Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

We are hearing very distressing news of the death of a man who lived in a tent close to Leinster House this morning. I express my condolences to his family and friends. I just wanted to acknowledge the passing of this man, as it is almost six years to the day of Jonathan Corrie's death. The scandal of street homelessness and rough sleeping must be dealt with and it needs to happen soon.

Today is International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and it marks the start of the 16-day campaign against domestic and gender-based violence. It is an annual campaign, as the Taoiseach knows. I and others a stand up in this Chamber year after year and we recite the statistics that attempt to capture the horrific abuse and violence to which so many women and children are subjected. I have no doubt that everyone in the Dáil gets angry when they hear the heartbreaking stories of women who have been battered and emotionally broken by the violence inflicted upon them. The physical scars and bruises are all too apparent signposts of the trauma experienced, often on a daily basis. The mental suffering, the theft of victims' dignity, confidence and sense of safety is less obvious but it frequently runs deeper. The fear cast by domestic violence, by every beating, every insult and every attempt to control and degrade is something that victims can overcome, but the shadow of abuse is something they carry with them for the rest of their lives.

It is time to face up to the fact that we have a real problem with domestic and gender-based violence in Ireland. It is time for the political system and Government to move past whatever unease they have about owning up to this fact. Violence against women and abuse behind closed doors and drawn curtains is at epidemic levels. The truth is that successive Governments have failed women and children who have been caught up in the horror of this abuse and until a Government confronts this problem with the honesty and the determination that it demands, too many of the cries for help from abused women will go unanswered and unheard. The domestic violence support services providers in Ireland do remarkable work, despite the fact that they have been underfunded for decades but while the abused women battled to survive the impact of the violence against them, these service providers have been battling for resources, funding and proper support from Government. I struggle to find words to express my anger about how this issue has been swept under the carpet for years. It is time our problem with domestic and gender-based violence was brought out into the open so that we can finally deliver policies, supports and the funding necessary to tackle it head on.

I welcome that emergency funding is provided to help services meet Covid-19-related costs; I am very glad the Taoiseach responded to that call. This will help with the immediate Covid challenge. However, we must discuss and deal with the chronic lack of refuge places for women who need to escape the violence, the abuse and the coercive control. Between March and June of this year, 1,351 requests for refuge went unmet because the services were full. Nine counties have no refuge provision at all and this is a scandal. We know that incidents of domestic violence and abuse increase over the Christmas period. Victims, their children and the services they rely on will face a very bleak picture in 2021 if the Government does not act. I, therefore, ask the Taoiseach on this day if he will now commit to ensuring the refuge shortages across the state are urgently addressed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I share in the Deputy's expression of sympathies to the family and friends of the homeless individual who passed away. I also convey to the House my deep sadness at the passing of Trish Carrick, whom we lately honoured and spoke of. I offer her husband Damien and children Ciarán, Ríoghna, Sorcha and Eoin our sincere sympathies.

The programme for Government is very clear and has a very strong commitment to developing the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. There can be no toleration for violence against women in our society. We must do everything we possibly can to assist and support women and families who are the victims of unacceptable violence, aggression and control. We have provided additional resources in the most recent budget to An Garda Síochána, Tusla and other services that support women who have been victims of violence, and we will continue to do that. The Minister for Justice is currently undertaking an audit of all services in this area, which is an area all three Government parties want to prioritise. I assure the Deputy that if she wishes to engage with the Government on the areas or the specific locations where additional funding is required, I will ensure that a response will occur in that regard. Particular funding has been given to Tusla in the budget to deal with the Covid-19 impact. We were particularly concerned about the elevation to level 5 following the experience of the first phase of the lockdown and its impact in the form of increased domestic violence. There was approximately €2 million in addition to approximately €25.3 million that had been allocated to these services for the entirety of 2020.

The Deputy identified an important point about culture and the importance of ensuring within society at large that Ireland makes it very clear that, as a society, there can be absolutely no toleration whatsoever for gender-based violence. We must be absolute about that and then, through education and through a variety of fora, make sure that is clear. We must then ensure that the adequate supports are available so that people can be freed and be enabled to leave that coercive control and situations of violence, safe in the knowledge that there is a pathway out of that experience that, unfortunately, too many in our society have had over the years. Across various Departments, we want to do everything we possibly can to help victims or anybody who is at risk of domestic or sexual abuse. We will continue to be available to help in that regard and provide the necessary supports, and also to strategically deal with this in an effective and comprehensive way.

I too wish to send our sympathies and regards to Damien Carrick on the loss of Trish, a wonderful and courageous woman.

