Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2023

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Agency Bill 2023: Second Stage


Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. The debate will follow the normal pattern. The Minister has ten minutes.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to present the Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Agency Bill 2023 to the House. The programme for Government recognises that Ireland is experiencing a domestic, sexual and gender-based violence epidemic consistent with global trends. That simply must change. This Government has responded strongly and proactively with the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, the zero tolerance strategy and a wide range of related measures. The ambition, undertakings and innovations of the strategy are directly informed and driven by the experiences of those affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and by those who support and advocate so tirelessly for them. In light of recent days, the names of Ashling Murphy and Amadea McDermott of course come to mind, but I also include the countless others whose lives have been cut short or blighted by this scourge on our society. Far too many people, a majority but by no means all of whom are women or girls, have been and continue to be subjected to these forms of violence and abuse. We owe it to them, and to future generations, to do everything we possibly can to eradicate such crimes.

The Bill gives effect to key undertakings in the zero tolerance strategy by establishing a dedicated statutory body with responsibility for driving and co-ordinating an enhanced whole-of-government response; ensuring the delivery of excellent services and facilities to victims and persons at risk, including refuge accommodation for all who need it; and delivering public awareness campaigns and carrying out research to inform policy evaluation and development in the years ahead. The Bill also places a statutory onus on relevant public bodies to co-operate with the agency and each other in support of their respective domestic, sexual and gender-based violence responsibilities, including by sharing relevant statistical information. I strongly believe that the agency, as established under this Bill, will make a positive difference to the many people who have suffered or continue to suffer these appalling forms of violence and abuse. I also hope and believe that the work of the agency will help to create a cultural climate in which no form or amount of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is ever viewed as justifiable or excusable.I will now briefly set out the main elements of the Bill. It comprises a total of 45 sections across five parts. Part 1 is a standard part which sets out the Short Title, provides for the commencement of the Bill and expenses incurred in its administration. It also defines key words and terms used in the Bill.

Part 2 establishes the agency and sets out its statutory functions. It also provides for the appointment of a chief executive and staff, for the establishment of a non-executive board and committees, and various related matters. Part 2 additionally contains standard transitional provisions arising from the transfer of certain responsibilities from Tusla to the new agency. These include Tusla’s current responsibilities for funding key support services and overseeing the delivery of refuge spaces. The agency’s functions will include planning, co-ordinating and monitoring the development of refuge accommodation; providing support, including financial assistance, for the provision of services to victims and persons at risk; developing and monitoring compliance with standards for the delivery of those services; co-ordinating and overseeing the implementation of relevant Government strategies and plans; delivering public campaigns aimed at raising awareness of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and reducing its occurrence in society; and conducting or commissioning research, including the collection, compilation and assessment of statistical data, to inform the evaluation of policies, strategies and services and to support the discharge of the agency's other key duties. In performing its functions, the agency will be required to collaborate and engage, as appropriate, with relevant bodies and persons and to have regard to the diverse circumstances and needs of victims and persons at risk, including children and young persons.

The Bill provides that the agency will be led by a chief executive to be appointed by the Minister on foot of a recruitment process conducted in accordance with the applicable public service legislation. The chief executive will be responsible to the Minister for the performance of his or her functions. The Bill provides that the staff of the agency shall be provided by the Minister and will be civil servants of the Government. Provision is also made for the transfer of certain Tusla employees to the new agency and for the protection of their terms and conditions of service, tenure, pay and pension entitlements.

The Bill provides that the board shall have a chairperson and six ordinary members who will be appointed by the Minister from among persons with experience or expertise in domestic, sexual and gender-based violence matters, organisational governance and management, or other matters relevant to the functions of the agency. It will be a non-executive board and its main functions shall be to provide strategic direction to the agency, to oversee and appraise the implementation of the corporate plan and annual business plan, to promote high standards of corporate governance in the agency, and to provide policy advice and recommendations to the Minister. The Bill also provides that the board may establish such committees as it sees fit to assist and advise it in its work. This will enable the board and the agency to access, in a structured yet flexible manner, insights from a broad range of sectoral experts, individuals of diverse backgrounds and other stakeholders.

Part 3 of the Bill provides for the preparation of a multi-annual corporate plan, an annual business plan, annual reports and accounts, other reports as may be requested by the Minister, and various related matters. It also provides for the appearance of the chief executive before Oireachtas committees. Part 3 additionally provides that the Minister may issue general policy directives to the agency or give a specific direction to the agency on any relevant matter.

Part 4 sets out the terms under which the agency may provide funding to relevant service providers and the accountability obligations of such providers. It obliges a funded provider to give the agency such information as it may require, including, for example, financial information and details of the services being provided but obviously not details of the individuals in receipt of the services.

Part 5 provides that a public service body, as defined in the Bill, shall co-operate with the agency for the purpose of the performance of the agency’s functions. Provision is also made that, where so requested, public service bodies shall cooperate with each other for the purposes of their respective functions where these relate to increasing awareness and understanding of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence or supporting victims and persons at risk. These provisions give statutory weight to the principle that tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is a whole-of-Government responsibility, and that relevant public bodies are expected to co-operate with the new agency and each other to that end. Co-operation is defined as including the provision of statistical information and this will be of particular assistance to the agency in its role of conducting research to support the evaluation of policies, strategies and services.

Finally, Part 5 provides for consequential amendments to the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and to the National Archives Act 1986.

