Seanad debates

Monday, 8 March 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Domestic Violence

10:30 am

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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Guím Lá Idirnáisiúnta na mBan sona do chách. I thank the Minister for coming to the House and wish everyone a happy International Women's Day.

The most recent report to the Dublin city joint policing committee shows a marked increase in cases involving domestic violence. On the one hand, I am pleased that if the figures to the Garda are increasing, it shows more people are reporting domestic violence. What I believe is happening, however, is an overall increase in people suffering domestic violence and, consequently, we have an increase in the numbers supplied by the Garda.

Despite it being International Women's Day, I acknowledge that domestic violence is not only a female issue. Men, trans and non-binary people also suffer domestic violence. While I do not know the specific statistics for Ireland, I have been privy to a number of conversations and representations that would demonstrate that a trans of non-binary person in a relationship is disproportionately vulnerable to domestic violence or intimate partner violence.

Based on the figures I do know, women are statistically more likely to be attacked and abused repeatedly in their own home, more likely to be subjected to abuse and coercive control, and more likely to be killed by their partner or former partner. This is not news and I welcome the steady increase in funding we have seen over recent years. The response, certainly during Covid, has been very impressive and welcome, and the most recent budget has been fantastic as well. However, no matter how good we are doing and how much our funding is being increased, if it is not being targeted and is not being monitored, reviewed and constantly assessed, we are not doing enough to ensure it is going where it should be and that it is being targeted at the right groups. Do we look into our souls and believe we are doing enough? I congratulate the Minister on all that has been done, but until we start seeing figures drop, there is always much more to do and we will never have done enough.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. The pandemic has had devastating consequences for women and children living in fear within their own homes. Across our State, the silence from homes where abuse is taking place is deafening. We know that connection to community and visibility helps to prevent incidents of domestic violence, and the environment created by this pandemic has been a breeding ground for an escalation in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Homes should be places of refuge and instead they are frequently places of fear. On International Women's Day I think of all of those women who we cannot see who live in daily fear.

The programme for government was the first to call out domestic violence as an epidemic. Little did we know that things would only get worse over the last year. In Galway domestic disputes for which no cause is noted in the joint policing committee report went up by 40%. Breeches of barring orders went up by 25%. An increase of €4.7 million to €30 million was committed to in Budget 2021 to deal with this epidemic, with €2 million to help support services during the Covid crisis. I am aware the Minister has also committed to domestic abuse leave. An audit of the segmentation of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence responsibilities across the Departments was also committed to, along with the development of the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I would like the Minister to outline the progress of these to date and how it aligns with our commitments under the Istanbul Convention. I also want to hear about progress of the implementation of the O’Malley report in addressing the fact that many feel retraumatised by our court system.

I thank all of those services which have continued to operate, including Cope Galway, Galway Rape Crisis Centre and Domestic Violence Response. This is an epidemic that affects women and children more than men, although men should not be forgotten. I am reminded of a lecture once given by Margaret Atwood in which, and I paraphrase, she said that perhaps the source of men’s fear of women is a fear of being embarrassed, but women fear men because they fear being killed. For too many women in our country this second part of her comment rings true.I thank Senators Pauline O’Reilly and Seery Kearney for raising this issue and I welcome the opportunity to respond. Again, it is particularly apposite that we are discussing this issue on International Women's Day.

As the Senators noted, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence can occur in many different forms and can be experienced by any one of us but it is indisputable that girls and women are disproportionately affected by such acts. The Minister for Justice has lead responsibility for co-ordinating policy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence but ensuring an effective infrastructure to respond to it is also a very significant priority for my Department. I am actively working with the Minister for Justice to fulfil the commitment in the programme for Government to conduct an audit of the segmentation of responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence across Departments and agencies. This audit is under way and I am hopeful that it will shortly provide us with proposals on the required infrastructure to ensure all issues with domestic, sexual and gender-based violence are dealt with in the most effective and holistic manner possible. We really need to provide the best service to those who need this type of support.

