Thursday, 15 November 2018
Domestic Violence Policy
I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Sunday, 25 November is the UN international day for the elimination of violence against women. Can we imagine an Ireland where women and children are free from domestic violence? One in four women experiences physical or sexual violence from a partner and one in three experiences severe psychological abuse. If we were to apply those averages to this House, five out of 15 female Senators could be survivors of some form of intimate partner abuse. Across the country as a whole, we would be looking at approximately 475,000 women. What a transformation it would be for them if they were free from violence and abuse. Unfortunately, such an Ireland is difficult for many of us to imagine and that is why each and every one of us must do our utmost to support women experiencing abuse. Virtually all of us, as public representatives, will have been approached by women in difficult circumstances. While we may be able to give them advice, a listening ear or even, in some cases, refuge in our own homes, what is needed is a co-ordinated response.
The adoption of the Domestic Violence Act in May this year was very significant. It marked a sea change in our understanding of domestic violence and I commend the Minister, the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton, and former Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, on having delivered such legislation. It has made protecting and supporting those experiencing violence a priority, and it has broadened our understanding of intimate partner abuse, particularly by providing for a new criminal offence of coercive control. It also includes provisions which move us closer to ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention. It is in this area that I am seeking clarification from the Minister today.
There can be no real equality between women and men unless women experiencing gender-based violence are fully supported by State agencies and institutions. There are some fantastic voluntary organisations, such as Safe Ireland which has its headquarters in my home town of Athlone, and Women’s Aid which provides services and support for women experiencing domestic violence. They do a fantastic job and we need to ensure we match their commitment and dedication by doing our part. I note that the Minister is fully committed to ratifying the convention, and I am seeking an update from him of where we are on that journey.
It is a privilege to share time on this very important issue with such an advocate as Senator McFadden. Her articulation of the importance of this convention being ratified speaks volumes. We are a great country when it comes to honouring our international obligations. We dragged our feet for long enough with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and we let ourselves down in that instance, but I have no doubt that we will not let ourselves down in respect of the Istanbul Convention.
In the years since Deputy Flanagan took over as Minister, a lot has happened in terms of protecting women, such as the introduction of legislation on domestic violence and resourcing An Garda Síochána to its current level, which has meant the force has a new dynamic in dealing with violence against women. Violence against women and vulnerable people is abhorrent in our society and needs to be eradicated. It is a disease that should not exist in the modern world. We are a first world country and, as such, we need to take our international obligations seriously. I know that we will.
We advocated for the convention that became the Istanbul Convention. The people, of all parties and none, who represent this Parliament at the Council of Europe articulated this issue. It was formulated by our parliamentarians and other good parliamentarians throughout Europe and further afield. We need to transpose the convention into law to show that we espouse the complete elimination of domestic violence against women. I know the Minister will reflect these views in his response, but we would especially like a timeline from him.
I thank Senator Conway and Senator McFadden for raising this matter. I assure all the Senators in the House of my commitment as Minister for Justice and Equality, and that of Government, to do everything we can to tackle violence against women. This violence is a blight on our society and its complexity requires a systemic, multifaceted response.
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, commonly known as the Istanbul Convention, is a significant legal instrument in combating sexual and domestic violence and the programme for Government is committed to its implementation. The convention is a broad-based document which covers a number of Departments’ policy areas. The purposes of this convention are to protect women against all forms of violence and to prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence. The convention also aims to ensure the design of a comprehensive framework, policies and measures for the protection of and assistance to all victims of such violence.
Senators will be aware that Ireland signed the Istanbul Convention in November 2015. At the time, the Government gave approval to an action plan which contained those outstanding actions that were identified as being necessary to enable Ireland’s ratification of the convention.Those 18 actions were included in the second national strategy for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence which was published in January 2016. The implementation of this whole-of-government strategy which contains a range of actions to be implemented across Departments and agencies is ongoing. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State at my Department, Deputy Stanton, in particular, in that regard. I also acknowledge the contributions of Members of this and the Lower House, particularly those of Senators McFadden and Conway.
Progress in implementing the actions required to be taken under the Istanbul Convention includes the training of public sector officials, implementation of the victims directive, development and implementation of a risk assessment matrix by An Garda Síochána for victims of domestic violence and sexual crime. I acknowledge and welcome what Senator Conway said as far as An Garda Síochána is concerned, but, of course, there is more to be done. Enactment of the Domestic Violence Bill 2018 in May significantly advanced progress in ratifying the convention. This groundbreaking legislation delivers on a number of Istanbul Convention actions, including emergency barring orders, extending access to interim barring orders and creating an offence of forced marriage. It is my intention to commence the Act in January. The agencies that are key to implementing the legislation are working to that end.
There remains one outstanding legislative action before Ireland can ratify the Istanbul Convention, that is, legislating for extraterritorial jurisdiction. This technical legislation will provide for individuals who commit particular offences abroad being liable to prosecution under Irish law. It is my intention to publish the legislation in the very near future. Its early enactment will enable ratification of the convention. It is my intention to ratify the convention early in 2019 and have the legislation enacted prior to that.
I do not doubt the Minister's commitment to deal with this matter. It is the obligation of the State to fully address the issue of violence against women in all of its forms and to take measures to prevent such violence, protect its victims and, most importantly, prosecute the perpetrators. That is why it is essential that all elements of the Domestic Violence Act be fully implemented and that the remaining legislation and other actions needed to progress be pursued as a matter of urgency. I thank the Minister for his presence and commitment thus far.
It is rare for a Minister to come into the House to answer questions. The Minister is spot on as the timeframe is clear and unambiguous. As a unit, the women of Ireland should be very pleased with the information he has given, for which I thank him. I again commend An Garda Síochána, in particular the Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris. I listened carefully to his commentary at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and his commitment to ensuring An Garda Síochána is responsive, reflective and flexible to ensure it not just acts against but also seeks to prevent domestic violence is refreshing. I would like the message to be sent to the women of Ireland that the Government and An Garda Síochána are committed to a policy of zero tolerance of any violence against women and vulnerable adults.
I repeat that implementation is continuing of the actions contained in the second national strategy for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I am very keen to ensure the strategy will be part of the focus of all interested parties. I acknowledge what the Senators have said about enactment of the domestic violence legislation being a major step forward in enabling us to ratify the Istanbul Convention. It is my intention to publish in the coming weeks the final item of legislation required for ratification. I would like to have it published before the end of November. We will then have three weeks before the Christmas vacation, within which I will be very keen to make progress. In that regard, I look forward to the constructive engagement of the Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas. It is technical legislation, but in working together we can ensure its early enactment. It is my firm intention to ensure the Istanbul Convention will be ratified as soon as practicable thereafter. The timeframe for its ratification is early 2019.