Tuesday, 21 September 2021
Bullying and Sexual Harassment in Third Level Institutions: Motion
I welcome Senators to the Chamber for our first panel and university Members forum debate. These debates are a new departure for the Seanad and give effect to some of the recommendations made in the reports on Seanad reform, including the 2018 report of the implementation group on Seanad reform, which was chaired by Senator McDowell. As we all know, consensus regarding Seanad renewal and reform is hard to come by but the implementation of this recommendation is one of the ways we are moving forward in giving effect to the reports on renewal and reform. The 2015 report, which was authored by former Senator Maurice Cummins, adopted a principled approach to developing and strengthening the vocational panel nature of the Seanad. The 2018 report put flesh on the bones regarding the objective and recommendation that greater prominence should be given to our panels - the cultural and educational panel, the administrative panel, the labour panel, the agricultural panel and the industrial and commercial panel - as well as our universities - Trinity College and our national universities. Our Standing Orders have been amended and adopted to make sure we give effect to this particular form of debate. Contributions by Senators elected through these various panels will no doubt add to the debate on important topics, to the engagement between our universities and our nominating bodies and to the distinctive role they play in the formation of the Seanad and its make-up.
I thank Senators Ruane and Norris, both of whom were elected through the University of Dublin, and other Senators who have tabled motions regarding this process. I think this evening's topic is very timely. It is an issue that has been in the public domain. I know Senator Ruane has done a lot of research nationally and internationally on bullying and sexual harassment in third level institutions, something we all believe must be tackled in a way that punishes the perpetrator and protects the victims of these unacceptable behaviours that have gone on for far too long and have seen virtual immunity from prosecution. In many cases, the perpetrator goes on to commit more acts of harassment and bullying against not only staff members but students as well. I ask Senator Ruane to begin our first panel forum debate.
That Seanad Éireann:
- calls for a debate on the bullying and sexual harassment that exists for faculty, students and staff in Ireland’s third-level institutions;
- notes that third-level institutions should not support the use of non-disclosure agreements, which limits accountability of perpetrators, in such instances; and
- calls on the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science to commit that such issues when they arise, will be dealt with in a holistic and trauma-informed manner, through formal institutional processes and that priority is being given to tackling the issues of bullying and sexual harassment in third-level institutions without the use of non-disclosure agreements where there are accusations of sexual harassment, discrimination or bullying.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the Chamber. I begin this evening by thanking the Cathaoirleach for introducing the panel debate format to the Chamber. It marks a welcome addition to our parliamentary procedures and I believe it will open the door to important debates such as this evening’s debate. I thank Senator O'Loughlin, who will be seconding the motion.
This week saw the return of thousands of students to campuses across Ireland. These are campuses in which the ideals of free speech and accountability as a means of challenging bullying, discrimination and abuse have long been championed - ideals championed unless, as I have unfortunately found, they are used to challenge the institutions themselves. For those who are unaware, a non-disclosure agreement, NDA, which is also known as a confidentiality agreement in Irish law, is a binding contractual agreement that prevents one or more parties from disclosing knowledge designated by the institution as confidential even when this information concerns a complaint of bullying or sexual harassment. Originally, NDAs were designed to act as a legal tool to protect business and industry secrets. However, they are increasingly being used in the third level sector to silence victims of bullying, discrimination and, most concerningly, sexual assault.
This issue came on to my radar in 2017 for the second time. The first time was in the community sector. The second time, I received communication from a group of academics in a particular university who wanted to make me aware of the use of NDAs within their department or school within the university. Their concern was that NDAs were not just used once in the case of a particular perpetrator but were used a number of times with the same perpetrator, who had obviously managed to go on to other universities with a glowing reference and take up employment elsewhere under the guise of a reference written under an NDA where nobody could share what really happened.
On receiving this information, I sat on it for a while trying to figure what role I could play and how I could address it. I did not really understand the issue so I did not come out right off the bat. I tried to think about where I could place this conversation and how I could understand it more. It was not the first time I had heard of an NDA but I definitely did not understand the full ramifications and legal contexts in which NDAs were being used. Over the past number of years, I have carried out numerous pieces of research. Through that research, we have found that NDAs are used in almost every sector in this way and are becoming increasingly common to the point where people are not even questioning whether they are a good tool to use in respect of the potential cover-up of criminal activity, which could be anything in respect of the nine grounds of equality within the workplace. One piece of research involved a small sample in universities while others involved personal testimony. There have been numerous calls to my office in the past two days, since people became aware of what was coming up in the Chamber this week through "The Week in Politics". I got several calls. One woman was offered an NDA that she did not sign but it was offered to her before she even managed to make an official complaint to be investigated by the institution. The way it was framed to her was that it was "you against him" and "we can find you a new supervisor". This involved a postgraduate student and an academic member of staff who was a supervisor.NDAs are even being offered at the point of pre-investigation so that somebody could move on to a different sector. I am not sure if universities at the highest level are aware of this, but these personal aspects are definitely happening at a lower level, within the school level. I do not think there is any mechanism to feed that up, meaning no data are collated at the wider institutional level to understand the prevalence of the use of NDAs.
Much of the research and many of the conversations I have had have shown that somebody's reputation or potential employability will be negatively impacted if they are seen as somebody who pursues complaints in such cases and that it is actually to their benefit to sign a confidentiality agreement. Students are being told that as they are only starting out on their career, they do not want to be known as difficult or as somebody who brings conflict.
I am aware of some NDAs in the university sector that have been reframed in language where it does not state the NDA was sought, engaged in or signed because of a complaint of sexual harassment. It may come up as something like a clash of personalities or a breakdown in working relationships. This is how it is being framed in the official context of an NDA being signed, but actually the victim in this case knows exactly what is behind the breakdown in working relationships.
Compelled by the horrific stories of NDAs and disappointed at the lack of data surrounding their use in Ireland, last year, along with my office and Toby Lowall, I undertook a survey of bullying and discrimination within the Irish third level institutions. It is a small sample but even the existence of one person is enough to indicate their prevalence. As you might imagine, people are frightened to engage in this because they do not have an amnesty in any sense of the word to engage and give the data. They are obviously in fear of the ramifications of that.
We carried out a survey of about 35 people who have engaged in conversations about NDAs in the university sector. The results of the survey confirmed what we already know, that NDAs are used in Irish third level institutions. In addition, the survey found 30% of respondents reported experiences of discrimination, 36% of respondents reported cases of sexual harassment, and 7% of respondents stated they had experienced discrimination based on their gender identity within Irish third level institutions.
Most concerning is that in almost two thirds of these cases, the survey found the perpetrators of these acts of discrimination and abuse were members of academic staff. This is a staggering figure which raises deep concerns regarding power dynamics within these institutions, but when this figure is coupled with the fact the survey found 30% of respondents were forced to sign an NDA following their reporting of these abuses, it is simply unacceptable.
We should pause for a moment to consider what this figure actually represents. It represents a lack of justice. It represents a bully, an abuser, walking away, free to join another of our third level institutions. Worst of all, it represents a victim of abuse and discrimination being silenced.
In addition, public money is often used to silence victims of discrimination and sexual abuse. I have repeatedly shown the prevalence of NDAs within Irish third level institutions. Our UK counterparts paid more than £90 million since 2017 to silence victims using NDAs. It therefore begs the question how much our institutions are willing to pay. What is the price these institutions are willing to pay to silence victims of discrimination and abuse to protect their own reputations? We need to stop for a moment and consider the broader social impact of NDA payments.
Instead of a formal investigation being carried out into accusations of abuse or discrimination and the subsequent termination of the accused’s contract, NDAs allow abusers to continue their career elsewhere, with little or no reputational damage and the real possibility of abusing again. We use NDAs to cover up abuse and then we pass on the trash to somewhere else so that it is no longer our problem. We have managed to remove the problem from in front of us, but we just move it to somewhere else. Obviously, it is detrimental to third parties who have to encounter that person when the new institution has no understanding of what has come before that.
From the victims’ point of view, our survey showed those presented with NDAs had a mixed knowledge of what they were agreeing to. These respondents acknowledged that they signed the agreement without understanding the true scope of what they were agreeing to. Those who question why anyone would sign a document which they did not fully understand, need to put themselves in these victims' shoes and consider the power dynamic that exists. Those in the room are suggesting this is the best, and only, thing they can do to be able to move forward with their careers and lives. I have been told personally of people signing NDAs because the victims of these horrendous abuses were convinced if they did not sign, they would be made unemployable and, therefore, it was in their best interest to sign the NDA. They have just experienced what in many cases is the most traumatic moment of their lives. As they summon the courage to report the discrimination or abuse they have suffered, often at the hands of a peer, they are presented with a document to sign before proceeding. They are promised the document will allow them to move on from their ordeal. However, this same document traps them.
Some 25% of respondents reported that a clause was inserted into their NDA which prevented them from disclosing the abuse suffered to a therapist. The Government simply cannot preach a culture of mental health and speaking out while simultaneously allowing a legal document to permit such things to exist.