Tusla, which falls within the remit of my Department, has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It provides funding for about 60 organisations across the country, including those providing emergency refuge for adults and children fleeing domestic violence, 16 rape crisis centres and a range of community-based domestic violence supports. In 2021, I increased Tusla's allocation for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence by €4.7 million to a total of €30 million, €28 million of which is core funding for the services, while a further €2 million is Covid contingency funding to help address the increased demand referred to by both Senators with regard to the pandemic. This is a very significant increase in core funding and indicates the real importance that this Government places on this issue.

Investments in recent years have seen the roll-out of child-centred services for younger victims of domestic and sexual violence. Senator Pauline O'Reilly will know about the Barnahus pilot project in Galway for child and adolescent victims of sexual violence. It is a very positive development and we plan to expand this service to locations in Dublin and Cork as well.

Last December, I got Cabinet agreement to commence a process to introduce paid domestic violence leave and benefit. Consultations on this proposal are ongoing. I spoke with trade unions and employers' groups about this issue last week and I will bring forward proposals to Cabinet by the end of the year.

Senator Seery Kearney raises a particular report with regard to Garda statistics in the Dublin South Central area. Tusla has advised me that almost €1.5 million of the €4.7 million additional funding is being directed to services in the greater Dublin area - Dublin, Wicklow and Kildare. Tusla has also advised me that additional domestic violence outreach services are being rolled out in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and County Wicklow to enhance supports for both women and children experiencing domestic violence, with additional outreach planned to come on stream in the Dublin South Central area. The number of Safe Home accommodation units with support services in Dublin will reach 20 in 2021, which is an increase of 13 from last year. Tusla has provided additional resources to the national 24-7 domestic violence and sexual violence helplines, which are operated by Women’s Aid and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. Senator Pauline O'Reilly referred to COPE Galway. It opened a new and improved domestic violence refuge in the city supported by Tusla. Saoirse Women’s Refuge also opened a new refuge in the south Dublin area in early 2020.

Both Senators will be aware that Tusla is currently undertaking a review of emergency accommodation, which will consider the current level of provision and the configuration of accommodation that may be needed. It is the intention that this review will inform decisions around future investment in refuge accommodation for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Photo of Mary Seery KearneyMary Seery Kearney (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. I really welcome the increase in funding. In particular, the Safe Ireland initiative has been a very successful one. I am particularly grateful for the work of Saoirse and the Inchicore women's support service, which provide fantastic services in the Dublin South Central area. I really welcome the report. We need to know what is and is not working to ensure we are funding correctly into the future.

Photo of Pauline O'ReillyPauline O'Reilly (Green Party)
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I thank the Minister for all the commitments. I look forward to more updates from him in the future. We must recognise that beyond the kind of measures outlined by him, it is a deep-rooted problem within our society and the causes need to be tackled. It concerns awareness about consent and coercive control, which has been tolerated for generations.These also have to be part of what we now do as a society and as a government. I am hopeful that, with some of the recent sentences handed down by the courts and the commitments in our education system, we are turning a corner. However, I believe we have a long way to go before many of us will be fully convinced.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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As we called it out in the programme for Government, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is an epidemic in our country. We are ever more conscious of this during Covid-19. The high reporting figures are good because they represent a sign that primarily women are coming forward to say what is happening. The Government has identified this epidemic and is going to address it. There are four major areas besides all the other items that Senator O'Reilly mentioned, including the additional funding - we are going to continue that through each budget - and the audit of responsibility. We need to design our structures better because they are not working fully as they currently are. We are going to redesign them. The audit response should be with us in the next number of months.

We will be one of the first countries in Europe to adopt domestic violence paid leave and that will be essential in recognising the poverty that so many people fleeing domestic violence fear. Finally, we have the accommodation review. We are aware of the desperate need for more accommodation throughout the country. We are taking a step back and looking to see where it is. Is it emergency accommodation? Is it step-down accommodation? We are asking what is needed so we can better plan and put in resources, especially capital resources to initiate a refuge or supported accommodation. This is a commitment for the Government. It is a job between myself, the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, and other Ministers and we are absolutely committed to addressing this issue.

Sitting suspended at 11.40 a.m. and resumed at 12.05 p.m.