Priority Questions. - Victim Support.

Charles Flanagan

Question:

31 Mr. Flanagan asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the plans, if any, he has to assist or contribute, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, towards the provision of a comprehensive counselling and support service for victims of sexual abuse. [24477/99]

My Department provides funding for Victim Support which this year amounts to £651,000. This is an organisation dedicated to the provision of emotional and practical support to all victims of crime. It is a community based organisation with a large number of volunteers and a small professional staff. It has a 24 hour helpline and a number of special services, including the support of victims before, during and after court proceedings.

In relation to specialist counselling services for victims of sexual abuse, it, therefore, acts only as referral agency to other specialist groups, although many victims receive counselling in the context of the court accompaniment scheme.

The Deputy will be aware, however, that the Taoiseach this year announced a special fund of £4 million per annum to establish a dedicated counselling service in all regions. The health boards, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, are currently finalising proposals for the establishment of this service.

Given the expertise in the health boards in regard to the organisation of services, including counselling services, the Department of Health and Children has not sought an input from my Department in regard to this specific issue. If any issues arise, my Department will be more than willing to assist.

Recently a woman in my constituency, who is the victim of a sexual assault, was confronted by her offender who had been convicted, sentenced and released. This confrontation took place at a supermarket checkout. It is unsatisfactory for such convicts to be released from prison without the victim being informed. Release, particularly of sex offenders, should be halted at least until the victim is informed of the release so that he or she is aware this person is returning to the community.

This is a difficulty I recognised and, in the recently published charter for the victims of crime, there is provision whereby, if requested by the victim of sexual assault, the Prison Service would notify the Garda prior to the release of the perpetrator from prison on temporary release or at the end of his or her sentence. It is a different matter when the release is ordered by the courts because prior notification would not normally be possible for obvious reasons.

I regret the situation Deputy Flanagan outlined and I sincerely trust the new charter for the victims of crime will ensure there will not be a recurrence of this. I would, however, caution that where the courts are concerned, it would not normally be possible to give the type of notification I would wish to see.

I put it to the Minister that the best possible support available to the victims of sexual abuse is that they would have an opportunity to take a civil action against the perpetrator of the crime. This Government and this Minister, in particular, are, in effect, barring hundreds of victims of crime from bringing civil actions under a new Bill which recently passed Committee Stage. The Minister has infuriated hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by this legislation which, in effect, offers a measure of protec tion to abusers rather than lifting the bar on the statute of limitations.

The Garda is to pass on the information regarding the imminent release of a prisoner to the victim when a request is made. I find Deputy Flanagan's assertions extraordinary to say the least. The Government accepted in good faith Deputy O'Sullivan's Bill dealing with the statute of limitations. The legislation is not meant to bar anybody but is aimed at helping people to bring—

It might not be meant to, but it does. That is the effect of it.

—actions where otherwise they could not have done so. There would be no point to the legislation otherwise. Deputy Flanagan either does not understand the legislation, which I doubt very much, or he is being mischievous, which I believe is the case.

In reply to a priority question on a day in which the House is being asked to vote on a motion of no confidence in the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Minister might at least impart information which might offer some solace to the victims of crime. Does he accept the Bill, recently amended by him on Committee Stage, is, in effect, a protection of abusers Bill rather than one which offers a measure of compensation or a legal remedy which would allow a civil action to be taken where the perpetrators of the abuse could be brought before the courts and asked to pay compensation to victims?

Deputy Flanagan may or may not be aware that this legislation is awaiting Report Stage in this House. He has decided to embark on a Committee Stage speech on legislation before the House, which is not in order. The legislation put forward by Deputy O'Sullivan is good legislation that is aimed at improving the situation of victims of sexual abuse. I wholeheartedly support it and will continue to do so. I am surprised Deputy Flanagan is taking this negative view of the matter. If he had something positive to say he could bring forward legislation of his own, as Deputy O'Sullivan did, but of course he has not chosen to do so.

I had an amendment that was voted down.

Deputy Flanagan is attempting to swat flies in the depths of winter.