I welcome the opportunity for Members to express their views on opposing domestic violence. It is poignant to think of the tragedies that have occurred in families in this country because of domestic violence. Each of us, no matter which side of the House we sit on, came to politics to right wrongs and eliminate evil. Sooner or later, each of us realised that no matter what we do some evils do not go away. Child sexual abuse does not go away. Sexual violence does not go away. Gender-based violence does not go away. Domestic violence does not go away.
A study undertaken by Cosc, the national body, found that over 70% considered domestic abuse to be a common problem in Ireland. It is extraordinary to think that following a survey, a total of 70% of people should say that they consider domestic abuse to be a common problem in Ireland. Domestic violence does not go away. Indeed, its very constancy might tempt us to shrug and move away from it but that should never happen. It should never be permitted to become a norm in the minority of homes.
We know that domestic violence is devastating for the victim. It destroys trust and any sense of self and self-respect. It often causes a retreat from work, the economy and social networks. It has major personal and social costs. Preventing domestic violence and protecting and supporting the victims requires legislation, services and consistent good practice.
In recent years Ireland has put in place a national strategy for tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence to co-ordinate this multifaceted approach. The Government and I are committed to updating this strategy as a new blueprint for future initiatives. This work is being overseen by Cosc. A final review of the strategy was completed in the summer and is now feeding in to the development of the second stage. We have asked many people for submissions. I hosted a consultation in Dublin Castle some weeks ago where representatives from all the groups working in this area came together and gave us their best thinking on the next national strategy. It was a useful event and will help us to identify the priorities. The groups were asked to identify what they believe should be the priorities in the coming years.
In October, we were presented with excellent work from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. The committee produced recommendations on domestic and sexual violence. I note that Deputy Stanton is present and I pay tribute to him for the excellence of the work done on this topic and indeed on many other topics worked on during the year by the justice committee with considerable cross-party support. The recommendations from the justice committee will help us to identify the new national strategy. This needs a whole-of-government approach because one thing is clear: if we are to deal with this topic effectively, we need a cross-party and interdepartmental approach.
I am keen to highlight various benchmarks which will be important in the coming months and which will help us to underpin in a serious way developments and improvements in this area. In particular I have in mind the Council of Europe convention known as the Istanbul convention. This convention is aimed at preventing and combating sexual and domestic violence against women. I am keen to sign the convention in the course of 2015 on behalf of Ireland. We are examining the various elements that have to be dealt with. It was thought that there was some constitutional impediments to signing, but I am pleased to say that we believe this is not now the case. We will have an action plan as part of the new national approach towards ratification. In the course of 2015 we will also deliver domestic violence legislation to consolidate existing legislation and introduce some new elements of legislation. Several changes have been made already.
Another element which will contribute to a better approach to the victims of domestic violence is the implementation of the EU victims directive. I have held some good meetings with the Northern Ireland Minister, Mr. David Ford, MLA. We have worked together on the issue because he is implementing the EU victims directive as well. He has developed a charter for victims to ensure they have a more central place within the criminal justice system. I am keen for 2015 to be the year when we put the rights of victims at the heart of the criminal justice system. Delivering for victims is a key goal in addressing the grim reality of domestic violence, of this there can be no doubt. The directive is excellent and I believe that its implementation in all member states will make a real difference to how victims are approached throughout criminal justice systems.
Today, I am announcing a further allocation of €230,000 for victims services. This will come from the dormant account disbursement scheme. It will help the Crime Victims Helpline and Victim Support at Court. Victim Support at Court is very important. From what I have heard, users find the support on offer invaluable. We are keen to see the service extended beyond Dublin and I hope the extra funding will allow that to happen.
Another key development in 2015 will be the planned establishment of the new victims liaison offices in each Garda division. The victims services offices will be the central point of contact for all victims of crime and trauma in each Garda division. The offices will give advice, information and support. I believe this will be very helpful. The offices will be staffed by dedicated, specially-trained personnel who will keep victims informed of all significant developments associated with their cases as well as providing guidance and support. I imagine other Members will agree that one of the key issues for people when they report incidents of violence to the Garda is their wish to be kept informed of what is happening and the outcome of the case or any associated developments.
The Garda Inspectorate report is important in this area. As Deputies will be aware, the report contains a chapter on domestic violence and how it is dealt with at present. While everyone accepts that there have been great improvements in the response from the Garda - victims support services will say as much - the inspectorate report also found an inconsistent standard. The report points to significant concerns in respect of the support for victims in many cases.