I thank members of the Joint Committee on Justice for their pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, and I thank all bodies, persons and groups who made submissions to that committee. The scrutiny process was an important step in the development of the Bill and a number of the committee's recommendations were taken on board in the Bill as presented. I also want to thank the Members of the Dáil for their constructive engagement on this Bill and for the cross-party support that was offered. The Committee Stage and Report Stage debates in the Dáil allowed me to provide some further clarification and assurances on a number of matters. These included the agency’s staffing arrangements which will replicate those in place for numerous agencies under my Department's aegis. This involves continuous engagement with, and input from, each agency to meet its specific staffing needs. This is done through dedicated human resources business partners in my Department who have strong working relationships with these agencies and a solid understanding of the skills and competencies their staff need to have. Specialist agency staff are typically recruited by open competition, and the agencies have a key role in designing job specifications and selection criteria. Heads of agencies also regularly sit on interview boards for the selection of key personnel. All such arrangements will equally apply to this new agency and to its head.

The issue of protecting the personal data of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence service users was also raised and clarified. Service providers must of course follow all relevant laws and safeguards when processing the personal data of service users. This is strongly emphasised in their funding agreements with Tusla and that will continue when the new agency takes over. As I stated during the Committee and Report Stage debates, it is not envisaged that the agency will collect the personal data of service users and I am satisfied that the Bill does not provide a legal basis to do so.

I hope that this timely and important Bill will attract the strong support of this House as it did in the Dáil, and that its passage can be facilitated with a view to allowing the agency to be established early in the new year, as originally planned. I look forward to hearing Senators’ contributions today and I commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Barry WardBarry Ward (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus roimh an Bille seo ar son an grúpa Fine Gael. In fairness, this is very important legislation and it is entirely appropriate that the Minister, as somebody who has particularly spearheaded initiatives against domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, would bring it before the House. It is also appropriate that there would be a single agency with responsibility for the policy direction on these issues which affect everyone. We have had discussions on these issues in this House on a number of occasions since I have been a Member and there is a growing understanding within society that this kind of behaviour - anything that constitutes domestic, sexual and gender-based violence - is something that damages us all. It damages our society as a whole and every single person within society is damaged when these things happen. It is entirely appropriate that we, as a country, should be putting together a single point of contact for the policy on tackling these issues and making sure the response is not just robust but effective, timely and appropriate.

I welcome the Bill and I welcome the establishment of An Ghníomhaireacht um Fhoréigean Baile, Gnéasach agus Inscnebhunaithe, which is not a name that rolls off the tongue, pé teanga a usáideann tú. It is a difficult and cumbersome title for the agency. I note that the Department's briefing suggests that at a later date a working title or a corporate name will be given to it, much like Tusla, to which the Minister referred in her speech, which is of course the Child and Family Agency in legislation. I must say that I am against that. I do not see why we cannot come up with a name in the Bill rather than having some marketing person come along a year from now, or whenever, and come up with a name for it. I would much rather see the name of the agency in the Bill and let us come up with a name that reflects its remit. I do not know if Foréigean Éire is the right one. Violence Ireland is probably not the right title but we need to come up with title that reflects the nature of the agency, the fact that it is uniquely Irish, and the work that it has to do. Rather than leaving that to a marketing bod some time next year, I would much rather see that written into the legislation. I do not know if the Minister is open to that idea but certainly as described in section 5, subsection (1), the Gníomhaireacht is wordy, at best.

The name is just one tiny and probably not terribly important component of this but I anticipate that in the coming years it will form a part of the discourse around this area, among the people who work in this area and who help people who are the victims of this kind of abuse, violence and criminal activity, the victims themselves, as well as the people working in the courts, in the HSE and in Tusla. I know that some functions are going to be transferred over, as part of this process. It is a term and an agency with which we are going to become very familiar over the next number of years.

As I said, I welcome this Bill and the provisions therein. I also welcome the fact that we will have a single point of reference. That is as it should be. The Bill is largely technical. Most of its concerns are around the nuts and bolts of the establishment of an agency, how we pay for that, where it is funded from, what powers it has and all of the rest.One of the really important elements contained in section 38 is the power for the Minister of the day to give directions to the agency regarding policy. We have seen recently with some agencies that are ostensibly accountable to the Oireachtas that sometimes it can be difficult to get answers or to get them to do certain things.

Under Part 3, there is a very clear chain of accountability in that regard. There is accountability to the Oireachtas and the committee as appropriate, and there is a power under section 38 for the Minister to give a policy direction to the agency. This is really important. It means that we are not just putting all this together in a box and sending it on its way, hoping that it will do the right thing. It remains within the gift of the people as to exactly what questions get answered, what policies get implemented and how the agency does its work. That can be done through the relevant committee or through the Minister's office, as appropriate. This is really important power and I welcome the fact that it is written into Part 3 in clear and unambiguous terms.

Regarding the functions of the agency and what it will do that are laid out in Part 2 and none of it is surprising. It does exactly what it says on the tin in many respects, and it does exactly what we would expect it to do. Part 3 and the structures that maintain accountability in the democratic institutions of the State rather than in the semi-State sector, where it is beyond the control of the people, are more important. The provisions of Part 3 are the most important in the Bill because they maintain that clear accountability and responsibility structure.

I do not propose to go on unnecessarily because this is important legislation. It does what we have been anticipating. It is in the justice plan from the Minister's Department and the programme for Government so it has been expected for some time. I welcome the fact that it has come here. I hope the Minister will be open to discussion on Committee Stage about small changes the Senators might have. I also welcome what she said about the idea that this will be up and running in the new year because it cannot come soon enough. This agency has a lot of positive work to do and I look forward to doing that work and delivering results for the people who need it.

Photo of Erin McGreehanErin McGreehan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am glad to be here on the day this Bill has been brought to Seanad Éireann. This is a really important Bill. Many people have been calling for an agency like this for a long time. I am very familiar with Safe Ireland as a member of Women's Aid Dundalk, which is affiliated under Safe Ireland. The policy direction, advice and support we get from Safe Ireland is vital for us. It is good that there will be a statutory organisation so that Women's Aid Dundalk and Drogheda Women's and Children's Refuge and organisations around the country are not on their own and the State will be behind them.