The Taoiseach says there must be no toleration of violence against women and children in our society but the facts are that there is such a tolerance. The Taoiseach says we must do everything we can but everything is not being done. The Taoiseach says we must provide all of the necessary resources and on that point we agree. That, however, is not helped by playing games with big figures such as pointing to the additional money that has been given to Tusla when he knows not one cent of that money has been ring-fenced for domestic violence services. I know there is an audit under way. That could be a really important and significant intervention in all of this but only-----

Thank you, Deputy.

-----if it means there is, finally, full transparency and honesty on this issue. The tolerance to this violence is a reality in Irish society and until we look that in the eye, until we resolve to do something about it on a consistent basis and until it is front and centre in government policy we will continue year on year with people like me and the Taoiseach-----

The time is up Deputy. The Taoiseach to conclude on this important matter.

-----standing up and bewailing this awful situation.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The programme for Government is very strong on this. It includes a number of relevant and key commitments, including the development of the third national strategy, which would place a priority on prevention and reduction and include a national preventative strategy. As I said, an immediate audit is to be conducted in terms of responsibility for this area across different Government agencies and Departments. The Government is committed to implementing a plan for a future refuge space and to investigate the provision of paid leave and social protection provision to victims of domestic violence and to learn from the experience of the coercive control model in the United Kingdom, including training for An Garda Síochána, legal professionals and Courts Service personnel to ensure there is clear understanding of the offence. The Government wants to legislate to introduce domestic homicide reviews, update the Sex Offenders Act 2001 to ensure convicted sex offenders are effectively managed and monitored, enact a harassment and harmful communications Bill, which the Minister has been speaking about, to outlaw image-based sexual abuse and to prevent abusive sharing of intimate images online and, crucially, to implement the findings of the O'Malley review of supports for vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases to support victims.

There are reports that girls in Presentation College Carlow have been told not to wear leggings to school because they are too revealing of their bodies and make teachers uncomfortable. I understand the principal was on the radio this morning to challenge the reports. Clearly, young people, male and female, in the school are very upset and believe that something very wrong happened here. There must be no place for victim blaming or body shaming in our schools and I ask that the Department investigates this matter further.

Women and girls in our society have to put up with crap all their lives. Last week, we saw sexual abuse on a grand scale with the mass sharing of intimate images online without consent. This morning, researchers in Trinity and Maynooth tell us one in five Irish women have experienced rape. Today is the UN's international day for the elimination of violence against women. Globally, each year as many women of reproductive age die from male violence as die from cancer. More suffer ill health as a result of this violence than suffer ill health from all of the traffic accidents and malaria cases in the world combined. The programme for Government describes sexual violence as an epidemic in our society. It has worsened in the Covid era and is now widely described as the shadow pandemic. I put it to the Taoiseach that he is not tackling it in the way he would tackle either an epidemic or a pandemic. With the pandemic the Government put society on a war footing. It organised lockdowns. The message to mask up, socially distance and wash our hands comes at us every day, and rightly so, from radio, television and the press. With the epidemic of sexual violence where are the emergency measures? The Taoiseach will commission a report here and a speech is made there and a few million euro is thrown at the problem from time to time.

Gender-based violence and sexism are systemic issues. To a greater or lesser degree, all of the institutions of the State and others are laced through with sexism. Mass feminist movements from Chile to Spain and from Poland to Peru are putting the system in the dock and pointing the finger at the establishment and the state. These movements offer real hope for the future. Two years ago, eight months after the Belfast rape trial and at the time of the Cork rape trial, my colleague, Ruth Coppinger, held up a thong in the Dáil in protest at a woman's clothing being used as evidence in a rape case. Two years on, I will conclude by asking the following questions. Will the Taoiseach support the establishment of a task force on gender-based violence, staff it with survivors, advocates and women who work in the sector, set aside a very healthy budget and pledge to implement its proposals? When will the Taoiseach act to stop victim blaming in the courts? When will he act to stop rape myths being used in trials? When will consent be made the central issue in rape cases?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. In relation to the Presentation Secondary School in Carlow, I did not hear the interview this morning but I agree with the Deputy that there is no place for victim shaming in any context and the Department of Education and the Minister will clearly receive a report on it. If the principal is challenging the report of what we read in the media, in fairness to the House we have to seek out the full facts before passing commentary on it.

