameful that over half of the abuse disclosed was perpetrated by the current partner of the woman. Marriage remains the most common context for domestic violence among the calls to the service, with 38% of women disclosing it was their husband. That is a chilling statistic. While there are many decent husbands and many good families, it means we must look with a critical eye at the reality within so many families. A further 13% of these acts were perpetrated by either a male partner or a male co-habitee. We all know of situations — often we see them on television and read about them — where not just a husband or a partner, but occasionally a male who has had the relationship terminated will not allow a woman say, "I am sorry, we made a mistake. I am bringing this relationship to an end.". She may then be met with murder because she is not considered to be allowed this freedom. That is very worrying.

We also need to look at broadening the range of services because so many of the calls come from Dublin and it is a Dublin centred organisation. We should ensure that this service is spread throughout the country as far as possible. I take it the Minister of State has received Women's Aid briefing documents containing all the points on the budget and changes in legislation which it requires to be made.

It is regrettable that groups like Amnesty International, which have taken this matter on board seriously, and Women's Aid should be attacked regularly by certain columnists in principal national newspapers.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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The attacks are unbalanced and unworthy. One must put them in the context where they challenge whether this is a gender-based issue. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women states:

...violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the most crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men...

That is a world view and is not adequately challenged by people who are against it.

Aspects such as the rights of co-habitees must be looked at. If I had more time, I would draw the parallels with violence against the gay community. Having said all that, we must not close our eyes to the fact that there are circumstances in which men are subject to violence and while the violence is predominately against women, we should ensure that no citizen is badly treated.

There is an automatic assumption that if a woman engages in violence against a man, it is his fault and he is responsible. There was a notorious case in the courts in Dublin recently where an unfortunate man was stabbed 21 times, hit 26 times with a hammer and flattened to death. There was a record of violence by his wife against him which was not presented to the jury and she got off with manslaughter. We need to accept that there are a minority of cases where, within marriage or relationships, men can be subject to violence and we are not doing any justice to the cause by ignoring that. No doubt it is essentially a gender based issue and our arguments will not be reduced or diminished by accepting what may be, in a small minority of cases, the reality.

John Minihan (Progressive Democrats)
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There are times topics come before us when it is difficult to know where to start. This topic is so disturbing that I reflect on it and wonder how to make a valuable contribution on the task facing us. I spoke here on the issue in January of last year and referred to the physical and psychological marks and scars which domestic violence leaves and which one person can inflict on another. I described it then as an evil form of violence and that is how I feel about it.

I want to examine both the dark and the light, the awfulness of domestic violence and the courage and brilliance of the people working in this area. Reports on the extent of the problem in Ireland, as in many other countries, make depressing but essential reading. Almost 20% of Irish women experience domestic violence at some time in their lives. This is one in five wives or partners, mothers, sisters, daughters and friends.

It is quite difficult to get one's head around what this statistic means for the many women who experience this evil and the effect it has on them. Research shows that domestic violence is typically ongoing and therefore may be known as a type 2 traumatic event. Studies suggest this can have a significant impact on the woman or child's functioning and can affect their emotions, concentration and reactions or cause them to withdraw from society. It can also cause nightmares, flashbacks etc. When we see the significant level of this kind of behaviour among adults and children, we realise there are many hidden stories. We may be unaware of what is going on in the background.

Domestic violence problems led to approximately 8,500 Garda responses in 2003, some 23 per day. More worrying studies suggest that only one in three women who experiences severe abuse reports it to gardaí. I do not want to confine domestic violence to women. I acknowledge that men and the elderly are also subject to it. We seem to forget that the elderly may be abused. In our changing society where many adult children remain in the home, there has been a significant increase in the number of barring orders being taken by parents against their adult children. We must acknowledge this as part of the domestic violence area.

The problem is complex and difficult to deal with, both for society and Government. The issue spans many political areas and six Departments. The Government is committed to annual funding for awareness programmes to tackle domestic violence and to ensure that housing and shelter programmes fully address the needs of those who have experienced such violence. This is a testing commitment. I recognise and appreciate that the specialist budget for violence against women programmes in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, for example, increased by 40% in 2005 to €1.124 million. In the run-up to the next budget, we need to examine carefully how departmental budgets collectively shape up against the needs in this area. Will the total approach the €19 million specialists say is necessary?