There is much urgency regarding this Bill. We know that the Minister knows this. I am really glad that she hopes to have it up and running in the new year. It is very welcome news because it is a crisis and there are crises today, yesterday and tomorrow in so many houses around the country. This agency will take on a huge role in ensuring that there is uniform support, a proper governance structure in all refuges and organisations that support people affected by gender-based and domestic violence.

I want to congratulate the organisations around the country. When the State did not take this seriously, they stood up. It was mostly local women starting organisations in their communities because they could see the problem. Then they struggled from year to year to get money from various sources and from fund-raising. It is good to think that there might be some respite in that grasping for funding to make sure that their services continue and that there will be support in place.

I am really glad that the State is now taking this seriously. Women's Aid Dundalk is the organisation I know best. It is led by a real powerhouse, Ann Larkin. The work it does day in day out is breathtaking. It has a 24-hour helpline, one-to-one support, crisis accommodation, advocacy and support, supported housing, court support and the list continues. It supports the children of victims of domestic violence as well. It has ambitious plans and if it had more funding and more capacity, it would be able to do so much more. The organisation is stretched but for those people who seek help, it does not feel like that is the case. When someone knocks on its door or rings the 24-hour helpline, they are fully supported. Every single person is the sole priority and they are treated with dignity and in a non-judgemental way. It has been a real eye-opener for me to learn from the people working in the services. It is a privilege for me to be involved in my small way as part of Women's Aid Dundalk. It does this by working with stakeholders. The people involved have worked so hard with the support of the people of north Louth and have achieved so much with so little.

If the State began to fund these organisations adequately, they could achieve so much. This Bill and the work being done across Departments is how things will change. Domestic and gender-based violence and sexual assault continue to plague communities. It leaves countless victims traumatised and silenced. We have spoken many times in this House about gender-based violence and there are so many victims across the House. Some people did not even know they were victims until they were adults. It was only then they realised that something that had happened to them was not actually okay. We have come so far as a country that we are now creating an agency, awareness and a network that will support women, children and men who have suffered domestic abuse.

Globally, almost one third of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by their intimate partner. Some 38% of all murders of women are committed by intimate partners. In Ireland, one in three women has experienced psychological violence from a partner at some point in their lives. One in six has, since the age of 15, experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner. Last year was a deadly year for Irish women and the Minister mentioned the case of Ashling Murphy in her speech. There were 12 deaths in the State, the highest in ten years. Two more women were killed in the North and one woman in London, bringing to 15 the number of women who died violently last year. Five children also died in horrific incidents of siblicide and domestic homicide, revealing the manifolds elements of domestic violence.

Today, when we work through the Minister's strategy we think of the victims because they are the people who were let down. We also think about how to prevent further victims. This agency is badly needed. The Bill represents landmark legislation to combat the pervasive issue of domestic violence against women and children and all individuals in our society.

The Minister outlined the measures in the Bill that will provide support and protection. It will recognise the importance of prevention efforts to empower survivors. It will plan, co-ordinate and monitor the development of refuge accommodation. It will provide financial assistance for the provision of services, setting standards for funded services and monitoring adherence to them. It will co-ordinate and oversee the delivery of Government strategy and plans in relation to domestic violence and gender-based violence. It will deliver public campaigns for the purpose of raising awareness. It will compile and distribute information on services and supports available to victims and persons at risk. It will also conduct and commission research.

This is a step change in the State's policy towards domestic violence. Safe Ireland is an organisation that I would look to for advice and a line on a many of these issues because it has such a good track record and front-line experience. Safe Ireland made some observations on the Bill. It pointed out that there was no definition of "refuge and accommodation".Safe Ireland suggests that accommodation is purposed to serve to house survivors from domestic violence with a need for alternative accommodation, be it short, medium or long term. There should be a definition of what "refuge accommodation" would mean.

On policy generation, policy should be taken from Department level but the agency should also have a ground-up policy generation function and should be in constant contact with the officials in the Department of Justice in respect of upgrading and updating policy. It should be one of the core functions of the agency to make sure that policy is continually formed and victim-centred. The agency will have the front-line experience.

I will turn to multi-annual funding. There was a question relating to section 40. In its submission Safe Ireland is afraid that it might have the effect of limiting funding strictly to a year-by-year basis. Multiagency funding might work better for service providers that know they have ongoing commitments to service users, which must be planned for in advance. Having funding strictly limited on a year-to-year basis might make it difficult to recruit, hire and retain staff.

These questions, of course, can be worked through on Committee Stage but it might be helpful to hear from the Minister today on those. I congratulate her on the Bill. It is a good day for women and victims of domestic violence.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
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I apologise that I could not be here for the Minister's speech but I have read through it. Earlier this year the National Women's Council published its report, prepared in conjunction with the Department of Justice, into domestic and sexual violence with a specific look at the intersection of the criminal justice, private family law and public law childcare processes. I will begin by highlighting a few points from that report.

What is clear from the report is that the difficult and terrible experiences that women, children and some men are experiencing as victims of domestic and sexual violence is made worse by their experiences in the justice system. While they emotionally are managing the impact of the violence on their mind and body, the most vulnerable and hurt people are also being entangled in a bureaucratic system, which if properly redesigned could actually help them and wider society. The system currently in place causes secondary traumatisation for the victim.

The report also reminds us that children are particularly vulnerable growing up in the middle of domestic violence circumstances whether they are directly abused or indirectly abused by living in an abusive home. The Child and Family Agency in 2015 noted that more than 40% of cases of domestic violence abuse involved children who are directly abused physically or sexually. The report identifies overlapping between the three systems: the criminal justice process, the private family process and the public law childcare process.