In terms of the broader issue, the Deputy summed it up when he said gender based violence and sexism are systemic. This is why it requires a systemic response. It cannot just be a response for six weeks or six months. Our response has to be truly systemic throughout our society. It has to be based on fundamental human values of respect for one another, for the dignity of the human person and for the most basic of human values. Those basic human values, particularly not to injure others and not in any shape or form ever raise a hand or engage in violence towards a woman, are something that were ingrained in earlier years. It is wrong and it is horrific that the level of violence is as it is. We know from various reports on abuse itself that it has been systemic and it needs a systemic response. It needs constant engagement at all levels of society from the earliest ages in terms of inculcating basic values of respect, toleration and understanding the dignity of the human being and that certain actions are never right in any circumstance.

In my earlier response to Deputy McDonald, I outlined the Government's broad range of commitments. The implementation of the O'Malley report is very important. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, is very committed to this area and is acting on a number of fronts, not least the legislation to be brought in on the sharing of intimate images.

The Labour Party did that.

Let us not have a row about something that is important and good. We should press ahead and do it. Also in terms of the O'Malley report, the Minister has already brought it to Cabinet and published it and is determined to take action and deal with this. In accordance with the commitments in the programme for the Government we are determined to do it.

In terms of the scale and horror of this issue, Mary Crilly from the sexual violence centre in Cork recently said:

I have yet to meet a homeless woman who hasn't been raped. They tend to say "I've lost count of the number of times that I've been raped."

I welcome the fact there is to be a pilot scheme in Cork to provide a refuge for homeless rape victims but I ask the Taoiseach what is the timescale for this initiative to come to fruition. In all of Cork city and county there is one refuge for families who are victims of gender-based violence. There is space for six families there but it had to be restricted to two families during Covid. This is a sign of the scale of the failure of the Government and the State and the lack of investment in this issue. I listened to the Taoiseach when he said the Department of Education will clearly receive a report on the events in the school in Carlow. I ask him to comment that the Department will not just receive a report from the school authorities but will seek the views, opinions and experiences of the students themselves on this issue.

I recently met Mary Crilly from the Cork Rape Crisis Centre and I have had long engagement with her through her extraordinary work over the years on behalf of rape victims. When I was Minister for Health and Children, we were involved in setting up the first forensic sexual violence centre in the South Infirmary Victoria University Hospital in Cork.

Mary Crilly is a tireless worker. I met Mary Crilly, Caitriona Twomey and Lavinia Kerwick at Cork Penny Dinners recently to discuss the phenomenon of the rape of homeless women and men. It was quite a shocking story that they had to tell. They have come forward with an idea around developing a pilot project to help the homeless and to protect the homeless from sexual violence and rape. I said I felt that was a very good idea and that I would pursue it with them and with the homeless authorities, and that the local authority and the HSE would have to be involved. I said we would take a co-ordinated approach to dealing with this issue and then see if a model could be developed that could then be rolled out across the country. Given the evidence they brought forward to us, it is an issue that merits that consideration, although it will take a bit of time to get that up and running and to get it right.

I would like to focus my questions on Ireland’s air-sea rescue capability. It was a service that was provided exclusively by the Irish Air Corps for decades up to the year 2002, when it was handed over and outsourced to a private company. Most members of the public will be familiar with the large red and white helicopters that sometimes fly overhead. What they may not be aware of is that these helicopters are not owned by the Irish Coast Guard, nor are they even owned by the State. They are owned and operated by a foreign private helicopter company which is on a very lucrative contract from the Irish taxpayer. When I say “lucrative”, I am talking about €600 million over a ten-year period, or €5 million a month, if one wants to look at it from that perspective. Not only is the contract very expensive, it is also finite in time. At the end of the ten-year period, Ireland is left with absolutely nothing. The helicopters will be taken away and we will have to go back to scratch to retender the contract again for another ten years.

The reason I am bringing this up today and the reason it is so pertinent is that the process to renegotiate a new ten-year contract from 2023 onwards is shortly to get under way. It is estimated that approximately €1 billion will be used to provide this contract over the next ten years, which is the financial equivalent of half of a national children's hospital, so that is the scale of the project currently taking place.