Will the Government continue to put its head in the sand on this matter and maintain the status quo, or will we begin to take responsibility and meaningful action to stop bullying, discrimination and sexual abuse on our campuses? Will it do what so many of our governments of the past have done and deny this abuse of power is happening and simply sweep it under the carpet?
I am asking the Minister to speak to the matter in hand but also to outline what we can do. Currently, the use of NDAs is still legal. I have introduced legislation in the House to make that illegal. In the interim, how do we begin to change and challenge that culture? How can a union representative, an academic advocate supporting a victim, a college institution or indeed a solicitor brought in to negotiate an NDA begin to challenge that culture while we wait for legislation to move along?
I thank Senator Norris, who unfortunately cannot join us in the Chamber this evening. However, he asked me to say he is very saddened to learn of the prevalence of this kind of unacceptable behaviour at third level institutions. He said it is an underground thing which needs to be recognised and challenged.
I formally second the motion before the House this evening. I congratulate Senator Ruane on all her work in this area. I also take note of what Senator Norris said. I acknowledge that the former Senator, Deputy Bacik, was involved in the initiation of this. Obviously, she has moved Houses.
I welcome the opportunity Senator Ruane has afforded to us all to speak on such important issues. Bullying and sexual harassment have no place in our third level institutions, workplaces, homes or anywhere in our society.
We have seen the issue of sexual harassment and bullying in the headlines more often in recent times than ever before. It is good a light is being shone on it. Addressing sexual violence and harassment must be a priority for all of us in these Houses and all in the third level sector. We must be leaders in this field in calling out unacceptable behaviour.
Senator Ruane spoke very eloquently and at length on non-disclosure agreements. I completely agree these agreements should not be used by third level institutions where instances of bullying and sexual harassment arise. They run completely contrary to the values of transparency, consistency and integrity which are embodied in the framework for consent. I acknowledge the Minister is due to introduce legislation. I ask him to strengthen that legislation to ensure the intentions expressed by this Bill and amendment would be put in place.
A report conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights on violence against women found women between the ages of 18 and 29 are significantly more vulnerable to sexual harassment than the general population. The World Health Organization estimates one in three women worldwide has experienced either physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. We cannot allow this culture of abuse to continue and we must do everything in our power to protect and support victims of sexual abuse. The treatment of victims who come forward is a very pertinent aspect of our discussion. According to the National Women's Council of Ireland, 21% of Irish people think there are understandable reasons for having sexual intercourse without consent. That is rape and we should call it what it is. It is shocking that 23% of Irish people believe women often make up or exaggerate claims of abuse or rape. We must tackle this stigmatisation head on and we absolutely must ensure that when matters of sexual harassment and violence are reported in the third level sector, the victims are met with appropriate compassion and empathy; we must not deter people from coming forward. We must ensure the communication channels within our third level institutions are open, compassionate and victim-centred. Consent is a fundamental aspect of this debate. Our young people must know what is and is not consent. They must know what is and is not acceptable. They must know what is and is not harassment. We must protect our students, staff and young women and men in this country.
In June I welcomed the publication by higher education institutes of their action plans aimed at ending sexual violence and harassment. It is really important each institution sets out for staff and students what is intended in the area. It is important that institutions report to the Higher Education Authority every year on the progress being made because accountability is very important. It is vital that staff and students have faith in the plans implemented by each institution, and each institution must be held to account on commitments. We must see a wholesale culture shift within the higher education system. We must start teaching and speaking about these matters earlier. Education on all such matters must be updated to better represent the reality of life for our young people today.
Implementation is the key metric and we must see real reforms that have a real impact on the ground. We must see our young people protected and supported. I commend this motion and again I put on record my gratitude to Senator Ruane for all her work in the area.
I thank the Minister for being here and congratulate Senator Ruane on her work in the area. I thank her for bringing this motion before the House. I also acknowledge Senator Ruane's work bringing the Employment Equality (Amendment) (Non-Disclosure Agreements) Bill 2021 to the House last June. I was very much educated in the area of third level sexual harassment internationally and nationally with the webinar Senator Ruane organised before that. To my embarrassment, it was an issue on which I was not well briefed before that debate and I am grateful to her for highlighting this work and advocating for this change to create a safer and more just place for everyone.
The facts raised last June were shocking and it is really outrageous that non-disclosure agreements are used against victims to reduce their rights. The law should always be actively weighted in favour of and not against the victim. It is never in the public interest to bury abuse cases. Currently, as was noted, no legislative provisions govern non-disclosure agreements or confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements and the extent of the use of these agreements in Ireland in these circumstances is unknown. The use of non-disclosure agreements to protect the abuser and assist the institution perpetuates the power imbalance of abuser over victim. Let us hope we can get to the bottom of that with the Minister's co-operation and lift the lid on some of what is happening.
Sexual harassment, as we know, is rife in many parts of our society, and the third level sector is only one example. Sadly, time and again we hear testimonies from women in the main highlighting their lived experiences. Most, unfortunately, go unrecorded and I can add myself to the list of women who have suffered sexual harassment and said nothing. Why did I say nothing? Well, you do not want to be that person and that is not what you want to be known or remembered for. It is hard enough for women to get on in their careers without being known as the person who brought a sexual harassment charge against someone else. We just do not want to go there. A younger Erin McGreehan would just think, "Erin, put your head down, work hard and be remembered for what you did and not for what someone else did to you." That is wrong and I am thankful the older, perhaps brasher, Erin would not tolerate it.
So many people are silenced by society or a legal silencing though non-disclosure agreements. This has been perpetuated by the State for more than 100 years now, including through the abuses that happened and were covered up in institutions, which we have discussed many times in this House. Unfortunately, we are seeing it again. Decades ago, sexual harassment was highlighted in the Defence Forces. I wrote to the Department months ago on the matter and received no response. I am sure the Minister agrees it is shocking and upsetting to think individuals, victims, researchers and even public representatives were ignored when they asked the Department of Defence about sexual harassment in the Defence Forces. It feels that wrongdoing is only acknowledged in this country after the victims have to scream to be heard and shame the authorities into acting. Women of honour had to scream to shame authorities into acting. They had to go on national radio and relive their harsh experience to be heard and get the State to act.
We need a zero-tolerance attitude to sexual harassment at every level in our society. The State must provide safety, whether that is in our homes, schools, colleges, workplaces or streets. To be honest, I am sick of the onus always being put on women or victims to change or take a stand on this. Newstalk radio published the results of a survey this week about safety on our streets and how women feel unsafe when alone on our streets at night. Why is the onus always on women to change? It is often "the woman’s fault" and I often hear that women should have changed their route home, changed their clothes, should not have been drinking or had that many sexual partners. There are endless amounts of excuses.
To hell with that attitude; I am over it. I demand safer workplaces and safer streets. Let us make this country a place where there is enough protection for people and they feel safe. We must make this a country where that creep knows such action will not be tolerated and that people are protected. There must be adequate deterrents with victim-centred structures as opposed to a system focused on mitigating against any bad press or which puts the onus on the victim to prove he or she did not just ask for it. We need to prevent those creeps from abusing and from harassing. We must take the power from them and not the victim. We always see two ingredients that enable abusers, which are power and silence. We must remember the singular most important factors are the victims, their suffering and their needs. To put it simply, prevention is better than cure.
I thank the Senator for sharing her story and outlining the challenges facing society, with silence allowing perpetrators to go unpunished. We must encourage victims to come forward and know they will be protected. Unfortunately, all too often they end up being punished by society. That must change.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, and thank Senator Lynn Ruane for bringing this to us today. It is such an important topic. It is also important that women can speak freely about their experiences, as Senator McGreehan has just demonstrated. I thank her for that.
This motion concerns bullying and sexual harassment at third level, which is incredible when we think about it. These are colleges and places we go to so minds can be opened and challenged and where we can have new experiences to explore and discover. It is such a special time in a person's life and it makes someone the type of person that he or she goes on to be. It is so important. Thinking back, I was fortunate to have an incredible experience as a student, but so many people have had other types of experience. I have heard, anecdotally, about people having these experiences and having to move elsewhere. It is shocking. When students and staff have such experiences, it leaves a major impact on their lives, careers and mental health. As a member of the Oireachtas committee dealing with mental health, I stand tall on measures to ensure it can be protected for people in colleges and universities.
I am sure the Minister supports the idea that it is unacceptable to have non-disclosure agreements as a method of silencing bullying cases.It is not acceptable to have NDAs to silence abuse on equality grounds or to silence anything to do with sexual harassment. It is also not acceptable, as Senator Ruane has mentioned, if people are moving on to different careers or institutions. That cannot be possible.
It is important that we have the initial forms of the survey Senator Ruane has conducted. Perhaps it would be useful to have a wider survey taking in wider samples across all of our universities, including our new technological universities. It is a precarious nature of employment in third level. As a previous researcher in the universities, I know that it is contract work. One could get six months, one year or two years of work. One could be working with a research team, and there are great research teams out there, but these are niche areas and it is a small world. If one is in a particular area of research it can be a small world and one's career is dependent on good recommendations and word of mouth and so it is difficult for some of those people to come forward with this type of experience. The Minister is probably conscious of that.