The second element of the Government commitment to ensure that housing and shelter programmes fully address the need is a challenge we must meet. We must address the fact that Women's Aid was unable to answer two out of five calls to its national helpline in 2004 and that 7,754 calls were left unanswered. When I hear that just under half of the 2,800 women who sought emergency refuge accommodation in 2003 could not be accommodated, I am distressed. The Government is committed to ensuring that housing and shelter programmes fully address the needs in the lifetime of its programme. We know there is some way to go when over half of these accommodation refusals are because the refuge is full.

I said I wanted to examine both the dark and the light, and there is some light. We have shining examples of dedication, courage and stamina from groups such as Women's Aid, which provides information and support on a voluntary basis to women experiencing physical, emotional and sexual abuse. It has been dealing with this issue for over 30 years and has my immense gratitude and respect.

I will be parochial and refer to the Cork counselling service which has worked for 20 years in my community supporting families experiencing the terrible trauma of domestic violence. I commend that service. Statistics from January to June of 2005 show that 48% of all clients who initially presented themselves for help stated "relationship problems" as their reason for seeking counselling. However, the Cork service recognises that behind these statistics rest enormous numbers of stories of domestic violence, ranging from physical to psychological or sexual abuse. Based on its 20 years of work in the community, it states that until relatively recent times acknowledgement of domestic violence across various classes was a problem. We must be mindful that domestic violence is a problem across classes affecting both genders. I note that the National Crime Council study, which examined the victimisation of both women and men, found that one in 16 men had experienced domestic violence.

Groups such as the Cork counselling service play an important role in helping families in distress. When we consider the consequences of domestic violence, the task of counselling is critical. We need to examine the issue of funding when we see funded statutory bodies taking calls and offering people an appointment 12 months down the road and then referring them to agencies such as the Cork counselling service. Funding must be given to the people who can provide the necessary immediate service and attention.

It is right that we highlight and recognise the needs in this regard in the House at this pre-budget time. We must ensure when the frustrating annual debate on economics and the distribution of resources takes place that those working at the coalface on issues such as domestic violence have their case heard. Statements in this House may be part of that process. On behalf of the Progressive Democrats I assure them that we will do all we can to ensure their voices are heard so that we make more progress on this pressing issue.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I thank the Leader and the Senators who pursued this issue for ensuring this important debate took place. Domestic violence is a serious issue. We do not know what goes on behind people's doors from the time they close them at night to coming out the following day. The situation has been and remains merciless and traumatic for the hundreds and thousands of women, in particular, who have been subjected to violence by partners, husbands or male relatives, down through the years. I can only begin to imagine what it is like for people to be in such a life-threatening situation.

I want to focus on services in rural areas. Senator Minihan pointed out the many fine services in Cork city, in particular, the Cork counselling service. However, in rural areas where people are victims and are subjected to horrendous abuse they do not always have the ready option of leaving. The question of where they can go arises, particularly when they have young children because people do not want to see somebody landing on a doorstep with three or four young children because they have been forced to leave their home as a result of violence. There are some good centres that offer a haven. However, there is a risk that the perpetrators of violence may go looking for the girlfriend or partner and threaten the safety of that haven. Some people do not wish to go to shelters. We need to examine the broad range of services and how they can be extended. There are no limits to domestic violence in terms of towns, cities or villages. The problem is everywhere and this must be reflected in terms of Government action. We must recognise that these services have a role in rural areas. Like Senator Norris, I welcome some recent developments, including the increase in civil legal aid, the amendment of the in camera rule and the development by the national steering committee of a strategic plan to tackle violence against women. While I hope such welcome and practical measures will improve the services offered to people who encounter domestic violence, I am concerned that they will not go far enough to combat the problem.

I compliment Women's Aid on its publication of an informative, detailed and well researched briefing document on domestic violence. While I do not wish to bore the House with many statistics, I would like to highlight some of the issues raised in the document. The national domestic violence helpline, which is open for 12 hours a day seven days a week, received almost 20,000 calls in 2004. It is a phenomenal level of use of any service. One of the most regrettable statistics — it is tinged with sadness — in the Women's Aid document is that two in every five calls to the helpline are not answered due to a lack of resources. That is not good enough in this day and age. During Private Members' time last evening, the House discussed the level of funding given to sport. Many Senators mentioned that the economy can afford to allocate the money that is needed to implement real measures in such areas. It is important to emphasise again, in the context of this debate, that the State is in such good fiscal health that it can facilitate the allocation of resources to all sectors.