I raised this matter on budget day in October. I have been very heartened and encouraged by all of the Deputies who have supported what I have said. These are Deputies from all across the political divide, on both sides of the Chamber. It is clear there is now an appetite to re-examine a better, optimum model of delivery which would provide better value for money for the Irish taxpayer but also, crucially, provide a more sustainable and more sovereign service for the country. That is something the country deserves. For example, we do not outsource policing in Dublin city to a private security firm; we resource An Garda Síochána to provide that policing capability on our behalf. Rather than funding a foreign private helicopter company to run a service for a fixed and finite period of time, would it not make more sense to invest that money in the Irish Air Corps to provide a more sustained and sovereign service into the future? At the end of the ten years, Ireland would still own the helicopters and we would not have to retender the contract after ten years.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. There is currently a project under the remit of the Department of Transport to consider development of a new marine search and rescue, SAR, aviation contract for future service provision, as the Deputy has outlined. The Deputy has been fair in saying the provision of search and rescue aviation services in Ireland has, to a great extent, involved a mix of private provision since the 1980s, and has been fully provided on a 24-7 basis by a private entity since 2004, with the Air Corps providing support, including top cover support, to the Coast Guard on an “as available” basis.

As part of this ongoing project, a preliminary appraisal of service provider options ruled out the option of either the Air Corps or the Coast Guard taking full responsibility for SAR aviation services in Ireland at that stage. However, given its historical role in the area, the Government would like to explore further the option of the Air Corps providing some element of the aviation services. I know the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has asked his officials to engage with the Department of Transport to explore this matter further and that is part of the detailed appraisal of SAR service provider options.

It is important we get this right for everyone. As the Deputy said, there is considerable State funding at play here and the provision of a life-saving service is the ultimate aim of all concerned. The next step in the process will be to bring a detailed business case to Government early next year, with an appraisal of the viable options and a recommendation on the way forward to delivering this service and the procurement strategy to achieve it. The Department of Defence and the Department of Transport are liaising closely on this. Both the Naval Service and the Air Corps currently provide support to the Coast Guard on an “as available” basis and that will continue. It is a valuable role. I will engage with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Ryan, and the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, on this issue. There is still time to develop the best option.

I am conscious there has been a need for increased and ongoing investment in the Air Corps and also the retention of personnel. However, there has been significant investment in equipment and personnel. The replacement of the Air Corps Cessna fleet, as provided for in the White Paper, with three larger aircraft, which are equipped for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance, has been completed. These aircraft, which cost just over €43 million, are now operational. In March, a fourth PC-12 NG aircraft was purchased to provide very immediate additional fixed-wing capacity to meet the unique situation arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. The White Paper also provides for the replacement of the CASA 235s with larger, more capable aircraft, which would enhance maritime surveillance and provide a greater degree of utility for transport and cargo carrying tasks. A contract for the supply of two C295 maritime patrol aircraft was entered into with Airbus Defence and Space in December 2019. The cost of the contract, including equipment fit-out and ancillary support, was approximately €221 million and the aircraft are scheduled for delivery in 2023.

In terms of personnel, a service commitments scheme for pilots was sanctioned by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and implemented in the third quarter of 2019, which has had a stabilising effect on numbers. Other measures, such as a recommissioning scheme for former Air Corps pilots, have also boosted pilot numbers, and a range of initiatives which will see accelerated training through outsourcing is restoring capacity to the Air Corps as quickly as possible.

I thank the Taoiseach for that very useful response. I fully appreciate, like everybody in the Chamber, that there is huge demand on the Taoiseach’s time currently. I also understand that he gets the occasional direct flight from Baldonnel airbase directly to Brussels, which is completely appropriate given his status as Taoiseach. Would he consider arriving an hour before his flight sometime early in the new year so he could visit the helicopter wing in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel, which is only a couple of hundred metres away? He could discuss this matter with the crews on the ground and see for himself the facilities, aircraft and equipment that are available, and get a sense of the tools and talent that are already available within the public service before we choose to outsource it to a private operator.

In these Covid times, it has been very occasional. That is a very good idea. I will certainly avail of that opportunity to visit and see at first hand the helicopters, the equipment and the various facilities that are available in Baldonnel, and I will ask for that to be facilitated. I will take the Deputy up on that suggestion, which is a good idea.

For eight months now the State has been dealing with the threat posed by Covid-19. We are rightly told to follow the science, but science is empirical and it is based on data. I am concerned by the lack of published data. Peer review and transparency are central to any scientific response. I want to focus in particular on the data on mental health. The National Self-Harm Registry Ireland in Cork ceased functioning for the duration of the first lockdown.

At the end of August, it started to collect data again, both prospectively and retrospectively, but at the time of the second lockdown there were no data available in respect of the first. However, we were told that the national clinical programme for the assessment and management of persons presenting to emergency departments following self-harm - that is quite a mouthful - which is run by the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland and the HSE, was collecting data throughout the duration of the first lockdown. Where are those data? Has they been collated? At the time we were announcing the second lockdown and this Dáil was voting to facilitate it, I was standing where I am now when the Minister of State, Deputy Mary Butler, told me I would be provided with those data. I have not yet been provided with them and I have not managed to obtain them. The collection of those data is publicly funded. It is in the public interest that these HSE and College of Psychiatrists of Ireland programme data be collected. The programme is funded by the public so surely those data should be in the public domain to inform this House and the Government on the measures they take.