In addition to the problems caused by overlapping, the systems work in isolation from each other and information sometimes vital to the victim's case is lost in the gaps and lost to the attention of the judge adjudicating in the case. On this specific area of concern the report recommends a more victim-centred collaborative approach between the various legal processes while being mindful of the rights of the alleged perpetrator. This approach should improve the victim's experience with the various processes and the outcomes because the decision will be based on the best possible evidence. The report also helpfully reminds us of the societal context of domestic and sexual abuse by quoting from the preamble to the Istanbul Convention, which is a Council of Europe convention, preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It locates the violence in the reality of inequality between women and men and recognises that "violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women". The Istanbul Convention has been operating in this State since 2019.

The Bill is laudable and welcome but it will be assessed on what it delivers. It seeks to establish an agency under the remit of the Department of Justice dedicated to deliver on commitments under zero tolerance in the third national strategy on domestic sexual and gender-based violence. It includes: refuge accommodation; services to victims and persons at risk; standards for funded services and monitoring compliance; delivering relevant government plans; public campaigns aimed at raising awareness about domestic and sexual violence and reducing its prevalence; and carrying out ongoing research to support the development of future policies and programmes.

During the pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation, groups working in the sector raised issues of concern to do with diversity and cultural sensitivity within the agency's board and its practices. Other issues of concern include the need for a clause in the agency's remit to give it the powers to compel other agencies to be involved in a whole-of-government approach and a meaningful collaboration between NGOs and the agency. In the context of accepting direct ministerial of direction, there is a need for rigorous independence regarding the accountability and reporting functions.

The Government needs to fulfil its obligations with respect to the Istanbul Convention and the Government's own strategy for eliminating the epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence we are experiencing in this State. More needs to be done to protect vulnerable witnesses and complainants in the justice system. Training and more resources for gardaí and others who deal directly with victims is required. Incidents such as the failure of Tusla to refer 365 suspected abuse cases in County Kerry to An Garda Síochána must not be repeated. The need for urgent and safe accommodation must be given full priority. Tusla published a report on refuge accommodation for victims 15 months ago, yet in nine counties where there was no refuge, there has not been any significant change. Victims in these counties are serviced by ad hocarrangements with one or two houses for populations of more than 60,000 people.

The Ombudsman for Children in his 2022 report said that in the Government's two previous plans insufficient attention was paid to children affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse. The ombudsman called on the Government to adequately fund this, its third plan, yet no new funding has been provided. There is a need for a new curriculum for social personal and health education. This curriculum must include consent, gender power dynamics and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. It is clear that the Government, society, political parties and those working in this area face a huge undertaking but it is also a worthwhile undertaking and a challenge just to get the response right at different levels. To make our contribution to that end, Sinn Féin will support the Bill to Committee Stage and we will examine the amendments at that point.

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
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I am glad to support the Bill. I commend the Minister and the Government on the work they have undertaken on the Bill over the past few years. The establishment of this agency will be an essential next step in the achievement of zero-tolerance policy to DSGBV in Ireland.

Many of my colleagues have spoken about the stark numbers of people in Ireland who have been victims of domestic and sexual-based violence. The Central Statistics Office 2022 sexual violence survey found that 40% of adults experienced sexual violence in their lifetime, with women experiencing significantly higher levels than men. The same survey also identified concerning trends in the experiences of sexual violence by younger people with 22% of 18- to 24-year-olds having experienced sexual violence compared with just 8% of those aged 65 and over. That statistic concerned me in the sense that we have the belief we are moving into a space where there is more awareness, more conversation, and being able to identify it more. Yet, the trends of younger people actually experiencing sexual-based violence is quite high.

The 2022 report of the Courts Service also identified a 15% increase in domestic violence applications before the court since 2019. These statistics are reflective of the broader international trends but speak to the need for expedient and resolute action to be taken to reverse them.

My first point relates to the need for the agency to be independent in its function, to be well resourced and to contain adequate expertise and experience within it. The statutory agencies independent of Government can have a real and significant impact through their work. Let us consider the work of the Combat Poverty Agency, for example.To do this requires that the agency is equipped with the functions and resources to do this meaningful and important work. The fact that the Bill places on a statutory footing the responsibility of relevant public bodies to co-operate with the agency in support of their domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, duties is a welcome provision in this regard. I ask the Minister to clarify what would happen in the instances where a public body did not fulfil its responsibility to co-operate.

On the expertise and experience of the agency, I welcome that the Minister has included representation on the board of the agency of persons with the relevant experience of domestic or sexual-based violence matters in line with the recommendation made by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill. I know some stakeholders have concerns about the relatively small number of ordinary members on the board, given the broad scope of their functions, and I ask the Minister if consideration could be given to providing for a modest increase to the ordinary membership of the board in light of this.

The issue of access to refuges is a significant one. We have a situation in Ireland wherein nine counties do not have a refuge facility. This creates a scenario wherein the support available to victims will vary depending on where they live in the country, which is inexcusable. Because of this, victims of violence will often remain living with their violent partner for longer than they might otherwise have, posing significant additional risk of harm to them, and in certain cases, to their children. I welcome the fact that the new agency will support the delivery of refuge accommodation but there is another significant issue which impacts a person's ability to leave a violent home environment that must be acknowledged and that is the housing crisis.

The housing crisis has been recognised by DSGBV organisations as having a significant impact on the ability of victims to find safety. While increasing access to refuge places is critical, we also need to consider the longer-term housing needs of those fleeing violence at home. We have a situation where women who leave refuges have nowhere to go, other than to return to the home environment where they were subject to abuse. We have to do so much better by victims of violence and meeting their housing needs has to be the first step so they can begin to rebuild their lives and provide safety for themselves and their families. I would also like to stress the fact that our homelessness figures do not include those accessing refuge accommodation, which should be corrected, given that domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness, particularly among women.