I would like to highlight a chilling quote from the report of the Government task force on violence against women: "Whether it be sexual assault, rape, physical assault or emotional abuse, women are at greater risk from husbands, boyfriends, male relatives and acquaintances than from strangers." That is quite disturbing and extremely worrying. When we think of violence, we think of being mugged or having one's wallet taken in a dark alley. I did not think, until I encountered the statistical evidence I have mentioned, that the cowardly thugs who perpetrate the evil abuse of other human beings are most likely to be husbands, boyfriends and partners. Such people are not fit for society.

Local authorities have a real role to play in combating domestic violence. I recently encountered the case of a married woman who had to leave her home when her children came of age and started to tackle their father. The squabbling between her husband and her children was particularly bad at weekends when alcohol had been consumed. Her home life became unbearable as her children started to retaliate against their father. The woman in question, who required private rented accommodation because she was leaving a local authority house, had to borrow a significant amount of money from a relative to pay her deposit and rent. The local authority has informed the woman that it cannot consider her housing need and that of her family because she and her husband are officially listed as joint tenants of the family home. The local authority's explanation that it is not in a position to meet the housing needs of a woman who was being kicked, punched and beaten every weekend, until she finally plucked up the courage and acquired the means to leave, defies logic.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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The authority claims that it cannot help the woman in question because she is a joint tenant of a local authority house, along with a thug who has perpetrated evil acts against her. I have tried to convince the local authority to examine the case with the humanity it demands and to give the woman a house on the basis of her needs. She is currently in rented accommodation, which offers her a safe haven from the abuse she has endured, but she has a long-term housing need. Issues of child custody also need to be considered in this instance. There is a persistent threat of violence when her husband calls to her house to collect their children. The man in question is liable to do anything when he leaves the pub at the weekends. Local authority tenancy agreements are clear on the steps which will be taken in cases of anti-social behaviour, but I suggest that similar provisions be put in place in instances of domestic violence. People who perpetrate such violence should be evicted from local authority housing as a matter of course. Not only would such measures ensure that difficulties such as those I have mentioned do not arise in cases of joint tenancies, but they would also help to resolve some domestic problems by removing abusive thugs from family homes. We need to end the bureaucratic nonsense that means that local authorities cannot look after the housing needs of women who take the brave decision to leave their homes, having acquired the means to do so.

It is important that we attempt to increase awareness of domestic violence and modify society's attitude to violence in general. If one watched the "Prime Time" programme that showed two drunk people holding each other up and another person getting stuck into them, one will not doubt that society is accustomed to a certain level of violence on television screens. Incidents on football pitches and outside nightclubs feed into the psyche to which I refer. There is a need for a dramatic change in society's attitude to violence. For example, we need a "get tough" policy in respect of those who perpetrate horrific acts against other human beings. I appreciate that a broad range of measures is required, but we could start by putting in place educational programmes, for example at national school level, to increase awareness of the problem of violence. We need to ensure that everything that can be done to change attitudes is done. We should not underestimate the role of alcohol abuse in cases of domestic violence. The Leader has allowed Senators to debate the issue of under age drinking and the broader issue of alcohol abuse on many occasions. It is obvious that there is a inextricable link between alcohol abuse and domestic violence. I assume that most cases of domestic violence involve alcohol abuse.

I am aware that the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, is in possession of a copy of the well researched and thorough Women's Aid briefing document, which contains summaries of its extremely well thought out recommendations. We should not consider the issue of domestic violence in financial terms, but in terms of its urgency. Acts of domestic violence will be perpetrated tonight and tomorrow. While I appreciate that there are funding constraints, I appeal to the Minister of State to deal with the issue of domestic violence as a matter of urgency. He should examine the salient and fine points made in the Women's Aid document. I wish the Minister of State well in that regard. While it may not be appropriate to wish Women's Aid success, I wish it well in the future. It provides a marvellous service to frightened people who have been bullied, harassed and assaulted. Any organisation that offers support services to such people deserves the good wishes of the House.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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When I met Mr. John Connolly just over a month ago, at the request of Women's Aid, he sought my support as a politician in highlighting the issue of domestic violence. I said I would do my utmost to raise the matter in the Seanad and at meetings of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party. Last week, the Leader of the House, Senator O'Rourke, and I attended the launch by the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, of the 2004 statistics relating to the national Women's Aid helpline. I was impressed not only by the Minister of State's speech, but also by the empathy he showed with those who have been victims of domestic violence, a diabolical crime against women that is being suppressed within our society. As Senator Kett said, the Members of this House will continue to raise the profile of the campaign against domestic violence. It is about time that attempts were made to tackle such violence, which is a secret, dark and murky crime that takes place in the shadows and about which people find it embarrassing to speak. The Leader of the House swiftly arranged these statements on foot of the launch by the Minister of State last week. I have invited eight representatives of Women's Aid to attend this debate as part of my response to Mr. Connolly, who asked me to help in any way I can.