Yesterday, the Tánaiste talked about a third lockdown. We cannot go into a third lockdown without at least knowing the impact of the first one on mental health. I do not know whether those data are available. I am told they are but they may not be collated. If they are not collated, they are of no benefit because we cannot consider the impact of data that have not been collated. Will the Taoiseach commit to publishing those data? There is a broader issue regarding publishing the data and evidence available to NPHET to ensure that they are transparent and can be peer reviewed. That is not to undermine NPHET. Peer review, whether regarding the development of a vaccine or any medical or scientific response, is central and we cannot do that without the transparent publication of data, modelling codes and evidence.

Data are extremely important in terms of the entire experience of Covid-19 and learning from the first lockdown, which we did, and then informing the experiences of different phases of Covid. For example, coming out of the first phase when the country reopened and cases began to rise again during the August and September period, we brought in a team from the HSE, commissioning EY, to look at all of that detail with greater analytical tools and to identify where outbreaks happened and what was the correlation, what were the events and what were the combined circumstances that gave rise to spikes across the country. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre, HPSC, the HSE, the Department of Health, the Central Statistics Office and other Departments - the Deputy referenced the Department of Health - including the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform, Social Protection and Justice, have all been inputting into the assessment and the impacts Covid has had on the different sectors of society. That will inform how we exit level 5. We are learning all of the time. We will publish those data and make them available to give people some understanding as to why we are arriving at particular decisions in respect of how we exit level 5. I have already identified some areas that have been of concern that emanated from those particular data. For example, in this phase we kept the schools and construction open. In the future, the Deputy can take it that we would do things differently from how we did them even during level 5 and from the first phase. We are learning all the time.

On mental health, there are two sources of figures on self-harm, the hospitals and clinical programmes. Hospitals could not report for a period of time due to Covid but reporting on statistics continued throughout Covid through the clinical programmes. I will qualify what I say here because we need more data and comprehensive research on this, but at the moment the data from the clinical programmes show that there is no evidence of an increase in self-harm as the figures are broadly similar to those for the same period last year. I put a caveat on that until I am satisfied that there is a full, comprehensive analysis of all the data.

With regard to suicides, there is a time lag as it has to be determined by the coroner. However, a real-time local study of suicide incidence in Cork shows no significant increase on the 2019 figures. Interestingly, a study on suicide in England found no evidence of a large national rise in post-lockdown suicide compared with previous lockdown suicides. It is an area that will continue to receive our attention.

I thank the Taoiseach. I greatly welcome his commitment to publishing data. I note that Ernst & Young have been brought in to crunch data. If those data are provided by the State or an organ of the State and collected with public moneys, they should also be made available. The most important point is the evidence and data available to NPHET, and the modelling code. Information about the code has been published but I am told by statisticians, and I am not a statistician, that it is not enough to do a comparison.

To return to the mental health data, I note the Taoiseach says there are data available. Will the Government publish the data that were available to it in the middle of October? The Taoiseach says the data are not complete but what was and was not available? We need to know that in a democracy. Will the Taoiseach commit to publishing that information? I am not asking him to get a lot of information. What information was available to the Government at the time and will he publish it by the end of this week or at least by this day next week? Also, has any study been done on the impact of the mental health tribunals? We have changed how they operate. Has there been any study into the impact of the change in the way they operate on those who are affected, that is, those who are involuntarily detained?

Recently, at a Cabinet sub-committee meeting, the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Mary Butler, presented a comprehensive report on mental health services generally but also in respect of the impact of Covid. Generally speaking, services have been maintained at 90% or 95% throughout the Covid period, which is a great credit to all of the professionals and staff involved. Very significant additional funding has been secured by the Minister of State for the mental health budget. Following that meeting, we briefed the Deputy at a leaders' briefing meeting in respect of the information we had.

I am still waiting for that information.

I am giving it to the Deputy now. The information had come from the National Office for Suicide Prevention, which is located in Cork. We will publish any data we have and send it to the Deputy. I have no difficulty with that. All data should be published. Data are there to inform public policy and public commentary, so I have no issue with that. That was the presentation made by the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, at that Cabinet sub-committee meeting.