I would also like to discuss free legal aid and the possibility for same to be granted for all domestic violence cases before the courts. In order to qualify for free legal aid your annual disposable income must be less than €18,000 and your disposable assets must be less than €100,000 in value. I know that a review of the civil legal aid scheme is already under way and I would like to place on the record a call for the thresholds to be increased across the board and for victims of domestic violence to have mandatory access to civil legal aid, taking into account the often compromising financial positions that victims of abuse can find themselves in.

Before I finish I would like to stress the urgency of the development of the new purpose-built family court complex for Dublin at Hammond Lane to replace the existing outdated and under-strain family law facilities at Dolphin House, Chancery Street and Phoenix House. This new complex will crucially include within it a range of services that operate in the area of family law, including mediation and domestic violence support services. We have been looking at a hole in the ground at Hammond Lane for more than ten years. Reporting during the summer found that construction is not estimated to commence before 2026. I ask the Minister to advise on the nature of the significant delay to this crucial project. What actions are being undertaken to expedite it?

I note the passing of the Employment Equality (Amendment) (Non-Disclosure Agreements) Bill 2021 in this House two weeks ago, which has intersections with the area of domestic violence and sexual abuse in terms of perpetrators. When that hopefully passes through the Dáil, it will go some way to challenging people. I know it is about employment and not life within the home but it is part of that larger and wider conversation about how we talk about abuse and power and who can and cannot hide from being accountable for their abuses of that power. I reiterate my broad support for the Bill and for it to be dealt with expediently by this House. Notwithstanding this, I reserve the right to introduce amendments in the coming weeks to respond to some of the concerns raised, particularly by the relevant stakeholder groups.

Photo of Mark WallMark Wall (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I begin by paying tribute to Teach Tearmainn, which provides a vital service for victims of domestic abuse and violence in my county of Kildare. Alongside emotional and informative supports, it offers refuge to women escaping horrific and traumatising situations in their homes. The work it does is commendable. As unfortunate as it is, its services are crucial in County Kildare but we need more organisations like Teach Tearmainn and we need to support them.

It has been a long-standing call from the Labour Party to increase the number of women's refuges across Ireland. I was watching "Up Front with Katie Hannon" on Monday night and we were all dismayed to hear that there are at least nine counties in Ireland that still do not have one, which is totally and utterly unacceptable. What is happening is a postcode lottery for access to necessary supports for victims of domestic abuse.

Every month when the figures are released we are all devastated to see the number of people living in homelessness. In Ireland, we know from numerous studies that domestic violence is one of the leading causes, if not the leading cause, of homelessness for women. The most recent figure shows that 3,445 women are accessing emergency accommodation. How many of these women are there because they are escaping abuse and violence in their homes? Moreover, victims of domestic abuse who can access refuge accommodation effectively exist in a form of hidden homelessness that is not accounted for in the national figures. Women's refuges offer an incredible support to victims, and often to their children, but there simply is not enough capacity. We need at least one in every county and ideally we should have a lot more. To feel unsafe in your home, which should be your sanctuary, is a travesty. The lack of appropriate accommodation and refuges for survivors of abuse, as well as the housing crisis more generally, is limiting the options for a safe home for so many women.

All the while the indications are that domestic violence is on the rise. In 2022 there was an 8% increase in domestic abuse incidence. Almost 54,000 incidents were attended by gardaí last year, compared with around 50,000 in 2021 and just over 44,500 in the year before. There are delays of 16 weeks for domestic violence applications in some District Courts. Support services are overwhelmed and they have been for some time, as I have said previously in this House. In 2020, for example, Safe Ireland reported that it could not meet 808 requests for refuge due to the lack of available spaces. Men's Aid missed 630 calls to its helpline in 2021 due to resource constraints. Women's Aid's annual report for 2022 showed a 16% increase in contacts for its supports on the previous year, and the highest in its history for almost 50 years.

I am conscious that we are having this debate at a time when, in recent weeks, two separate incidents of violence against women have dominated the news. We continue to see an intolerable level of violence against women in Ireland, particularly in their homes. There is no tolerable level; it is a scourge that needs to be stamped out. The reality is that it happens and continues to happen and we need to give the greatest support possible to victims. It is my sincere hope and the hope of the Labour Party that this new agency will improve those supports and on that basis we are supporting this Bill. A key point that we in the Labour Party want to stress is that the success of this agency rests on the budgetary and departmental resources allocated to the agency and the range of offer of other related areas.

The Bill contains eight functional areas for the agency and I will not have time to go through all of those and the additional resources needed so I want to highlight a couple of those areas. Under the Bill, the agency will be tasked with planning, co-ordinating and monitoring the development of refuges and providing support to service providers, including financial support. Based on my previous remarks, this is a measure we welcome. I reiterate though that the extent to which the agency will be successful will largely depend on the resources available, not only directly to the agency, but also through the agency to third parties. The agency will be responsible for budget allocation for non-governmental support services, including refuges; rape crisis centres; and helplines. Close to €50 million was allocated by the Departments of Justice and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth for related activities that will be transferring to this agency. A Tusla review carried out last year showed that only 30% of victim's accommodation is up to the highest standards. That allocation will need to increase to go from only 30% of spaces being up to standard to 100%, which should at least be the target. I would be concerned that this agency will simply become a scapegoat for the Department's failure to address the problem if it does not receive the required funding.

There is also the issue of strategising and planning. The agency will be responsible for co-ordinating, overseeing and supporting Government strategies. This is something the Government needs to get a handle on, particularly in how the legal system deals with cases involving domestic abuse and gender-based violence.In March, the National Women's Council of Ireland, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, produced a report that highlighted the absolute necessity for us to adopt a victim-centred approach that also ensures a fair legal process for those accused. Our present system is incredibly hard on victims.