The National Crime Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute have published an interesting study of the domestic abuse of women and men in Irish society. Dr. Dorothy Watson of the ESRI and Ms Sarah Parsons of the NCC did some superb work as part of that process. The reality is that an estimated 80% of women and men who suffer domestic abuse do not tell gardaí of this because they do not believe the issue is serious enough or because of shame and embarrassment.

The ESRI report to which I referred stated that 15% of women and 6% of men in Ireland have experienced severe abuse. It is worth spelling out what constitutes severe abuse. The report notes that domestic abuse is a pattern of physical, emotional or sexual behaviour between partners in an intimate relationship that causes or risks significant negative consequences for the person affected. It involves physical abuse and threats, including slapping, shoving, pushing, punching, kicking, threatening to hurt and choking. The report states that sexual abuse involves attempted, actual or forced sexual relationship or intercourse, forced viewing of pornography or other forced behaviour. Emotional abuse involves deliberately embarrassing someone, name-calling, preventing contact with family, threatening to take children and preventing the partner from having money.

The impact of severe abuse often involves injury to the severely abused. Half of those who have been severely abused have been physically injured. Women who are abused are more likely than men to have injuries needing medical treatment. The impact of emotional abuse, which affects more women than men, involves fear, distress and loss of confidence. Members will understand how they would have difficulty standing up in the House to give an opinion if they had to suffer such emotional abuse. I was asked last week to give some advice to a young girl. She told me that her partner calls her stupid when they have a row. I asked why she could not get out of that relationship and move on. How could any of us fully participate in society if we had to suffer the brutality of being told we are stupid?

The ESRI report suggests that 59% of those abused are under 25 years of age. An interesting point is that in two thirds of cases the abuse happens early in the relationship, in the first two years. The abuse is triggered by various factors. In 38% of cases, the report suggests it was triggered by nothing in particular or minor incidents, while alcohol was a factor in 34% of cases. Those most at risk are women, young people, single people and those with weak ties to extended family or community.

It is irrelevant what region victims live in, what level of education they have, or their income or social class — abuse takes place across every strata of society. It is a deep, dark secret that is not getting exposure. However, I am confident my parliamentary colleagues and I will support the Minister of State when he makes his case in this regard at our parliamentary party meeting in November.

At present, family cases only come up in the middle of all other court cases. I call for the establishment of regional family courts which would hear cases in private. More people will come forward if cases are held in private and if family courts are established throughout the country. We need to give more support to organisations like Women's Aid, which last year could not respond to two out of five of the telephone calls it received. The organisation received 20,000 calls last year from people who need immediate help.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I thank Senator White for providing such important statistics to the House. I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, on the amount of work he has done in giving additional support to Women's Aid and for bringing the issue of domestic violence into increased public view. He and I met recently at the launch of the Rape Crisis Centre report. The Rape Crisis Centre is now 25 years old and it is depressing that so many rapes still take place in a domestic situation, where the assailant is known to the victim and is perhaps a family friend or family member. These are the cases which are least likely to be pursued through the courts because victims feel they will not be believed if they tell what happened within their homes. I am glad Senator Minihan referred to the issue of elder violence. As soon as helplines are installed, it is found that they are used by a considerable number of the older age group.

Reference was made to the courts. It is unfortunate that barring order cases take so long to come to court. Frequently, the woman — if it is a woman — can be intimidated or placated into withdrawing her complaint, which is a pity because the abuse can often be repeated. The Judiciary has had some education in the area of domestic violence but more would probably be useful. Senators will remember a case from some decades ago when, with regard to a very violent situation, the judge advised the husband and wife to go out to dinner, have a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine, and all would be well. The judge was living in a very different milieu to the one in which the unfortunate couple lived.