I want to point out some of the things I have seen in the last year that have been heartening to me. For example, a year ago we had no female provosts or presidents in the universities and now we have four coming forward. We have a female interim president of the University of Limerick, Professor Kerstin Mey; Dr. Linda Doyle in Trinity College Dublin; Professor Maggie Cusack in Munster Technological University; and Professor Eeva Leinonen in the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. Change has to happen from the ground up, from our students and staff. We also have to have key people in positions of authority and decision makers who are aware and who are able to act. We need to bring more balance to our leadership within our university structures.
I was glad to be able to meet and see some of the research team in the National University of Ireland, Galway, on the active consent programme that is being rolled out. This is part of the behavioural change that we have to see and that has to happen. It is behavioural and it has to change. In the active consent initiative in the National University of Ireland, Galway, they work with both students and staff. There are information talks for staff, parents or community groups and consent workshops for third level colleges. They are using drama and different types of educational resources to reach people and target different groups. They are also looking at working with schools and youth groups on research and development.
The Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science recently rolled out a report on bullying at primary and post-primary level. It was shocking to me that there are seemingly more instances of bullying in primary school than in post-primary school. It shows that this behaviour and idea that one can somehow manipulate and abuse people has to be changed and that change has to happen at an early stage. I have just come from a meeting of that committee at which the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, indicated that measures will be rolled out to support anti-bullying and to tackle bullying within our primary and post-primary sectors. It is crucial that we tackle that from an early stage. The Minister has also just launched the "#UnmuteConsent" campaign. It is important that we communicate that, share it and work with our student unions to ensure that message is being rolled out and that people feel safe to come forward. I also know we have that number, 50808, for any students, staff or anyone who has a concern to be able to text someone and to speak in confidence. That is crucial. I look forward to the Minister's response and I know he will be supportive of Senator Ruane's measure.
Like others, I would like to compliment Senator Ruane, not just for bringing forward this motion but for her continuous work within this area. I know to praise the Minister as well because he has taken a specific leadership role on this. It is essential that our universities and higher education institutions, as Senator Dolan has said, are safe spaces, regardless of one's background, gender, sexual orientation or race. They should be safe places if one is a student, a member of staff, a researcher or a visitor to a campus. Of any place, our third level campuses should be guaranteed to be safe spaces.
I would pay tribute to Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who came forward a year ago and bravely and honestly told the story of what had happened to her in University College Dublin, UCD. This is an extremely gifted researcher and academic, who went through something nobody should have had to go through. The honesty of her story shone through and I am glad to say that she forced changes in what was happening in the rules and procedures in UCD. As others have said, it is not good enough just to change rules and procedures; it has to be about changing cultures within an institution. If the culture and attitude of an institution are correct, then in many ways it does not need to refer to the rules and procedures. I compliment a lot of the student unions for taking leadership roles on this. It has to be pervasive across the entire institution.
Universities are not like top-down companies. An order cannot always be given from the top and a president of an institution cannot always know everything that is going on within every school and Department, as has been said. It is like being the mayor of a city or the conductor of an orchestra. One is trying to keep control of many different things that are going on at once so it is difficult to know what is going on in every area. If the president and leadership of an institution lead by example and if the culture is set within an institution, then we will look to stamp out a lot of these problems.
My colleague, Senator McGreehan, speaks honestly in many of the contributions she makes around this and she brings her own personal experience to this. She is right in saying that it is not just about a culture in our higher education institutions. This is about a culture more widely within society. There is a responsibility on the media as well. In the context of this debate, I was particularly disgusted by the Irish Mail on Sundayin its recent coverage of how a number of my party colleagues dress and of their appearance. One can criticise anybody in politics for what they say or for what their views are but they should not be criticised on the basis of how they choose to dress. My female colleagues are some of the finest dressers one can come across and I would say that for Senator McGreehan in particular. Part of the reason people are discouraged from getting involved in politics is that discriminatory language is used that puts people down.
Whether it is in an academic, political or media environment, there is a responsibility on all of us to be careful in what we say and do. The challenge within our higher education institutions is to ensure we create safe spaces so that anybody who walks onto a campus environment knows that the only test they will have will be on the basis of their academic ability and performance. That should be the only way they are judged over whatever length of time they spend in our universities or higher education institutions.
We should be proud in this country. We have excellent places of learning in higher education and research and they have good academic records but the purpose of a higher education institution or university is about more than simply academic achievement. It is about setting the standards for the country as a whole and informing our public debate and culture. We need to change the procedures. I agree with the points that have been made around NDAs. They should not be permitted in circumstances like this. At times, those at the top of the university may not know everything that is going on at ground level. What is more important is that we ensure the culture of the institutions changes. Our higher education institutions can then play a lead role in society in informing the public debate around how we make this a safer society for all of us to live in.
I speak strongly in support of the motion and I commend Senator Ruane on her excellent work in this area. We will probably pretty much have unanimity in this House on this but it is a bigger debate than what is happening within the Chamber today.
I congratulate Senator Ruane yet again on a really fine piece of work. It is utterly intolerable that any bullying or harassment should happen in a third level college. Wherever there is a power imbalance, systems and procedures must be in place to ensure that those who would exploit their positions are curtailed in the extreme. It is utterly unacceptable for non-disclosure agreements, NDAs, to be used in these sorts of contexts. I can appreciate the sensitivities but there are ways and means of dealing with those, not the least of which is tackling such a culture at the very start. In the past year, the Minister has declared zero tolerance for bullying and harassment and he has set in motion a series of measures to ensure that campuses are safe places. The mandatory requirement to record and report statistics on bullying and harassment complaints not only gives us a basis to gather metrics to educate us on how best to target supports and anti-bullying measures, but also gives us a measure of how the colleges themselves are engaging in the subject. From the general data protection regulation, GDPR, end of things, I have always felt that if you do not have a disclosure or complaint, you are not really managing the system properly. I laud the colleges that record statistics regarding complaints as being actively engaged in dealing with the culture.
On sexual harassment, we absolutely need to move to a position where people feel safe. It should never ever occur. I wrestle with the concept of teaching consent. I absolutely 100% support it but, on the other hand, there should be a basic floor level of human dignity and respect. Consent should not need to be taught. Respecting other people, the autonomy of their bodies and how they are spoken about, including our Fianna Fáil colleagues, in every possible way shows basic human respect. It is therefore shocking that people have to be taught it but, nonetheless, that is happening and I appreciate what has been put in place.
When it comes to bullying and harassment, in an employment setting, the basis of grievance procedures is set out in SI 146 of 2000. Under that statutory instrument, if an employer does not adhere to the proper procedures, which are objective and which can be looked at objectively, the presumption is always against that employer regardless of the substantive complaint and of whether the employer made the right decision in sacking somebody. I urge the putting place of a similar system at the end of the survey, when we have statistics, so that if people make a complaint against a college and if there is not a transparent system for investigating that complaint, the presumption will be against the college resulting in automatic redress for the students. In employment terms, the High Court has ruled that taking someone's job away is the same as taking away their liberty. To undermine a student's ability to achieve his or her full potential in university is just as detrimental. Students go into third level environments to ensure that they will have a future. They invest. There is a duty of care on the part of their third level colleges that should be discharged fully and transparently.
Last year, I brought the case of a family whom I was supporting to the Minister's office and his office supported them fantastically and was great in doing so. A student's mother had come to me. He had made a complaint against his lecturer regarding the manner in which the lecturer was treating him in observations on projects and on the work he was doing. The lecturer retaliated. The matter was investigated by the very people to whom the complaint was made in a manner that was utterly replete with conflicts of interest. The situation was looked at and examined in a subjective way, which was most appalling. By any employment law standards, the findings would have been thrown out. The Workplace Relations Commission would have had a great time with it. The only choice this young person was left with was to go to someone else. He was promised an external examiner and a whole heap of other things but none of it was put in place. There was no effective objective third party to whom he could bring his complaint. At the end of all of the work the Minister is doing, the surveys and so on, a system like that will be needed. I know we have the Ombudsman and that there is a requirement to have procedures but we need a statutory instrument. We need some sort of measure of this kind which is utterly objective and which would mean that the presumption is against the party holding the power if those procedures are not fully adhered to.
I will mention apprenticeships. There has been an impressive ramping up of apprenticeships. We saw an agony aunt-type letter to the papers this week regarding a young person who is again in a powerless position in a culture of misogyny, sexual comments and lewd remarks and who is feeling disempowered. We need a similar provision in that regard, although this case is in an employment context so there are systems in place. I thank the Minister for all the work he has done in the last year and I say "well done" to Senator Ruane.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. Like other Senators, I congratulate Senator Ruane on her considerable work on this very important topic over a period of time and on bringing this motion before the House today. I also want to quote my own party colleague, Senator Hoey, and to tell her that we are all thinking of her and her family at this time. As we all know, Senator Hoey spoke on this matter recently and I want to quote what she said. She said:
Too often when people are harassed, they feel they do not have the power or the support to report it, and even some who do report it are given inadequate support to work through it. There are students, and staff, across the country who have to share campuses with people who have harassed them, assaulted them, and continue to cause them great distress. We need to make consent training the norm in all places of education. However, the first conversation students have about healthy relationships and consent should not be at third level. We need to get talking about this issue at a much earlier stage in formal education.