On Monday's "Upfront with Katie Hannon" programme, which I mentioned previously, we were all moved and horrified by the contribution of Ms Sarah Grace, a solicitor and victim of gender-based violence herself. She clearly illustrated the ways in which our legal system can retraumatise and be traumatic in itself for victims. This needs to be dealt with urgently.

Victims can end up going through three different legal processes in their case, including a criminal justice process, a private family law process and, indeed, a public law childcare process. Legally, these work more or less in isolation from one another. The lack of co-ordination and co-operation between these processes means victims suffer.

There are situations where a judge in one part of the process does not have a clue what has happened or is happening in the other parts of the process. Gaps emerge through the various processes where vital information has the potential to be lost. Ultimately, this harms the potential for a just outcome to be secured.

I will finish shortly but I want to make a final point on the State's relationship with civil society organisations that deal with domestic and gender-based violence victims. It is welcome that the chairperson and members of the board of the agency will have experience in areas like policy implementation, service delivery and so on. However, it is disappointing that civil society organisations are not mentioned in the Bill. The National Women's Council of Ireland has highlighted the importance of continuing the collaborative model between the relevant Department and NGOs. The Bill lacks a clear mechanism for this to continue. Civil society organisations are at the front line in supporting victims and have invaluable specialist knowledge and expertise. I really hope that is not lost.

I will conclude by reiterating the Labour Party's support for the Bill. There are elements in it that we would like to see strengthened but, ultimately, this is a very well-intentioned Bill. The potential is there for a real game-changer in tackling the scourge of domestic and gender-based violence. I again appeal to Government to ensure that the agency, NGOs and broader care system are properly resourced and that a proper, well-thought-out strategy to deal with this issue is put in place. We want to see this Bill, and the new agency, succeed and we want it to be given the opportunity to do so.

Photo of Mark DalyMark Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Before I call the next speaker, I welcome from County Limerick the Adare Women's 2020 Club to Seanad Éireann. I thank them for being here today and Deputy O'Donoghue for bringing them. I hope they enjoy their visit to Leinster House. I call Senator O'Loughlin.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I add my voice of welcome to the Adare Women's 2020 Club. Councillor Bridie Collins sent a message first thing this morning to tell me to make sure to meet those very fine ladies. It is really lovely to be able to say hello to them. As soon as they started coming in, I said, "That is who they are." They are very welcome. I hope they have a lovely day in Leinster House. I hope to get to chat to some of them later.

I thank the Minister, Deputy McEntee, for progressing this and being with us to discuss this hugely important Bill. As we gather here, it is only right that we remember Ashling Murphy and her family and friends and, of course, the family and friends of Claire Collins, who was tragically murdered in Corofin, County Clare, at the weekend.

As we know, violence against women is an epidemic and not just in Ireland but right around the world. We have seen some very high-profile murders over recent years that have really brought these issues to the front and centre of open debate. These brutal deaths have also enabled women to talk about their own fears. The death of women through acts of violence has forced society to listen to that reality and to demand action. We now need society and, of course, the political system to address that fear urgently and comprehensively and take an honest look at how the system responds and meets the needs of women and those who are suffering from domestic abuse. As legislators, we have a duty to act and do everything we can to ensure that we have the strongest legislative response possible. There is no doubt that action such as this is required.

According to Women's Aid, there have been 256 incidences where women have died violently between 1996 and today. Twenty children have died in incidences where women have died violently, 163 women have died in their own homes and 87% of women were killed by a man known to them. Women of any age can be victims of femicide. However, women under the age of 35 make up 50% of the cases in Ireland. The numbers do not lie. Sadly and unfortunately, the numbers are not surprising.

I welcome and support this very important Bill and the work the Minister, Deputy McEntee, has put into it since she made the commitment that this commission would be put in place. This will establish, as was committed in the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, an agency under the Minister's purpose with responsibility for planning, co-ordinating and monitoring the development of refuge accommodation. It will provide assistance, including financial assistance, for the provision of services, including services within refuges, for victims and persons at risk of domestic violence. It will set standards for funded services and will monitor adherence to same, as well as co-ordinating and overseeing the delivery of Government strategies and plans.

In addition, it will be responsible for delivering public campaigns for the purposes of raising awareness of domestic violence and reducing its occurrence in society. It will compile and distribute information on the services and supports available to victims and persons at risk of domestic and gender-based violence and will conduct and commission research to inform the evaluation of policies, strategies and services in place. We obviously cannot forget the men. We need men and boys to be part of the conversation and to understand what all this means in their terms.

This will be a substantial agency tasked with really important work. The new strategy will build on the previous two strategies. While the third strategy recognises that while men and women can be victims and survivors, women and girls, of course, are disproportionately affected. As a result, there is and needs to be a particular emphasis in the strategy on meeting the needs of women and girls and creating a society in which there is zero tolerance for the culture of domestic and gender-based violence.

There are ambitious goals. I really wish the Minister well in terms of where the plan will be going until the end of this year. I wish to mention Teach Tearmainn in County Kildare, which offers great support and shelter and, in particular, outreach with children. It has its own helpline and a court accompaniment service with advice on legal orders and court processes. It delivers an Own Your Life programme, which I know from talking to survivors of domestic abuse has really helped them with their lives afterwards. It has a really excellent children's support and outreach service. I really see how an excellent service can work. As many Members may be aware, I also drafted a Private Members' Bill, the Sex Offenders (Amendment) (Coercive Control) Bill 2023, which would establish a domestic violence register and go some way to try to prevent repeat offences in terms of violence against women. I hope the Minister will support that. This would be an important step in protecting women in the country. There is very good work ongoing at the direction of the Government and within the Minister's Department, but we have much to do. This is really another good step in the right direction.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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It is good to have the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, here in the Chamber. I know it is absolutely crucial for the Minister that we have zero tolerance when it comes to violence, aggression and abuse against women in the home. This is the challenge we have because more than likely, it is people we know to whom this is happening. It is people that women know. It is trusted partners. It can sometimes be in relationships that are breaking down. It is extremely difficult.