I accept that drink has some influence on violence. However, the Joint Committee on Health and Children heard an interesting presentation some weeks ago by women from the west who are involved in the Rape Crisis Centre there and in helping women in violent situations in rural areas. I was taken by the contribution of one of the women. She said that while a man may get drunk in the pub, he does not start to beat up the barman. He might then get a taxi home but he does not beat up the taxi driver. However, when he gets home, he somehow feels he can beat up the person at home. While drink is important in making people lose control of themselves, they manage to control themselves with a barman or a taxi driver and it is only when they get home that the beating begins. While the role of drink is an important factor, we must not let it become an excuse for everything. It is fine for people to apologise the next day and say they were drunk, but it is worth remembering that woman's point.

I compliment the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, with regard to this issue — I am glad the Leader is in the House to hear this. Yesterday he launched the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, report on World Population Day. In particular, he referred to that part of the report which deals with gender-based violence, which happens not only in developed countries but in developing countries as well. We must encourage governments in these countries to set up programmes.

The explanatory memorandum of the UNFPA report states that gender based violence kills and harms as many women and girls between the ages of 15 and 44 as cancer, that the toll on women's health surpasses that of traffic accidents and malaria combined and that the cost to countries in increased health care expenditure, legal fees, policing and losses in educational achievement and productivity are commensurately high. It further states that national campaigns against gender based violence are one of the quick win solutions recommended by the UN millennium project and that in some countries, efforts are already under way because gender based violence is so widely tolerated, successful action ultimately requires social transformation, effective law enforcement and a strengthened judiciary aimed at ending impunity and that gender sensitive education and the mobilisation of communities and opinion leaders are needed to prevent violence. Needless to say, men must be engaged to take a strong stand on this issue.

I am delighted the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Conor Lenihan, has raised this. I note he is to engage the former Senator and President, MaryRobinson, who has a long history of promoting human rights and has great knowledge of gender issues, to help in his campaign. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, for all the work he has done in this area.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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I am glad to contribute to this debate and I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. When Senator White and others put it to me that we should seek such a debate, we contacted the Minister of State's office and he freely and quickly agreed to attend. One might ask what such a debate will achieve. I believe it is important because what we say highlights the issue and gives us a chance to review what has happened and to mark a way forward. Like Senator White, I also attended the Women's Aid conference and was greatly struck by the practicality of its members, to whom I was able to speak informally, and by the way the facts were presented. Those facts were clearly researched and were put in a non-argumentative way. We were given the information we needed.

Women's Aid is a long-established and highly respected organisation dealing with family abuse and domestic violence. That it is long-established means we respect it and appreciate the facts it gives us are correct. Senator Henry has a long involvement with Cherish, one of the earlier women's organisations for single women who found themselves pregnant, and with many other women's organisations. I am glad the views of men and women have been expressed in this debate.

When I started doing county council work many years ago, this issue was beginning to come out into the open. People were beginning to talk about it as a real issue. I remember many late night calls to my house from women who were emotionally as well as physically bruised and who had travelled there by taxi. We would talk over the matter. At that time, there was still an unspoken assumption that somehow a man had a right to abuse because, after all, he was master and lord within his domain. Thankfully, we have moved miles away from that point of view.

People often had large families. If a man wanted to assert his married rights, or whatever he called them, the woman, who knew nothing about condoms which were perhaps not available or who had no contraceptive advice available to her, would not want to succumb and become pregnant because there might be seven or eight children in the home. I remember a woman telling me that she had gone to see a priest who told her it was her job to succumb to her husband. It sounds so antiquated now. When we take the marriage vows, we say "to love, honour and obey", although I know some great feminists will not say "to obey".

The idea that one would have to succumb to violence so that one would keep one's place in the home seems so antiquated now but elements of that remain in that this must be the most unreported crime. The Minister of State correctly said that it is a crime and that the Garda assault unit dealing with it is highly regarded, not only in this country but internationally. At the same time, how many crimes go unreported but are hidden with the victims saying that tomorrow might be a better day and that perhaps all of this might go away? How many women face each day without knowing whether it will be their lot again that evening?