We in the Labour Party fully support the motion brought forward this evening, particularly the provision regarding non-disclosure agreements. Given the very welcome return to campus living and college life, this is very timely and welcome. The conversation initiated by Senator Ruane today is about our need to highlight how important it is that those attending third level, whether staff or students, have the support to speak out should they become the victims of sexual assault or bullying. It is essential that their voices are not taken away from them at such a difficult time, which is what non-disclosure agreements try to achieve and what this motion tries to discuss and address.
We also acknowledge the proactive work being done in the sector, which I am sure the Minister knows about. I refer to, for example, University College Cork's bystander intervention programme which aims to highlight the danger of normalising and accepting abusive behaviour and, through education, to inform and empower programme participants to better understand their capacity to intervene as prosocial bystanders. Another example is the Start Here campaign in the National University of Ireland, Galway, which focuses on active consent and which is in run in conjunction with the Galway Rape Crisis Centre. This provides students and staff with resources on how to support someone who makes a disclosure.
In supporting this motion tonight, we must also acknowledge and, more importantly, learn from the recent research carried out by the Union of Students in Ireland through its 2020 national sexual experience survey. This revealed that 79% of college students who disclosed sexual misconduct, including rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, have told a friend about it. Some 29% of females, 10% of males and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by force or threat of force. Some 57% of females had experienced offensive remarks about their appearance, body or sexual activities. These findings should concentrate all of our minds on the need to have conversations such as the conversation we are having today but, like my colleague, Senator Hoey, has previously suggested, we need to have those conversations much earlier in our educational system.
A very important part of the conversation we are having here today relates to how we are going to fund urgently needed training for dedicated campus staff in how to deal with reports of sexual harassment and assault. It is vital that in talking about consent we also find ways to support victims through these situations when they arise. Funding must be prioritised by Government and the Minister. There must be avenues of support on campus now. As has been said by other speakers tonight, this issue is not exclusive to higher education. Right across Irish society, victims do not feel safe or empowered to report and perpetrators trade off that silence and experience, experiencing little or no consequences for their actions.Following what Senator McGreehan said, I take this opportunity to raise the RTÉ programme presented by Katie Hannon, "Women of Honour". The horrific treatment of female members of our Defence Forces through sexual harassment and bullying must be stopped, and the silence and power the perpetrators had over these women must be called out. I welcome the fact the Minister for Defence has agreed to meet the "Women of Honour" representatives and that he has agreed to an independent inquiry, but the terms of reference of that inquiry must include the experiences of these women and they must be consulted on those terms before it begins. I strongly suggest that PDFORRA and RACO, the Defence Forces representative organisations, should also be included in drawing up the terms of reference of this urgently needed inquiry. Is it any wonder, at a time we need additional members in our Defence Forces, with all that has gone on in the past, that only 7% of them comprise female members?
I reaffirm our support for the motion. The history of this country is littered with victims whose voices were silenced throughout their sexual exploitation and bullying. I was taken aback by what Senator Ruane said about how non-disclosure agreements allow people to move among different educational organisations, and I am sure the Minister has taken that very much on board. This is a reflection of what has happened in the past in this country, and the main issue I have taken from this debate is that we cannot allow this to happen again. Our third-level institutions must be free from this enforced silence, and if it has to happen, supports must be put in place urgently. No victims should be afraid to come forward; they must be supported at all times in the process, and any funding needed must be provided and forthcoming from the Minister and his Department.
I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I congratulate Senator Ruane on bringing the debate to the House. It is important that we have this conversation. Many of the points I was going to make were made by Senator Wall. Having the conversation when a student reaches third level is probably a little late and we have a big job to do. The issue is getting worse. There is far more aggression now than there ever was. One of the challenges we face relates to that level of complacency, whereby we think we have achieved everything we need to achieve, that equality has been achieved or that the streets, universities or workplaces are safe places for women, but we find time and again they are not. Many of these complaints are very recent. I commend Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who highlighted this at the outset. She is a fellow countywoman of mine, a friend and someone I admire greatly. It took great courage for her to come forward and tell her story in great detail in order that we could all learn from her experience. She did so because she is in a position where she can now help others, but for many years she was not listened to. Her employer fell far below the standard expected of an employer in regard to protecting her in the workplace and other people in her position.
An important task for the Minister and his Department is to try to understand and figure out why victims do not come forward and what prevents them from making a complaint in the first instance. We can all guess as to why that might be the case - I have never experienced it myself in the workplace or at third level - but we need to listen to victims and frame our response by taking our lead from them. Why do victims not come forward? Why do people not go through the complaints process? Is it just that the complaints process is inadequate? That is probably part of it, but there is also a stigma attached to making a complaint. The person might feel like a troublemaker, embarrassed and ashamed. Worst of all, the person may wonder whether others will not believe the complaint or what will happen, after the complaint has been made and all the person's dirty laundry is out there for everybody to look through, if there is not a resolution at the end of it and others believe him or her over the person making the complaint. I imagine that is the greatest fear for many people who have experienced this in the workplace. It is important that we advocate for victims and understand, first, what the changes are that we need to make. We do not know exactly where we need to go on this. That is the point I am making, perhaps in a roundabout way.
It is important that universities embark on a campaign on their campuses in respect not just of consent but also of the complaints mechanisms that are in place, such as whom a complainant should inform and to emphasise that it is confidential and that there will not be a retaliation against the complainant by the perpetrator or his or her group. Very often, and especially in the Defence Forces scenario Senator Wall outlined, the person carrying out the harassing or bullying is in a position of power and the person being targeted is often in a weaker or vulnerable position, and the former may play on that relationship of having more power. The perception to the victim, very often, is that it is not just the complainant that the victim is up against but rather all his or her colleagues, friends and the entire institution that is built to protect. We have seen in many organisations and institutions that when a complainant comes forward, people batten down the hatches and protect their own. That is the culture we need to stamp out and get rid of. It is not just at third level but it is prevalent there. When somebody is there long enough, he or she will be somebody's buddy or somebody's colleague, and there is a reflex to try to protect that person and just get rid of the matter, rather than deal with it head on.
In light of this debate and of all the people who have stepped forward to tell their story - I have no doubt we will hear more - let us find out why people do not come forward. Let us identify the problems and get the universities to be proactive and take measures. Only then will we see real results for future generations coming through, whereby they will be truly safe and inclusive spaces for people to come into where they can feel safe in making a complaint.
I welcome the Minister. I thank Senator Ruane for highlighting this issue and bringing it to the fore. I fully support her motion. I also praise the Minister and his departmental staff for making this issue a priority and highlighting the issues facing staff and students in higher education, with ongoing initiatives to create safe campuses for all. Indeed, last year, the Minister confirmed that a survey was to be carried out into sexual harassment and bullying of both staff and students in our institutions. The survey will remain open for a number of weeks and its findings are due to be published by the end of the current academic year. This is very important. Dublin City University, DCU, has carried out a great deal of work on the issue but that seems to have concentrated on primary and post-primary levels, so I am delighted this survey is happening.
In 2021, colleges throughout Ireland will implement a range of steps to fight sexual violence, including consent classes, disclosure training and anonymous reporting tools. In this ever-changing world, however, we need to focus on educating our young people, so why not start in secondary school? We need to start the conversation, perhaps earlier than we would like to, but it needs to be done. A study published by Rape Crisis Network Ireland in July this year warned that Irish teenagers experience high levels of sexual harassment, with 80% of adolescents reporting they had been subject to some form of harassment in the previous year. This was based on a survey of 600 teenagers and interviews with 93 adolescents and 21 youth workers. It asked participants about their experiences during the previous 12 months, with ages ranging from 13 to 17. The findings showed that 24% of the teenagers surveyed had been subjected to physical or extreme forms of sexual harassment, while 83% had witnessed some form of sexual harassment, which is a staggering figure. More than 40% of the sexual harassment reported by the teenagers surveyed had occurred online, while 12% had taken place in school. The report also found that almost 70% of LGBT teenagers had experienced serious sexual harassment, while girls were almost twice as likely as boys to have experienced unwanted sexual touches. Girls were also twice as likely to have faced sexual harassment online.
I am not in favour of the use of non-disclosure agreements. We need to listen to victims, not silence them.
I sit on the Oireachtas joint committee that is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the online safety and media relations Bill, along with Senator Byrne, and we have been discussing the issue of online bullying and digital safety with a number of companies. The issue of bullying has been highlighted by all the members of the committee with the various social media companies when their representatives came before us. We have asked that an education programme be funded by those companies. Facebook, Twitter and TikTok have appeared before us and we have had varying levels of commitment, but I must compliment TikTok, which has engaged with me since its appearance before the committee and is prepared to put funding behind such a scheme. It is important to recognise that positive engagement.
