Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 November 2023

Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence Agency Bill 2023: Committee Stage (Resumed) and Remaining Stages


10:30 am

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome to the Chamber today the former Deputy Robert Dowds and his group. I hope he has an enjoyable afternoon.

Sections 1 to 45, inclusive, agreed to.

Question proposed "That the Title be the Title to the Bill."

Photo of Helen McEnteeHelen McEntee (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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This is a significant day in achieving our shared goal of zero tolerance of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. I thank Senators and Deputies on all sides of the Houses for their suggestions, debate and support. I acknowledge the work of my officials in the Department and the unbelievable work done by all those in the sector. I particularly thank them for the way they have worked and assisted in getting to this point. We are now firmly on track to have this agency established by January. The competition for the board of the agency opened today and the process of choosing a CEO is at an advanced stage.

I am now pleased to announce that the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency will be called Cuan, which means harbour or haven. I have seen the shelter our refuges provide for women and children. These are women who have left their homes because they have been beaten and abused. I have seen the care these women are given in these safe harbours. We need more of them. We also need to capture the values they represent in a structure that will outlast my term as Minister and the careers of many of us, and which will protect victims and change attitudes. Cuan will be that permanent change and safe harbour to help us achieve zero tolerance of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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The Minister is welcome back to the House. I, too, very much welcome the establishment of this new body, which, as the Minister said, will be referred to as Cuan, which means "harbour" as Béarla. It is very much welcomed. A number of counties, numbering seven to nine, currently have no refuge centre. In County Monaghan, and as my learned colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, who is based in County Cavan, will know, we do not have a refuge centre that will accommodate people in both counties. Work is going on at local level between Cavan and Monaghan county councils with a view to locating this site, which is progressing. That is something we would like to see happen as a matter of urgency. I have no doubt that the Minister intends to be here when it comes to that. I would like to see that developed as soon as possible.

In many ways, while it is vitally important that we have refuges for poor, unfortunate women who find themselves in this position, it is shocking that we are still having this conversation on this issue. The refuge is treating the symptoms, however, not the problem. I would like to see more focus on why instances of domestic and gender-based violence are still with us and are continuing to increase, unfortunately. The reality is that we as men need to have a good hard look at ourselves in regard to how we treat women every day. Unfortunately, there is a journey to travel in that regard but it is a journey that needs to happen as a matter of urgency.

It is to be hoped that Cuan will be the first step along that road. I welcome the establishment of it. I commend the Minister on the work she has done on it. She has been very enthusiastic and eager to get this set up. Well done on getting it this far. I sincerely look forward, to be parochial in respect of our home counties of Monaghan and Cavan, to seeing a refuge centre there for women. Even more so, I look forward to the day when we do not need refuge centres. That is key. There is a lot of work to be done in that space between now and then. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire for her work on this.

Photo of Fintan WarfieldFintan Warfield (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister. The Government needs to fulfil our obligations in respect of the Istanbul Convention and the State's strategy for eliminating the epidemic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Earlier this year, the National Women's Council published its report, prepared in conjunction with the Department of Justice, into domestic and sexual violence in particular. It looked at the intersection of the criminal justice system, private family law, public law, and childcare processes. The report laid bare the difficult and often traumatic experiences of women, children and some men in accessing justice. It exposed a system that is ill-suited to address the needs of those who are already managing the physical and emotional impact of violence on both mind and body. Indeed, the report makes clear the shortcomings in the current system are such that the system often retraumatises and re-victimises.

I want to put on the record a grave concern we have regarding where the Bill might fall short and the agency might have difficulty. We are particularly concerned about the situation at the Ombudsman for Children's Office. Its 2022 report stated that the Government's two previous plans paid insufficient attention to children affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse. The ombudsman called on the Government to adequately fund this in its third plan yet no new funding has been provided. We are deeply concerned that the Government has failed to do this. Once again, that will undermine the plan because while the Ombudsman for Children's Office is listed within the plan to act as a monitor of the actions around children in particular, it has always made clear to the Department of Justice that such a role was entirely reliant on the Department funding the positions required to fulfil this. Unfortunately, over two and a half years of negotiations and two budget cycles, that office has not been given any new resources so it has had to write to the Minister to inform her it is withdrawing services. She must now rewrite the action plan without the ombudsman's inclusion. That is a particular concern for us.

