Monday, 28 June 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. She has pressing matters to deal with so I thank her for taking my Commencement matter. She is probably as shocked as me at the revelations from the internal Garda investigation into the cancellation of domestic violence 999 calls. When I got wind of it, I got really upset because I sit on the joint policing committee in Clare and we have seen domestic violence figures greatly increase during the Covid pandemic. We all know that existing supports badly need extra infrastructure and funding. According to the internal investigation, calls are being treated with a lack of empathy or are not being responded to. Calls that are responded to are not properly documented or followed up on and the cancellations have had an effect on the collection of important data and statistics on domestic violence, which is a huge issue on every level of our society. Some 3,120 domestic violence calls were marked as cancelled. There were valid reasons for cancelling one third of those, but that was not the case with the other two thirds. It is just not good enough.
We need to look at why this happened in the first place and what is needed to ensure that it does not happen again. Are additional resources needed? Do members of the Garda need extra training so they know how to show empathy? A person in a domestic violence situation is very disempowered because he or she has put up with it in the first place. It takes a lot of courage to pick up the phone to lodge a complaint. Often, that happens at the very tail end of a long history of emotional and physical violence. Much mental anguish, disempowerment and lack of self-value comes with domestic abuse, so when someone is making that call the last thing he or she needs is somebody who is flippant, does not show empathy or does not follow up. It is great the Garda held the internal investigation but it has highlighted some serious issues. Those issues need to be rectified. I hope the Minister of State can answer some of the questions that have arisen. What do we need to do about this issue and about the greater issue of increasing levels of domestic violence?
I thank Senator Garvey for raising this important issue. I am acutely aware of the vulnerable and often frightening position that callers suffering domestic abuse, and indeed anyone in a vulnerable position, are in. Any inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls is a very serious concern and falls significantly below the high standards the public expects of the Garda as well as the standards An Garda Síochána should set for itself. I acknowledge the concerns voiced by victims and those who advocate for them in response to this recent news. I am particularly concerned that anyone experiencing domestic abuse or whose personal safety was otherwise at risk and who sought assistance via a 999 call may not have received it. The Senator will be aware that the Garda Commissioner has publicly apologised for this, and was correct to do so. An Garda Síochána fell short of the high standards the public expects of the Garda. The Garda Commissioner has assured me and the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, that when someone calls 999 now, he or she can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help. This must always be the case. I can confirm that the Garda Commissioner has put new processes in place, strengthening supervision and providing training to ensure this never happens again. I welcome these steps.
As the Senator is aware, this issue was initially identified in An Garda Síochána last October as part of its internal processes. The Department was informed by An Garda Síochána in December that it had commenced an internal examination of the cancellation of 999 calls. An Garda Síochána also informed the Policing Authority. Following discussions with An Garda Síochána, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, requested the Policing Authority to oversee the investigation by An Garda Síochána in February this year, and there has been ongoing engagement on this issue between the authority and the Garda Commissioner at both their public and private meetings. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has been briefed by the Garda Commissioner and the authority chairman, Mr. Bob Collins, on the progress of the ongoing internal investigation over the past number of weeks. The importance of having independent, robust policing oversight to respond constructively to public policing service concerns such as this is evident, and the authority will provide a report to me when its consideration of this matter is concluded.
The Garda Commissioner has also confirmed that gardaí are now contacting people whose 999 calls were cancelled to apologise and to ask if they require help from An Garda Síochána. It is vital that the best interests of victims of domestic abuse and those of anyone else whose calls were cancelled inappropriately are the priority focus throughout this process. I will continue to remain in close contact with the Garda Commissioner and the chair of the authority over the coming weeks on this matter. On the conclusion of their investigations, the Garda and the authority will make recommendations and take appropriate actions to ensure that this vital emergency service responds in a consistent, compassionate and timely way to those who call upon it in times of danger and vulnerability.
I thank the Minister of State for her response. It is good that action is taking place. The Garda Commissioner had to apologise on behalf of the Garda Síochána. He was not personally responsible, but he is responsible for ensuring this never happens again. I hope we can retrieve the lost data to help to show the need for increased funding for the victims of domestic violence. I look forward to hearing with clarity about the training gardaí will be getting. It is not easy for a garda to deal with those situations and we cannot expect gardaí, just because they are gardaí, to understand even the language around it and how to listen to somebody. If one works for the Samaritans, one gets serious training for that, so we have to examine that and ensure it is done very well and as soon as possible.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I wish to reassure victims of domestic abuse and other callers who have experienced concerns about their personal safety or the safety of others in their care that this issue is being taken extremely seriously, and that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, will maintain regular communications with the Garda Commissioner and the Policing Authority chairman on the matter.
In acknowledging and welcoming the Garda Commissioner's apology, it is important also to acknowledge the effectiveness of Operation Faoiseamh which the Garda established in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic to proactively support and protect victims of domestic abuse and to ensure that domestic abuse incidents received the highest priority response. Operation Faoiseamh has resulted in a 24% increase in criminal charges brought against perpetrators of domestic violence in 2020 versus 2019. This is an ongoing Garda operation and, despite the concerns which victims will understandably have following the revelations, I urge any member of the public who is experiencing domestic abuse and who has yet to contact the Garda for support to do so. I am assured by the Garda Commissioner that when the person does, he or she will be provided with the utmost support.