I support the recent comments of Senator Byrne in defence of his colleagues following the Fianna Fáil think-in. We are all colleagues in the Oireachtas and comments such as those he raised are completely out of order. They reflect a poor standard of journalism.It is hard to put oneself forward for public life and the way one dresses, one's family and one's sexuality are off limits. That point needs to be put out there and the media should apologise to our colleagues for those comments.
I will refer to comments the Minister made recently that touch on the whole issue. We need to work together to create a culture of zero tolerance where education around consent is a requirement and not an option, not just for students but also for those teaching and guiding them. The very least our young people deserve is a safe environment to study and work free from harassment or violence.
I welcome the Minister to the House. He is always generous with his time in the Seanad. I commend Senators Ruane and Norris on putting this motion on the Order Paper. I also commend the Cathaoirleach on facilitating these new slots for debate, which allow for panel or constituency debates on specific issues.
Too many students, and women in particular, experience sexual harassment and sexual violence at third level. I commend the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, on its work, research and campaigns on this issue, and on being, alongside others, the driving force behind cultural change in this country over many decades. Students have been at the forefront and running educational campaigns around consent, which I will come to later in my contribution. They have always lobbied for policy development at their higher education institutions. They have rallied in support of survivors. They have challenged narratives and comments in the media. Long may that continue.
I will come straight to the issue of non-disclosure agreements, NDAs, referred to in the motion. There has been consensus here tonight that using NDAs to keep victims quiet should not be tolerated. I welcome that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has committed to commissioning research into the prevalence of NDAs in cases of sexual harassment and discrimination. I wonder can the Minister, Deputy Harris, on behalf of the Government, give an update on that research.
In cases of sexual harassment and discrimination, it is apparent that NDAs are being used to protect third level institutions primarily and, by extension, the perpetrators of sexual harassment and discrimination. It follows that the use of NDAs is not in the interests of the victim or victims of sexual harassment and serves only to silence staff and student victims. Of course, if a victim requests confidentiality, that should be facilitated and I understand that Senator Ruane might have legislation that would achieve that. It says an awful lot about how business-like our third level and higher education sector has become that there appears to be widespread use of NDAs, which are commonplace across businesses. That shows how business-like our colleges have been forced to become.
Figures obtained by the BBC show that British universities spent about £87 million on pay-offs associated with NDAs between 2017 and 2019. A former music professor at the University of Liverpool broke her NDA in order to show people that they are not alone. Ms Anahid Kassabian said, "We all think we're isolated and alone, sobbing over past wrongs, when in fact there are many, many of us, and if we could speak to each other it would feel very different." Ms Kassabian felt that she had been bullied out of her job after being diagnosed with cancer. Victims must be able to speak with each other. They must be able to speak with therapists. They must be able to speak with their families. Using NDAs to keep victims quiet should not be tolerated.
I am glad to be following Senator Carrigy because I also want to talk about relationship and sexuality education, RSE. We are not equipping young people with sex education and relationship education that is robust, comprehensive and inclusive. I am not the only one saying this. In December, it will be two years since the National Council for Curriculum Assessment released its report on a review on RSE. Students were unanimous about the importance of RSE. This quote is from the report and it is about students' perspectives of RSE:
There is unanimous agreement among students about the important of RSE. While students frequently cite friends and the internet as sources of information about relationships and sexuality, they were aware of the shortcomings of these sources. They want schools to provide comprehensive, relevant and age appropriate RSE through all stages of education. Students have a sense that this is hindered by RSE's low status and low priority in schools. They expressed frustration that they are not receiving comprehensive RSE and that their needs are not being met. There is a strong perception among students that provision of RSE is uneven both within and between schools which means that students cannot be guaranteed the same quality of experience in RSE as they can expect in other subjects.
Sexual consent, which can also be left out of discussions completely, should be absolutely central to RSE reform and school is where the process should begin. In May, a spokesperson for the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, said in the Irish Examinerthat, "Should legislative changes be needed, the Minister is committed to making appropriate legislative changes as set out in the programme for government". I say to the Minister, Deputy Foley, that legislative change is needed and I ask what will it take for her to realise that legislative change is long overdue. An Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, survey of 1,500 fifth and sixth year students found that only 35% of second level students received RSE so far during their second level education.
I welcome this motion of Senators Ruane and Norris and offer Sinn Féin's full support.
I welcome the Minister. I thank Senators Ruane and Norris for bringing forward this motion. I also thank the Cathaoirleach because it is his innovation to have these kinds of debates on panels in the Seanad. It is welcome and I look forward to more of them. This is an important topic for a first debate. We all have something to say on the matter. There is cross-party support. I commend my party colleague, Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, on bringing this issue to the fore. It should not take someone like Dr. Ní Shúilleabháin coming forward.
I am going to split the issue into two different components. I know that Senator Warfield and I speak about RSE a lot so I am not going to repeat everything that he said but I would like to split up the issue. There is an understanding of sex, relationships and consent, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, there is power and control. It is important that we look at it from both perspectives. There is an element of power and control involved when we are talking about consent but there is also a lot of learning there for children and young people. It is not just that they arrive into third level education and adulthood not understanding about relationships and consent, there is also the fact that people in their workplaces need to feel safe, regardless of where they are. Harassment, and sexual harassment in particular, is used as a form of power and control over others, particularly women and those who are more vulnerable. Those in more senior positions are typically responsible. I absolutely agree with Senator Chambers that we need to ask people what the reasons are but something that spring to mind, and about which people often speak, is that third level institutions are closed loops. Even if one is to look internationally, it is a very small pool of people. It is difficult within a small pool of people to put your hand up because you could be marking your card for your career and it may be somebody in a powerful position who you are marking your card with. That is quite a daunting prospect for someone who has spent a long time getting to a position in their career and who is potentially going to risk it all. One should never feel like that. Someone who is bringing something up is always in the right and is really supporting other people, as Dr. Ní Shúilleabháin has. As I say, one should not have to do that.
I sat on a board of management and the údarás of National University of Ireland, Galway, NUIG, as a councillor. I was discussing this issue with other Senators in the canteen earlier and it is interesting that this motion prompted those discussions. One can feel somewhat removed from what is actually happening, department by department, when one is on such a board of management. That needs to be addressed.We have discussed this in the education committee. Senator Dolan was there, and I know that she also has strong views on this. We need to look at giving independence to third level institutions. However, what does that mean when it comes to our responsibility as a State? We have to make sure that people working in those institutions have some element of their own identity and their own decision-making powers. How can we then ensure as a State that all the staff is looked after? We must have that discussion on an ongoing basis.
I remember when the Minister came to what was possibly the first joint Oireachtas committee on education. My very first question was on consent. The Minister spoke at length about the importance of addressing consent in this term of Government. That is one of the Minister’s top priorities. We all support that. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister’s comments. I know he brought forward the survey, for instance, which is a good step.
To go back to the issue of relationship and sex education, RSE, we just do not have it right in primary schools and secondary schools. I believe that is partly because of our patronage system, although I know it is not the only reason. Every child in every school needs to have the same education. That is the State's responsibility. Children need to recognise themselves in the kind of education that they are receiving, whatever their sexuality, and whatever the sexuality of their parents. That is the only way that we can deliver a proper RSE programme to every child going to school - and it has to start in primary school - where their own cultures and social lives outside school are recognised.
I have heard so many stories. I want to commend the great, pioneering work that NUIG has done on active consent. It is now a model around the country. There are so many stories of children who, by the time they leave school, have no understanding of what it is to have a natural relationship with someone else, which is built on mutual respect. Many of those stories came out in some of the surveys done by NUIG. They are quite harrowing and difficult to read. As a parent, you want to make sure that your boys, girls and children of all genders are getting an understanding that equips them. A parent does not want anyone to feel that they are in a relationship where their partner is not actively consenting. Children just do not have that educational background. Everyone deserves to have it, whether they are victims or perpetrators. We owe it to the whole of society. We are not getting this right. Again, I thank Senator Ruane and the Minister for coming in.
I want to start by thanking the Cathaoirleach for providing this space for us to hold this important debate this evening. I also thank the Minister for joining us to be part of the conversation. Most importantly, I want to commend, congratulate and thank my colleague Senator Ruane for introducing this motion and for encouraging this conversation. I also want to commend the work of Senator Ruane’s office, as well as the work of the international experts with whom Senator Ruane consulted in drafting the proposed legislation. I am honoured to have Senator Ruane not only as my colleague but my friend.
While non-disclosure agreements, NDAs, might not have sinister origins, it is evident that they are being misused in contemporary society to silence victims of abuse, discrimination and harassment. While there may be merit in protecting trade secrets from being shared, there is no merit in silencing victims of abuse and, in turn, protecting their perpetrators. By normalising the misuse of NDAs, all that has been achieved is the de factonormalisation of abuse, discrimination and harassment in our workplaces, schools and colleges. This has been highlighted by the research undertaken by Senator Ruane’s office in Irish universities and the high-profile patterns of abuse which were exposed by the Me Too movement. Despite the fact that we know that NDAs are widely misused, we cannot be sure as to the full extent, due to the secretive nature of the agreements themselves. As a result we cannot be certain as to the precise number of incidents of abuse, discrimination or harassment that have occurred in our places of work and study.