I am so supportive of the Minister's drive and focus over the last number of years in bringing this forward. We need a stand-alone agency. We need this in terms of looking at the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence that is happening.In terms of ongoing DSGBV, we need to fight for refuge places. The Minister is very familiar with counties Roscommon and Galway and where I am based in Ballinasloe, which she has visited, where is it difficult because there is a lack of access to refuge places. One of the key priorities of the new agency will be to fight for refuge places in areas that do not have them at the moment. It is a challenge. In Galway, we have COPE Galway. I would like nothing more than to invite the Minister to Ballinasloe this evening, though I am sure her diary might not allow it, where the Lions Club is hosting an event on domestic violence. It is being hosted by Rita Spencer, who spoke this morning on Galway Bay FM. I will also be there. The event is about taking away the stigma of domestic violence, so that all sorts of towns and villages we are able to talk about it, and to talk about supporting both men and women. Men can experience verbal abuse and aggression within the home as well. It is crucial that supports are put in place.

A group of experts has looked specifically at the Istanbul Convention. It has been crucial that there is an Irish member of the group in Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop, who has served as one of the GREVIO experts. She has spoken often about the importance of Ireland being part of the convention. We signed up to it in 2019 and the report has been published. I know that the Minister is taking the recommendations on board. There are areas where we have made huge progress, but there are areas that we have to move forward on. The episode of "Upfront with Katie Hannon" on Monday night really showed the challenges for women going through the court process. Of course, we are making changes around that. I refer to the courts system, how we are going to streamline teleconferencing, how we are going to really support the speed-up of our courts, how we are going to ensure that we are getting gardaí in and out quickly into these types of systems and how we are supporting a victim's journey, which the Minister has always spoken about. It is about how we support the victim's journey from start to finish and how we ensure our legislation is going to do that.

With regard to the legislation that the Minister has seen come through in her time of office, non-fatal strangulation and stalking have becoming offences in a new Act. Coco's Law came into being, which makes the sharing of, and the threat to share, intimate images illegal and an offence. We have seen the communication of that being rolled out. It is not enough that we are putting that legislation in place. We have all seen the ad on RTÉ that shows the young guy sitting down saying that it is not a crime, and a garda sitting opposite him telling him that it is. That is what we need to see. We need people to know the impact of these crimes, and to know that this is a crime. We need to encourage our young women to stand up and to let our young men at every age know that they are also part of this conversation.

Four of the pillars of the Istanbul Convention are protection, prevention, policy, prosecution. When it comes prevention, it is about education. The Minister might like to speak about how her Department is working with other Departments, including the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, on the Active* Consent programme, which is being rolled out through the University of Galway. The programme is absolutely crucial. We need to see workshops happening in secondary schools for transition year, fifth year and leaving certificate students. In my local area, I have engaged with principals around ensuring that those workshops are happening in secondary schools in my town, area and constituency, because we need to make sure that education is happening from a very young age.

I know there are so many elements to this. This is only one part of a huge portfolio that the Minister has, but I know it is a priority for her. When this agency is set up, I want to see refuge places in rural and regional areas. I want to see the roll-out of the 24-hour helplines and support for the likes of COPE Galway in terms of the refuge spaces that are available. We must ensure that we are there, our gardaí are trained and that there is a whole-of-government approach. That is what we are seeing now.

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank all Senators for their contributions and for their broad support for the legislation. Most of them have alluded to the concerning figures and the facts that are very clear. To be honest, the figures that we see, even with the increase in those coming forward, are probably just the tip of the iceberg. There is a perception that we are seeing an increase in cases. However, we could look at it in a more positive way in that it is actually an increase in the number of women coming forward and reporting those cases. Either way, the numbers are too high and there is so much more that we need to do not just to respond and support the women, children and, indeed, men who are victims, but to try to prevent this absolutely abhorrent crime from taking place.

I will try to respond to the issues that have been raised. In terms of the name of the agency, it is something that I would like us to be able to do, not anybody else. It is something I will bring forward at a later stage. Obviously, I want the agency up and running as quickly as possible in the new year. That is why it is really welcome that the Department of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform has approved the various different posts. Interviews are taking place this week for the CEO position. The role of the Public Appointments Service in the nomination for the board is under way as well, so everything that needs to happen is happening. The passage of the legislation will allow for the agency to be up and running in the new year. That is what everybody here wants.

It needs to be funded for it to be up and running and effective. I absolutely appreciate that. Money that was going directly into Tusla for the delivery of services is now transferring to my Department, and we will transfer it to the agency. Funding has doubled in the past three years alone. My expectation and ambition is that will continue to increase because that money is going directly back into the services that are already being provided on the ground. The wider strategy in itself is a funded strategy. It is a €363 million strategy. That has been committed to by Government over the lifetime of the strategy. It is not just the agency that needs funding, but all of the other actions as part of that, in particular the refuges and accommodation.

In terms of the services that are working, most Senators alluded to the amazing work that is being done by organisations such as Safe Ireland, COPE, Teach Tearmainn and the Meath Women's Refuge in my own constituency and county. This work has been done tirelessly, in a very silent way, for many years. It is important that work is acknowledged by each and every one of us and that those organisations continue to have a role in the agency and the roll-out of the strategy. It was absolutely vital for me, in the development of the zero-tolerance plan and the establishment of the agency, that there was a collaborative approach. That will continue with the development of the agency. What we have stated specifically is that all relevant bodies will be engaged with. It was the language that was put to us by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, but it is very clear that it relates not just to State agencies but also the organisations, the NGOs and the bodies that are working on the ground. They must continue to have an important role.