I have asked the newly-appointed Garda Commissioner to report to me on how An Garda Síochána will implement the inspectorate recommendations on all the issues and on domestic violence in particular in order that we can ensure a more consistent response. The Commissioner recognises the vital importance of this response and she is committed to delivering improvements. I have no doubt that this will be included in the policing priorities for the year ahead. She has made a clear statement about her concern for victims and this is one of the reasons she is supporting the development of the victims liaison offices.
One of the points that emerged from the Garda Inspectorate report was the question of risk assessment in domestic violence cases and ensuring that assessments are carried out more appropriately and carefully. Clearly, this is a challenging task and one cannot always be absolutely correct with risk assessment. However, by ensuring a consistent standard, improved training and greater clarity on the importance of being careful in undertaking risk assessment as well as by responding and listening carefully to victims and taking what they say seriously, we should and will get a more consistent response.
The misuse of alcohol is clearly evident in many cases of domestic violence. I am familiar with this from previous work in child abuse and neglect cases. We see the trends again and again in respect of the influence of alcohol and drugs on criminal offending. We know that alcohol abuse plays a major role in fuelling many cases of domestic violence. It is another example of the shocking impact of the misuse and abuse of alcohol and drugs on Irish society.
Awareness raising is important in respect of how we as a society and a community and individuals become more cognisant of the impact of domestic violence and encourage people to do whatever they can to reduce the incidence. We are supporting the various victim support groups in order that they can do this work. This year we have supported the White Ribbon Ireland campaign and the Man Up campaign, which encourage men to stand up against domestic violence and be positive actors in all their relationships with women and children. Considerable awareness raising has been undertaken by a variety of men's groups as well as individual men throughout the country in respect of this issue and this is a positive development.
Clearly, the question of legislation is important.
We have made several changes. The change to the in camera rule is an important element of greater awareness throughout society. We have modified the rule to allow greater reporting of family law cases, including domestic violence proceedings. There are appropriate protections for the identities of individuals, especially children. Media reporting is important for people to understand the scale and type of case coming before our courts.
Several other changes have been made, such as the provisions for orders to be made for same sex couples in a civil partnership arrangement to be treated on the same basis as married couples, and for same sex couples living together in intimate relationships to be treated on a par with opposite sex couples in the same situation. Couples who have a child in common may now apply for safety and protection orders even where they have not lived together. These changes were called for and are now in our law. We have also removed the six-month period for residing together prior to being eligible for safety and protection orders which previously applied. I will publish additional legislative proposals in the early part of the new year to consolidate and reform the domestic violence legislation.
The role of Tusla is important because of the preventative family supports that are available and can be called on. Priority court time and court dates are available. The President of the District Court works to make sure that delays in the hearing of family law cases, particularly those involving domestic violence, are kept to a minimum. Support services in Dolphin House are available every week day morning to individuals attending there. We want to make sure those services are spread more widely to women using the court for applications under the Domestic Violence Act and other ancillary orders, such as child access and child custody. That is a very good service because it gives the women the support they need. That service is available as well in Dundalk District Court and other court jurisdictions are planning to introduce it.
Last week, I announced that there will be a new family law complex at Hammond Lane which will be helpful because the facilities families have been using, for example, in the Dublin area, are not of the standard they should be in order to help people get the best services, whether mediation or court services. It is quite clear that a new building is necessary instead of the three different services dealing with these cases in accommodation that is not good enough or suitable.
We need to work with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to deal with the range of issues arising around domestic violence. Another element is to work with, and have programmes for, perpetrators of domestic violence. There are 13 programmes for which the Department provided just over €400,000 in funding in 2013. We have to work to reduce offending behaviour in this area. It is complex and is not easy but it is important that people are helped to behave differently and to work with couples where that is what the couples wish to do.
The fact that domestic violence runs like an underground river through our society does not mean we can ever accept it. The fact that it finds new routes and creates new tributaries with passing time should make us more rather than less resolute when it comes to dealing with it because we must deal with it and its victims. The new EU Victims Directive, the signing of the Istanbul Convention and the changed approach to victims within the criminal justice system should be an important marker of change in this respect in 2015. We will need to meet the relevant complex needs with a very strong cross-departmental, cross-disciplinary and professional approach working in tandem with the NGOs which do so much of the frontline work.