Maintaining the status quowill not only continue to silence victims, but it will permit perpetrators up this sort of abuse to cause harm to others in the future. That is a huge concern. We must protect those who have suffered abuse of this nature by allowing them to tell their story, if they choose to do so. We also have to protect those who may be at risk of suffering this kind of abuse in the future by dismantling the systems which uphold the perpetration of this behaviour in our workplaces, schools and colleges. It is in everyone's interest to know where abuse is being perpetrated and by whom. It protects us all.
The misuse of NDAs essentially allows an employer to cover up instances of abuse which harks back to the damage inflicted on communities all around this country by the Catholic Church. This has become known as “passing the trash” in the years since the Me Too movement. It was a practice utilised by the Catholic Church for decades in Ireland, where abusers were moved from parish to parish. Simply moving the problem did not solve anything in Ireland. Covering up similar behaviour with an NDA is likely to achieve a similar end, as the patterns of abuse in the Me Too movement so clearly demonstrated.
We must also consider the impact of NDAs at the individual level and acknowledge that an NDA can trap victims with their abuse with absolutely no way out. The trauma of an abusive incident does not end with the signing of an NDA, but it is instead carried by the survivor of abuse throughout their life. Many NDAs preclude an individual from speaking about abuse they suffered with anyone, whether that is a partner, family member, friend, doctor or mental health professional. How can someone be expected to heal from an abusive incident if they are not allowed to speak about it and if they are not allowed to seek help to deal with the impact that the incident continues to have on their life?
The trust that we often place on people who are in positions of power has been taken advantage of too often. We cannot allow this to continue. While organisations and institutions may commit to ending the use of NDAs to silence victims of abuse, their misuse cannot be precluded unless we change the law. Our trust has been taken advantage of by powerful organisations and institutions previously. That is why we need legislation, as proposed by Senator Ruane. Anything less than that risks the perpetration of abuse and discrimination in our places of work and study, as well as the NDAs used to cover this abuse up.
By having this conversation, and by signing legislation such as recently proposed by Senator Ruane into law, there is an opportunity to set an international standard for responding to instances of abuse and discrimination in workplaces, schools and colleges. We can be an example to other jurisdictions in condemning abuse of all kinds, empowering victims and survivors, and holding perpetrators to account. That seems like a worthwhile endeavour in my mind. I trust that the Minister and my colleagues in the Seanad and Dáil will agree.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. This is a scenario in which the Minister has done much work. He has progressed many ideas that we all recognise will improve thestatus quofor people who have been the victims of sexual harassment and of, as other Senator said, power games, and of the abuse of power by certain individuals in workplaces and third level institutions.
In my professional capacity, as a criminal barrister, I have seen many people who have been prosecuted as a result of behaviour that they have committed. In far too many of those cases, this behaviour is actually born out of ignorance. There is an astonishing level of ignorance but it does not forgive the behaviour. However, if there was a greater understanding of the effect the behaviour has on individuals and the consequences that arise from the behaviour, people would think twice. Much of the work that the Minister’s Department has been doing has been effective in bringing to the fore the issues around things like consent, and an understanding of what it is consent in real terms, as opposed to acquiescence or submission. That is an important difference.It applies, in particular, to young men. They are not always the perpetrators, but invariably, or usually, they are, and their victims are usually female, although of course it spans all kinds of people. It is so pervasive.
Recently, I have been watching a Netflix programme called "Sex Education". Of course, it is a dramatisation, but it is refreshing how openly the programme explores the issues that affect young people and how it talks about what young people are doing in real terms. In Ireland, we have come from a history where we are desperately afraid of discussing these issues because we think that if we talk to young people about sex it will somehow encourage them to do it. Well, the news is that they are doing it anyway. We think that if we talk to young people about sex, somehow that is going to inform them in a way that encourages more sexual activity. As I said, they are doing it anyway. Would we not be much better off if they knew about the pitfalls? One of the storylines in the programme is about a girl who is sexually assaulted on the bus on the way to school. The programme explores the deep psychological effect it has on her. She stops getting the bus, she feels bad about herself and no longer wants to be with her boyfriend. Many young men, in particular, do not understand how a casual act that they commit has a deeply damaging effect that they do not intend on the person who is the victim of that act. The wonderful thing about this programme is that it shows the real effect of sexual harassment, sexual assault, bad behaviour in a sexual context and criminal behaviour in a sexual context.
One of the things that we need to look at, and I recognise that the Minister's Department has been working in this direction, is how education is key to stopping much of this behaviour. Rather than dealing with it after the fact when the harm has been done, both to the victim and in terms of the consequences for the perpetrator, we can stop it much earlier if we address these issues, do not run from them and acknowledge that we need to talk about them. Having that open forum is a tremendously important step that we could implement, particularly in third level institutions and also in second level institutions. It does not just start when people go to college. Kids are interacting with each other in a way that they often do not understand. The presence of sex counsellors and independent, dispassionate professionals - not friends, the Internet or pornography - who can inform them about what they are at and the consequences of it, and not in a condescending way or in a way that tells them not to do something, but in a way that encourages them to understand what they are doing and informs them about all kinds of aspects of sexual activity, is something that we really need to be putting in place. Gone are the days of the old Ireland where nobody mentioned sex as if it did not ever happen. We need to address this head-on, acknowledge that it is happening and take the same kind of approach that we see in "Sex Education" - an open discussion, a recognition of the reality and an addressing of issues that we have hidden from in the past. Without wishing to drag it on, that is the main point I wish to make. Although this motion concerns sexual harassment, and there has been much discussion about NDAs, and I agree with what has been said about them, there is an educational strand here that will help us stop a lot of this before it ever starts. If we can instill in young men, in particular, an understanding of the damage that they do when they behave in a certain way, we could stop it before it every starts and also stop the damage that it causes.
While the Minister is here, I wish to state that there are many other issues that we need to address in terms of an open discussion, for example, on VAT on condoms. Young Fine Gael is conducting a campaign currently to have VAT on condoms removed. It seems to me to make perfect sense. The notion that we do not make condoms as available as possible is to somehow belie the notion that they are being used by young people - or not being used by them, which is even more dangerous. In respect of period products, there is a good organisation that is based in Limerick and is working on this issue. It is campaigning to have the VAT on period products removed. These are all issues that affect young people. We should be helping them in every way that we can. There is an inconsistency insofar as VAT has been removed in respect of some period products but menstrual cups, for example, still have VAT attached to them. I do not understand that.
A multi-strand approach can solve problems and stop them before they start. I praise the Minister for the work he has done so far, but here is so much that we can do to shine light on these issues and stop them before they start.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for the opportunity to speak at relatively late notice. I was distracted elsewhere. At the outset, I wish to welcome the Minister and to say in a genuinely non-partisan and objective way, which I hope people will recognise, that he is the first person in public life in a long time that I am aware of to confront this issue head-on, bring it into the public domain and take action on it. I salute him for that. I will make the point later that it must be vigorously pursued, but I congratulate the Minister. I also wish to warmly congratulate my colleague, Senator Ruane, for bringing forward this issue. She is an excellent Senator who pursues real, deep issues for people. This is yet another example of that. I salute Senator Ruane for that. It is actually the main reason that I was doing other things, but I wanted to come in just to say that, because it is important that we show solidarity in these instances.
Obviously, sexual harassment is a despicable crime. It is heinous and all the adjectives you could think of. Tragically, as my good colleague, Senator Ward, said, it was swept under the carpet and ignored for a long time. That is wrong. Bullying is wrong and was a feature of traditional Irish schools. That does not mean that it was present in every school but it was there, and for many years, it was ignored. It was perceived that by ignoring it and allowing it to continue, people were toughened up. It was a perverse logic and caused huge damage to people for many years. It is a pernicious thing. Within bullying, homophobic bullying is particularly wrong dimension of it.
The Minister's speech contains three words: "prevent", "reduce", and "support". That is what it is about. I am glad that the framework was launched in 2019. The Minister talked about action plans and said that he has urged the presidents of colleges to produce action plans based on the framework. I do not know what carrot and stick the Minister can use, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. I would love for the Minister to come back to the House, and we could invite him here in a year's time, to tell us that there is actually an action plan in each institution. Many primary and secondary schools have confronted this issue satisfactorily, but more action is needed.
The Minister was with me recently when we visited third level, post-leaving certificate and Youthreach institutions. We met wonderful people there and saw that they are articulate and confident and how they are developing as individuals. Sexual harassment and bullying has the potential to put all that to nought. Action plans must be put in place. People will want to see those action plans. They should be in the public domain. The Minister should insist on that. To be honest, these plans should be linked to grants. There should not be Government support for institutions without them. That should be the case.
If I understand the Minister's speech correctly, and he should correct me if I am wrong, I believe that the psychological counsellors will be committed to each college and resourced. The presence of these counsellors needs to be flagged and they need to be used.