On some of the questions that Senator McGreehan asked, I have engaged with Safe Ireland quite a bit on the definition of "refuge and accommodation", multiagency funding and the policy-generating function. The multiagency funding will be put in place, so it will not be provided on a year-to-year basis. There will be a multi-annual structure so that organisations can plan for the future. The reason it has not been put in place yet is that we are developing a new online system that will form part of the agency. Once the agency is up and running, those structures will be put in place. I am absolutely committed to making sure there is a multi-annual funding approach and that organisations can plan for the future.

On the definition of refuge and accommodation in the roll-out, a huge body of work is under way in collaboration with the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, my own Department and others, including Safe Ireland, to make sure that we have the right type of housing and accommodation. All of this will form part of the work of the agency.

In terms of policy generation, it is important that Government and the Minister retain the function of delivering policy and putting in place policy. At the same time, this agency will have an absolutely crucial role in helping to shape that policy. Its remit in gathering information and data in itself is important. One of the comments from GREVIO was that we do not have enough data. The more data that we have, the better policies, laws and changes we can put in place. They will undoubtedly play a key role in developing policy.

On the points raised about the justice system not working, it is a massive challenge where we have civil cases, criminal cases and potentially child access cases happening, and none of them talking to each other. There are a number of ways in which we are trying to address that. There are clear actions in the zero-tolerance strategy, and work is under way to look at how we can create an overlap so that there is not that disconnect between the courts. Second, there is more of an emphasis on children on this strategy than there has been in any other strategy, acknowledging that they themselves are victims, whether they have been physically abused or assaulted or not. By being in the very home, they are victims themselves. That needs to be accepted and understood by all of those who are engaging with victims, including the Garda, the legal profession, the courts, the Judiciary, health professionals and others. That is why training is huge part of the zero-tolerance strategy, as well as specific actions for children.

Separate to that, a new Family Courts Bill 2022 is going through the Houses that will allow for a family court structure where we will have judges whose sole role is to deal with family law. Again, there will be an onus and responsibility on them to take into account the child's position in all of this. Separate from that, we have a family court strategy. There are specific and clear actions around children, how they should be engaged with and how they are impacted by family law matters, as well as where there is an overlap with domestic and sexual violence. There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done, and that is all encompassed in a number of different strategies that are all developing at the moment.

In terms of the overall figures that have been mentioned, such as those regarding legal aid, I absolutely take that point. That review is under way at the moment and will look at all elements of legal aid that are provided. Obviously, we have extended legal aid to support victims who are going through the criminal justice system. Supporting a Victim's Journey was the very first strategy I launched as Minister and its sole focus is to improve the criminal justice system for victims as they go through it, in particular, those who are vulnerable and those who are victims of domestic and sexual violence. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Human Trafficking) Bill 2023, which will be before the House shortly, responds to a number of amendments in that strategy around anonymity, providing additional supports and making the process easier as well as making sure there is relevant training for those who are working with and supporting them. It is also about supporting organisations that provide great support to people. We heard recently about the role that Victim Support at Court plays in working with families and supporting those who are going through a very traumatic and difficult court process.

Challenges have been raised by the Group of Independent Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, GREVIO, some of which are related to sentences. Only in the past two weeks, as has been referenced, we increased sentences and made stand-alone offences, for stalking and non-fatal strangulation. We have increased the sentence for assault causing harm, which is one of the most significant crimes when it comes to domestic violence, from five to ten years, acknowledging that these are very significant crimes. A huge amount of work is under way, therefore, and the agency will be leading in the delivery of this. I was asked about what happens if somebody does not engage. We have put a clear structure in place and while the strategy itself will be delivered by the agency, it will be accountable to the Department of the Taoiseach. There is a structure whereby the Secretary General of my Department will meet regularly with the Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach and those regular updates will go to the specific committee that is chaired by the Taoiseach. There is, therefore, accountability at the very top level where agencies, or anybody who is prescribed in this legislation, are not engaging with the strategy and the agency to deliver this. We need to make sure there is accountability.

Finally, on the issue of refuges and accommodation, I appreciate there is a feeling that things are moving too slowly and that in the nine counties Members have mentioned there is no progress. In the past, refuges have developed where individuals on the ground and organisations have come together and done it themselves. Where there is not that capacity and where there is not a service provider in an area, there simply is not the ability to develop a refuge and accommodation service. As I mentioned in a structure previously, my own Department worked with the Departments of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform, and Finance on putting in place a template and structure to allow for refuges to be developed in areas where they do not currently exist. We have provided funding not just in the previous budget, but in the most recent budget, to put individuals in place to help drive the delivery of these new services. They will identify who can deliver the service, where there is a site, how we can buy it and who we need to engage with on the ground, etc. A lot of progress has been made in the areas where we do not have refuges and accommodation. In the coming weeks, I will announce funding specific to those areas to appoint an individual to further progress the delivery of these. It is slow but if it were the case of building a building on its own, it would have been done yesterday. However, this is a matter of having the right service provider and having the right types of supports and services in place. The bricks and mortar are really the easiest part of it. It is all the other pieces that need to come together. I know that Members will know that, and I appreciate sometimes it feels as though it is moving too slowly. However, once we have the structures in place, everything else will be able to move much more quickly. We will see even more than those nine counties developing because we need to expand, even where there is accommodation at the moment.

In general, I appreciate Members’ support for the Bill, which I hope will pass through the Houses as quickly as possible. At the same time, I am very open to engaging with colleagues on amendments or ways in which we can always improve what is before us.

Question put and agreed to.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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Next Tuesday.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 21 November 2023.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 2.25 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.15 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 2.25 p.m and resumed at 3.15 p.m.