Some 20,000 calls in this regard is a huge number. These calls are made by women who are driven to do so because of the dire situation in which they find themselves. We are in this lovely Chamber having an informed debate and it is difficult to place oneself in such women's or, indeed, men's minds and identify with the anguish they experience. It is difficult to describe, in a few sentences, the fact that love, sex and abuse may form the palette of emotions in one small unremarkable home. I still find vestiges of the idea that women somehow feel they are to blame for the violence wreaked upon them. How could people place themselves in a position where they would have to bear the brunt of such violence? To take up Senator White's point, some women continue to think that they are inferior human beings and that they, perhaps, are at fault for the violence perpetrated against them.

The interdepartmental group established by the Minister of State is to report shortly before the Estimates. I would be glad to speak at our parliamentary party meeting on this issue and to ensure adequate funding is provided to what is a very worthwhile cause.

I pay tribute to Women's Aid. I do not do so only because its esteemed members are in the Visitors Galley. I would do so if they were not present. It does unsung, unpraised and unheralded work. Murky and distasteful as it is, that work must be done. Many young women operate its telephones on a voluntary basis. I hope all the calls will be answered because the Minister of State gave approval in that regard at the launch of the report. Those anguished telephone calls must not go unanswered. Those who make the calls and who are in dire distress must hear a voice which will give comfort and succour. I am glad to contribute to the debate, from which, I am sure, some good will come.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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I concur with what previous speakers have said. Domestic violence against women is only a political issue in respect of funding and intervention and we are all singing from the same hymn sheet on this sensitive and delicate matter. Some €20 million per annum is provided for services for female victims. That is a great deal of money and it acknowledges the fact domestic violence against women is a major problem. We need ongoing intervention and communication between the Departments concerned. This is an issue that will not go away and we should focus closely on it.

Most of the arguments and discussions today have been in respect of domestic violence against females. I wish to refer to a letter which was recently sent to the editor of The Irish Times by Ms Mary T. Cleary of the AMEN group. I understand that a report was launched this summer by the National Crime Council in association with the Economic and Social Research Institute which contained some startling figures with regard to domestic violence against males. I am glad this letter appeared in The Irish Times because the statistics are startling and frightening and it is important they be put on the record. A total of 15% of women and 6% of men suffer severe domestic abuse. A total of 29% of women and 26% of men suffer from domestic abuse when the categories of severe and minor abuse are combined. The next figure baffled me. A total of 13% of women and 13% of men suffer physical abuse. There is parity of esteem between the genders in this respect.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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If it can be so described.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Fine Gael)
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Exactly. A total of 29% of women, or one in three and only 5% of men, or one in 20, report these incidents to the Garda. While I do not wish to take from the arguments regarding domestic violence against females, there is an issue if only one in 20 males report domestic violence to the Garda. The three figures I have highlighted must be considered and evaluated. We must ask whether we are addressing the needs of the male gender. Is the issue of domestic violence being addressed from the perspective of a single gender or is it being examined holistically from the perspective of both genders? This is something we should examine closely. Before my colleague Senator John Paul Phelan makes his contribution, I want to ask one question of the Minister of State. On 21 September, the AMEN group met the Minister of State and asked whether he was in a position to provide funding to the group for male domestic violence. While I am open to correction, my understanding is that at the time, the Minister of State did not reject the request outright. However, it was made clear that it was highly unlikely that the group would receive any ongoing Government funding to provide support for male victims of domestic abuse. Is this true? If this is not the case, what is the Minister of State's position with regard to providing funding to male victims of domestic violence?

Photo of John Paul PhelanJohn Paul Phelan (Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator McHugh for sharing his time and I thank the Leader of the House for arranging the debate. Most points have already been covered. Senator McHugh is correct in noting that there are not great differences between Members as far as this issue is concerned. I wish to reiterate an issue raised by Senator McCarthy, namely, the role of local authorities with regard to housing difficulties in which people in domestically violent situations find themselves. I encountered a situation fairly recently in Kilkenny whereby a woman who was being abused by her partner in another jurisdiction was asked by the local authority to travel back to England to try to secure her share of the family home, before being considered for placement on the housing list and before becoming eligible to receive rent allowance for her accommodation. Clearly, if she felt it necessary to travel across the Irish Sea to get away from her partner, it was entirely unsatisfactory for the local authority to act in this manner. This is an anomaly which the Minister of State and the relevant Department, which is probably the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, must examine. Housing or accommodation for people who find themselves in such situations is essential but thus far, it does not appear to have been tackled to any degree.

I agree with other Members with regard to the problems with funding. While there has been a small improvement this year, over the last four or five years there was no improvement whatsoever in funding for the different organisations supporting domestic violence victims.