Senator Ward said a lot when he said that for too long we brushed this under the carpet. We did it collectively and individually. It was done across all strata of society and by everybody. It was wrong. There is no point in just condemning it as being in the past. It needs to be condemned. We need to call it out, name it and not be embarrassed about doing so. We did the wrong thing. It is part of our history. There is no point in celebrating wonderful events in our history, and of course we should, but we must be fit to face up to what was not right. This is one of those things. We have faced up to that, but the logical progression from that, as the Minister is doing with the framework, the action plans and the psychological counsellors, is to see results. We need to see results from this. It was brushed under the carpet for too long.
I have a background in teaching and I am also a parent of three wonderful sons. I really get this. I get the horrendous implications for people who are the victims of bullying, sexual harassment, sexual bullying or all of it. The damage can be inter-generational.That person is damaged and their capacity to form relationships and be adequate parents is damaged. It damages their entire existence.
There is no point in labouring the point. All I say to the Minister is that what he has done so far is wonderful. I ask him to see it through to the bitter end in A, B, C terms, with definable, objective and clearly visible goals. I congratulate our colleague, Senator Ruane, for what she has done today. It is great work.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me in to be part of the inaugural debate under these new structures. As a Minister who gets invited into Seanad Éireann to speak in debates, it is better to speak after hearing everybody's contribution. It is not for me to advise Seanad Éireann on its business, but it is a more informative way of approaching these matters. It has been an honour for me to sit through this debate. We all attend debates in the Oireachtas from time to time that are a little bit flat - tonight was anything but. I am struck by the passion and strength of feeling across the political parties and groupings in the Chamber. I am proud to stand here on behalf of the Government to wholly endorse the motion put forward by Senator Ruane and thank her for her leadership on this issue. I always try to listen closely to what colleagues have to say but I listen particularly to what Senator Ruane has to say on matters like this. I know she has a lifetime of work behind her. I thank her for bringing that expertise, for the way she did not just rush in with a motion and for the clear body of work she did to arrive at this point. I thank our dear friend, Senator Norris, as well and everybody who has contributed.
There is probably not a more timely moment for this motion. I was on college campuses yesterday in Kerry and the thing that struck me was the noise. When you walk into colleges, you hear the noise of students and staff, the noise of excitement, hope and giddiness of people being back on college campuses and seeing each other. There is an obligation on all of us to make sure that the campus is a safe place and that excitement, joy, hope and optimism are maintained throughout the college experience. This is not always the case, and that is the challenge confronting all of us. I thank Senators for the opportunity to be here. We should, in passing the motion, not just acknowledge the motion. We should make a commitment to each other. I make a commitment to this House, considering the strength of feeling on this matter, that this is not a once-off debate. We should look at ways in which we can work together, as Members of Seanad Éireann in the Senators' case and as a member of the Government in mine, to try to make real, discernible, concrete progress on this. I look forward to working with Senator Ruane and all colleagues across Seanad Éireann on achieving change and reforms for victims of bullying and sexual harassment.
Before I speak on the specifics of my Department's work, I will say a few words on the broader context of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is a statement of the obvious but it is important to say that no country, community or institution is immune to the occurrence of sexual harassment and that it can happen to anyone and anywhere. I was struck by a number of Senators who made the point that starting this conversation at third level is too late. I share that view. How do we have this conversation at a much earlier stage in an age-appropriate way? My colleague and friend, Senator Carrigy, made the point about social media. I think it has a real role. I launched the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's annual report a couple of years ago and was struck by the centre's fear and concern in relation to how young people, particularly young men, are now learning about sex. It is on mobile apps and they are getting a very perverse view of the world. It is a frightening time to be a parent. There is an obligation on us as a Government, I say to Senator Warfield's point, to move forward with the reforms that need to take place in relation to RSE and, to Senator Joe O'Reilly's point, in our primary and secondary schools, as well.
We know sexual harassment affects men and women but sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and girls is an issue of gender equality. Without a sustained, consistent and ambitious effort to eradicate sexual violence and harassment, real gender equality remains elusive. As for bullying, this act of aggression and dominance cuts to the bone of the victim and, like cases of sexual violence and harassment, it can have a profound impact on an individual's life, livelihood, relationships and participation in communities. It must be our collective aim to work together in partnership to build a society, culture and institutions where these behaviours are not tolerated. To protect victims and ensure accountability, we must prevent through information and awareness-raising, especially on matters such as consent, we must reduce through putting in place structures, procedures and policies that severely limit the potential occurrence of sexual harassment and bullying and we must support. We must ensure that every victim of sexual harassment and bullying is given the right supports and the space to heal and that people in institutions are held accountable for bullying and sexual harassment.
Tackling sexual harassment and violence in third level is a key and explicit commitment in the programme for Government. My Department, like the Government as a whole, remains committed to addressing this issue. Experiences of sexual harassment and violence have a hugely negative impact on each individual, affecting overall well-being and academic and professional attainment. They also impact at the institutional level, permeating the cultural norms and having a direct effect on student and staff retention, as well as on institutional reputation. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to their students and staff and must foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwanted and unacceptable behaviours. They must set out their stall that every student and staff member is entitled to safety and to active participation in all parts of college life.
I will share with Senators a few initiatives my Department has advanced since it was founded a little over a year ago. Senators will be aware of the framework for consent in higher education institutions, launched in 2019. Its core values are transparency, consistency and integrity, and these underpin all aspects of the framework. It is key to the creation of an institutional campus culture which is safe, respectful and supportive and where students feel safe, empowered, confident and capable in their relationships with fellow students. However, I think it is too easy to hide under a national framework. One can publish glossy documents and say, "Here is this framework document". It is well intentioned, a lot of work went into it and I do not mean to be flippant or dismiss it, but more important is how that framework is applied to each institution, and what the president of college X or college Y does to make sure all of his or her staff and students are safe. I think that is at the heart of what Senator Joe O'Reilly was suggesting.
The first letter I wrote to the presidents of every higher education institution when I took up this role was not about traditional issues like funding, safe returns to college and all those important matters. It was on the issue of how they will strengthen their individual and collective actions at institutional level. I wrote to every president of every higher education institution and asked them strongly to develop individual institutional action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment and to align it with the framework. What are you going to do about it? I asked them to submit their action plans to the Higher Education Authority and to report against them every year. That is the only way we can measure the progress. I am pleased to say every institution has now published an action plan, has published the institutional plan on their website and is reporting on progress in implementing the framework and the action plans. They are due to submit that first progress report in the first quarter of this year.
I was taken by the point made by Senator Chambers that it is important that there are on-campus campaigns to communicate these so that every student and staff member understands what they can expect, what they can do if they have a complaint, and, in response to Senator Seery Kearney's point, how the procedure works and the steps they can expect to be followed.
The reason I wrote that letter in August 2020 and that I have prioritised this issue, in addition to the fact it is a key commitment in the programme for Government, is down to Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. I met her and was taken by what she had to say. She put it to me clearly that there were simple steps. She did not just come and tell me her story. I do not mean to be dismissive about that because her story was powerful and compelling and what she encountered was disgraceful. She also came to me with a concrete list of things we needed to do. That is how Dr. Ní Shúilleabháin works. One thing she said was that we needed an evidence base and data. If we are serious about eradicating sexual violence and harassment, we need to know its prevalence and type. Work to build the evidence base on issues of sexual violence and harassment is under way and, earlier this year, I launched surveys for the first time into staff and student experiences of sexual violence and harassment in our higher education institutions. This will be an annual survey.
I praise the USI, which has done work in this space. I do not think it is acceptable that we leave it to, or put the burden on, a student union to carry out these things. We should be doing them as part of the core business of a Government Department and a higher education authority. The Higher Education Authority expects to be able to report to me on these surveys shortly and we will use this information to further develop the most effective and targeted policies to tackle sexual violence and sexual harassment.
A number of projects and initiatives are under way in relation to how we raise awareness about harassment, consent and reporting.My Department and the HEA have funded Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland to develop that speak-out tool. This will enable students and staff to report anonymously incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual violence. People will want to report in different ways. The tool will also assist in recording the prevalence of the incidents on campus. I am pleased to say it will be launched in the coming weeks and rolled out during this academic year.
My Department has partnered with the Department of Justice, and with NUIG on its active consent programme. I was pleased to be at NUIG with Senator Dolan recently. We now have the very first online learning hub, which will, for the very first time, provide an integrated, publicly available resource on sexual consent awareness and learning. This builds on a very substantial body of work that has been undertaken through the active consent programme and comes as part of the Government's initiative to improve the understanding, meaning and importance of consent in sexual activity, communication and violence prevention. Senators may have noted that, just yesterday, I was delighted to launch the #UnmuteConsent campaign. This is really going to make a difference to awareness levels and encourage more conversations on consent. I thank all the institutions, namely, the IUA, THEA, HEA and USI, involved in this campaign.