The Bill is laudable and a welcome step, but it will be assessed on what it delivers. I welcome any comment the Minister has to make on that issue. I appreciate the time to speak to on this Stage.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I join in congratulating the Minister and, as she said, her officials on bringing forward this legislation, successfully piloting it through the Houses of the Oireachtas, and on the fact she is totally proactive and able to announce today that the agency is being set up, formed and actioned. That is so important. I am all too painfully aware that sometimes things like this can remain on the shelf. That is not the Minister's style and not what should happen. I am delighted this will be followed up with action. Gender-based violence is one of the horrors of our time and, tragically, one of the horrors of many generations and of civilisation. "Civilisation" is hardly the correct word in the context but it has been the horror of the reality of the human condition over generations and centuries. This violence is objectively wrong but the great thing is we are moving forward in dealing with it.

I salute the Minister for majoring in the whole area of domestic violence and making it very much a personal priority in her Ministry.It is so important that this would happen. Tragically, for so long in previous years it was almost considered to be an in-house, family affair. Wonderfully, we are evolving out of that. I thank the Minister for her leadership in that regard.

I could not agree more with my colleague Senator Gallagher on the importance of establishing a refuge centre for Cavan and Monaghan. I would urge that the Minister is hands-on in ensuring that actually happens. This facility is important and I believe the Senator made the case for it well. It is very obvious and it is implicit in the legislation and everything that the Minister is about. I just hope that can be the case.

I am delighted to be here on such a day. As the Minister has said, it is historic and important. We are moving forward. In summary, there can be zero tolerance of anything approaching domestic violence, physical, psychological or in all its manifestations.

Photo of Aisling DolanAisling Dolan (Fine Gael)
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This is a landmark day because we will now have a domestic, sexual and gender-based violence agency. There will be a chief executive who will speak on the airwaves, engage in national debate and advocate for what is needed. The Minister knows that we have advocated in all of our areas for what is needed, but this agency is going to fight for that too. The Minister is providing the funding for this through the Department of Justice. I know that the Istanbul Convention is about zero tolerance but the actions of this Government are very clear around zero tolerance. We have to acknowledge that in today's world we are nowhere near that. We deal on a daily basis in our constituency offices with women who are in very difficult circumstances, in fear for themselves and for their children. The establishment of an agency like this speaks volumes to those women. It is about equal rights and rights for every citizen in this country. The establishment of this agency, the legislation the Minister has introduced to double sentences and the stand-alone Acts on issues like stalking and non-fatal strangulation are sending a message out there. That is what we need to do. We need to talk about this. We need the chief executive to be out there speaking and advocating for what we need.

This problem exists in rural areas as well as urban areas. It does not matter what background a person has, what socioeconomic circumstances a person is facing or what place a person is living in - domestic violence can happen to anyone and in anyone's life. When an information session was held in my home town of Ballinasloe, women, the community garda, representatives of COPE Galway and Aoife Kyne from the Men's Development Network all spoke about men overcoming violence and dealing with anger and emotions, and about men who are involved in these situations taking action. It is also the case that this can happen to men.

This Bill gives hope to people who sometimes cannot even come to those meetings. I heard the story of a woman who said she had to be careful when she drove her car to meetings because the kilometres on the car were being monitored. I do not claim to imagine what it is like for women who live in those circumstances. As a country, we have to stand up and say that there is a choice and that what we are doing here will make a difference for those women. I congratulate the Minister because it is a landmark to get this legislation across the line. The chief executive and the agency will fight for refuge places in towns across this country where they are so sorely needed.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment.

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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When is it proposed to take the next Stage?

Photo of Pat CaseyPat Casey (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Bill received for final consideration and passed.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 1.35 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 2.17 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m. and resumed at 2.17 p.m.