The Government might need to consider initiating preventative measures for people who find themselves in domestically violent situations. I refer to situations whereby the gardaí might be called to a house two or three times but the abused women may not wish to press charges against her partner or to proceed any further than the call-out on the night. However, a case could be made that in such situations, a mechanism should be triggered whereby the offender would be obliged to go on an anger management or similar course. This could be done instead of pursuing the individual who suffered from the domestic abuse to go to court and all that rigmarole. Quite often the victims have children by the offenders, have a strong relationship with them and do not want to take the legal route. Perhaps there is an opportunity for a mechanism to be put in place whereby some sort of intervention could be made by the gardaí that does not require victims to go to court. That would be a source of relief for many who find themselves in domestically abusive situations.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank all the Members who contributed to this debate which has been useful to me and to my officials. In particular, I thank the Leader of the House for initiating the debate. As she remarked, it is worthwhile to have this kind of debate, not least from my perspective whereby I can learn from the Members' contributions, but also in terms of continuing to maintain a high profile on this issue.

There are three important aspects to the strategy being pursued at present. All are under consideration in the strategy that is now being developed under the auspices of the national committee which I chair. One is that the perpetrators of domestic violence are brought before the courts and that justice is done as quickly and effectively as possible. Clearly, that is not happening to the degree it should at present. It takes far too long and the required burden of proof is such that only a small minority of cases actually get to the courts where the perpetrators are brought to justice. This issue is being addressed at several levels and I am particularly anxious to make progress on it quickly.

Second, the resources required to support the work being done by the NGOs are insufficient. I have addressed this problem since taking this job. In the past 14 or 15 months, I have only brought one deputation to meet the Minister for Finance. It was a group from this sector, including the Rape Crisis Centre network, Women's Aid and other organisations. I did so because the Department of Health and Children had not increased the allocation of resources to this area during the previous three years. I hope this issue will now be addressed in the context of the Estimates, because I accept there are not sufficient resources to do the job being demanded of those organisations. They should be provided with funds if for no other reason, because such organisations carry out significant and preventative work. Given that the cost of curing many problems from a health, psychological and sociological perspective is so much higher, it makes sense to invest more money in preventative measures than is the case at present.

The third aspect pertains to the critical issue of awareness. Again, I hope to try to improve the level of support for the good work being done on awareness across the spectrum.

We want awareness among the general community. As a number of speakers, including the Leader, have said, this crime was traditionally accepted in this country as the male in the household was thought to be dominant. We are moving away from a cultural tradition that was unacceptable then and is certainly unacceptable now. We must empower women to come forward and report any forms of domestic violence. I have attended a number of seminars over the past 12 months and I listened to women who were the subjects of domestic violence say the burden lifted from their shoulders when they realised there was someone they could talk to. This was the first major positive impact for them. We must get the message across that these women should come forward, services are available and people, such as those present in the Visitors Gallery, are prepared to listen.

As a society, we must accept this is a heinous crime that is just as bad as, if not worse than, most other crimes. We cannot tolerate it and will not do so, a message our society must accept. At a recent launch, Women's Aid stated €70,000 would ensure calls that are unanswered by their services now would be answered. It was in this context that I responded immediately, saying we would try to find the money. We are doing so. It is a matter for the Department of Health and Children and the HSE but my officials and I are in discussion with both. We are also in discussion with Women's Aid to try to put together the resources it requires over the next 12 months.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. On AMEN, I have met a number of men's groups over the past 12 months and acknowledge the existence of an equality issue. The State does not currently respond in any way. I have indicated this to my officials and, last week, to the national committee. The Department must examine the issue. Various men's groups feel very bitter that they do not receive equality of treatment in courts or elsewhere. It is a matter we must examine, which we are prepared to do.

I responded negatively to AMEN as the vast majority of money sought for was for office accommodation and other types of costs I am unprepared to fund. Much money is being spent on offices and staff throughout the HSE and we will certainly not fund anyone else in the same way. I am prepared in principle to help people who wish to put services in place but I will not do any more. My advice to AMEN was instead of seeking offices, equipment and salaries from the Government, it should seek money to provide advice and assistance, which I am prepared to discuss. I thank everyone for participating in the debate and hope we can make progress on this important issue.

Sitting suspended at 1 p.m. and resumed at2 p.m.