As all of these projects progress, my Department will continue to work in partnership and collaboration to raise awareness and provide training on sexual consent. I take Senator Wall’s points on training staff, providing the resources and providing information on sexual violence and harassment to students in higher education. I am positive and excited about some of the initiatives. I feel genuine energy and momentum from so many stakeholders. I thank them for and commend them on their leadership and want to work with them in that regard. I also want to take a more proactive approach to the issue of bullying. I am aware the motion refers to that. I am proud that the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre in DCU hosts the UNESCO Chair on Tackling Bullying in Schools and Cyberspace and the International Journal of Bullying Prevention. As we gather more data on the issue of bullying, I intend to outline several measures that we intend to take, specifically on the issue of bullying, later this year.
I want to turn to the specific and important issue of non-disclosure agreements, NDAs. It might be helpful to mention when it is appropriate to use an NDA. There can be times when it is appropriate, but it is never when there is anything to do with sexual harassment, violence or bullying. Senator Warfield, in making a broader point about our higher education institutions, stated NDAs are often used in the commercial world. An NDA or confidentiality agreement can be signed between two companies when they are doing business with each other and need to exchange business to benefit the partnership. That is the purpose of it. The Government and Oireachtas are fully against the use of NDAs in cases of bullying or sexual harassment in the third level sector and, I would suggest, any other sector. As stated in Senator Ruane's motion, NDAs limit the accountability of perpetrators. That is why we are very happy to support this motion tonight. At a time when Irish society is challenged to really listen and take action to stop sexual violence and bullying, NDAs have absolutely no place when cases such as those in question arise within institutions or the workplace. NDAs have the effect of silencing victims and, in doing so, can prevent healing and recovery. Crucially, they damage the prospect of accountability for perpetrators.
Let me quote a woman whose words I came across in researching for this discussion. She is a victim of sexual harassment. Her words were captured in the Australian Human Rights Commission's report from 2020 entitled Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. Referring specifically to an NDA, she said:
All the while going through this heinous process, I had no voice. I was silenced. I couldn't [because of my NDA] speak to friends, current and present. I had, and still have, no social media participation ... I cannot, without severe implications, tell my story to either assist my healing or to help other survivors.
I will not be standing over the silencing of any victim of sexual harassment or bullying in Irish higher education institutions. The use of NDAs runs contrary to the values of transparency, consistency and integrity that I said were in the framework of consent.
My Department is engaged with the representative bodies of the higher education institutions, namely, the IUA and THEA. We have been advised that these representative bodies also do not support the use of NDAs in their responses to incidents of bullying or sexual harassment. Individual complaints of sexual harassment or bullying should progress through the formal investigative and, if necessary, disciplinary procedures within a third level institution. I am deeply concerned to hear any account of the use of an NDA by any Irish higher education institution.
Next month I will be introducing legislation to modernise governance laws in higher education. It will be an interesting debate. Senator Joe O'Reilly touched on the matter. I value educational and institutional autonomy so much. We all do, but that is not some sort of fig leaf whereby, as legislators, members of the public, taxpayers, citizens or human beings, we do not have to exercise our right to demand a certain standard. Maybe Senator Ruane's legislation might present an opportunity to discuss these issues. I intend to propose in legislation that the HEA will have the ability to set guidelines in key areas and sanction non-compliance. Please do not come at me saying that it is an attack on institutional autonomy. It is not, and saying so is complete baloney. Having the ability to set guidelines is exactly what we should expect to be able to do in a modern republic. I really look forward to discussing that with the Senators.
The composition of governing authorities is important also. I look forward to discussing that with the Senators. It also sets the culture. In my time as Minister, I have been honoured to have been able to appoint the brilliant Noeline Blackwell to the governing authority of UCD, where she brings her expertise in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. I was also delighted to have appointed in NUIG somebody from the Galway Rape Crisis Centre, its CEO. Who we appoint to our governing authorities says something about our values in terms of what is important to us. It is not just about being an accountant or addressing those important matters concerning financial probity; it is also about other issues, including inclusion. This is such an issue.
Senator Warfield asked me about the broader work being done by my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, whose title is nearly as long as mine. He is preparing an important report that explores the prevalence of the use of NDAs more broadly in sexual harassment and discrimination disputes. I understand that the report is primarily concerned with the potentially unethical use of NDAs in cases of alleged sexual harassment or discrimination, with reference to the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act. I very much look forward to the Government receiving that report shortly.
I thank Senator Ruane and all the other Senators. We have kicked off or, hopefully, taken forward a really important debate tonight. I look forward to working with the House seriously, including on the legislation, to get these matters right over the coming weeks and months.
I thank the Minister for attending and listening carefully to the contributions of Members. His having done so is timely given the legislation proposed by him and Senator Ruane. The most important proposal is that every university would have to report to the Minister and appropriate authorities on their annual number of NDAs. That, in itself, would do a lot to shine a light. What has been happening has all the hallmarks of what happened within the Catholic Church. We have to learn the lesson that what happened in the Catholic Church just allowed abuse to continue and victims to be victimised further by the silence imposed upon them by NDAs. I thank the Minister. I call on Senator Ruane to close the debate.
I thank every single person for contributing today. The motion, the NDA Bill and work of this kind are my next steps in moving on from purging and purging myself of my experiences and trying to be heard, to get an education and to get people to understand. It does not happen easily because each and every time I work on something in this area and have a telephone conversation with someone who tells me of an experience they have had, it takes another little piece of my energy or triggers my own trauma. When I come into the Chamber, the support, awareness, understanding and solidarity in respect of work like this help on the healing side that we have all been talking about. When I do not have to justify or explain why something is so necessary, I can then seek healing from my own experiences throughout my life. The legislative work being done in parallel with the other work in this area is so important because others are being denied healing. I have been very lucky in that, like Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, I have been able to speak. There are so many people affected. A couple of Senators asked why people do not come forward, but what about those who have whom we will never know about? There are hundreds upon hundreds of them. The message that today's debate sends to the universities is that they now need to create a space in which they must undo and unravel what has happened, whereby people cannot speak out.
It is important to note that there was no conversation today that triggered me. That is unusual in that I have heightened senses for this stuff at this stage. None of the conversation triggered me, and that is such a signal that we can move forward and work together in this area.
I am involved in an international conversation on this now. I do not know how it happened but, all of a sudden, there are all these women from around the world who meet every few weeks.These include MEPs from the UK and representatives from Australia and the US, including California. A movement has come together and, out of all the sectors, the university sector is the one that comes up most, which always stands out to me. That is why the motion is important. Even though the Department of Health and other Departments all have to examine the different sectors they fund that are probably using NDAs, the university sector seems to come up time and time again.
Recently, the International Bar Association published a brilliant piece on NDAs. The Financial Timeshas focused on the proposed legislation in Ireland, as have several US newspapers. They are all now looking at Ireland's NDA legislation and the conversation we are having. They are all asking me about it because they are coming up against barriers all the time and I am saying that I think we are good in Ireland. Everyone seems to get the wrongness of this. That is very much down to the women who have come before us, especially on the issue of institutional abuse and Magdalen laundries. This issue cannot be seen in isolation from those women. It is because of their willingness to keep putting themselves out, and how they had to sign confidentiality clauses to access redress and all those different things, that they have raised the social consciousness so much, they have also carved out the space for us to be able to have this conversation in the wider sense. I thank them for that in the context of this debate.
I will finish by referencing the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which has been brilliant. Since the first debate on this issue, officials have been in contact. We have had several meetings about what research should look like, how we can get the data, how we can access it and what is the prevalence. The officials have gone away and got stuck into it, which is good. If every Department did that, we could move this conversation along to protect victims in all sectors, beyond the universities and into every type of employment. The message I will send today is that we should move forward and not put the onus completely on people to tell us about their NDAs. That is where we lack data because people are frightened. At the end of the day, the people signing the NDA are not the only ones in the room. Other lecturers, advocates, barristers, solicitors and union representatives are also present. They also know about the prevalence of NDAs and can speak up about their use. They do not have to reference a particular case or person. They do not have to do any of that but they can speak up instead of saying, "Oh well, we didn't sign an NDA so that doesn't apply to us", even though they are aware of its existence. We should begin to encourage those conversations in the university sector where those in it speak up.
I have a couple of examples of NDAs as we have been collecting them and trying to identify the variations between them. Everything is redacted in one in terms of identifying anybody. Another states that the consent of the other person who signed it must be sought if the complainant is to tell anybody about it. We have spoken so much about consent, but let us imagine having to go to the person you made complaints about to seek consent to, potentially, talk. I cannot believe people write this stuff. These are educated people - what is going on? We are talking about consent at primary level age but these are top academic staff and this cannot be real. Some of the stuff I have seen written in NDAs is quite baffling to me. Sometimes it is framed as a matter of victim protection and it is not. We need to move away from that because if it was about protection of the victim, then only the confidentiality of the victim would be protected. A perpetrator and the reputation of the university would never be protected and a perpetrator would never receive a glowing reference allowing him or her to move around. That is protection of something else. We have convinced people they are protecting the victim by introducing NDAs and that is just inaccurate. I thank everybody. Senator Ward will be delighted to know that season 3 of "Sex Education" is now available on Netflix.
I thank the Senator for giving all of us the opportunity to speak about an issue that matters to everyone. Her lengthy work is evident and the sharing of her experiences is something for which we are all grateful.