Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Crime Prevention

Colm Burke

Question:

6. Deputy Colm Burke asked the Minister for Justice her plans to deal with white-collar crime including the resourcing of State agencies; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41561/20]

I congratulate the Minister and wish her well over the next number of months. My question relates to dealing with white-collar crime and the plans the Minister has to resource State agencies and the Garda Síochána properly to deal with this growing issue.

I am strongly committed to tackling all forms of corruption and white-collar crime. The Deputy will be aware that last week I announced my intention to lead a new cross-Government plan to tackle these issues, following publication of the Review of Structures and Strategies to Prevent, Investigate and Penalise Economic Crime and Corruption. I intend to publish and start to implement an action plan to tackle economic crime and corruption early in the new year, which I have secured Government approval to do. I thank the former Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, Mr. James Hamilton, and the members of his review group for their meticulous work in preparing this detailed report, on which I am determined to act.

Corruption and white-collar crime damage our economy, breed cynicism in our society and are a threat to our international reputation. As noted in the detailed report recently published, Ireland is a relatively small country with a population approaching 5 million. However, Ireland is listed as the fifth largest provider of wholesale financial services in the EU, with more than 400 international financial institutions located here and almost 100,000 people working in the sector. The State and its agencies must have all the powers available to clamp down on and prevent this type of crime. Ireland has a hard-won reputation as an attractive destination for foreign direct investment and as an international business hub and stepping up our efforts to tackle white-collar crime shows we are serious about maintaining and building that reputation. Businesses large and small must be confident they can operate safely and securely, particularly as more economic activity goes online. This trend has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is not just about businesses. Consumers should know they can safely pay their bills and shop online and that they will not be subject to the threat of fraud.

The recommendations in the Hamilton review focus primarily on legislative and structural change and resourcing measures to enhance agency and multi-agency enforcement, as well as increasing capacity across the criminal justice system to prevent this crime. Examples of the recommendations include greater powers for investigating agencies to tackle economic crime and corruption, the establishment of an advisory council against economic crime and corruption, reform of the Ethics Acts and additional resourcing for the Standards in Public Office Commission, SIPO, the DPP and the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The programme for Government recognises the reputational and economic damage that corruption and white-collar crime can cause to the State and commits the Government to introduce and implement new anti-fraud and anti-corruption structures. The development of our new plan to tackle economic crime and corruption will be informed by the recommendations of the Hamilton review. Work has already begun across Government to develop this action plan, which will set clear timelines for the introduction of a series of reforms to strengthen the State’s capacity to prevent and prosecute white-collar crime.

I am committed to ensuring that the Garda has the resources, both in terms of people and technology, to combat all forms of crime. An Garda Síochána has been allocated an unprecedented budget of €1.952 billion for 2021. This level of funding is enabling sustained ongoing recruitment of Garda members and staff as well as driving significant developments in ICT. The Garda National Economic Crime Bureau, GNECB, is the main bureau of An Garda Síochána tasked with tackling economic crime. The bureau operates on a national basis and provides specialist support and guidance to regional investigators. There are currently competitions under way to strengthen the staffing levels in the GNECB’s financial intelligence unit and the GNECB itself as well as the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. This includes 11 new permanent detective sergeants who are due to be allocated to the GNECB this month, with additional resources expected in 2021.

I can also advise the Deputy that there have been a number of significant steps taken in recent years to strengthen the State’s ability to tackle corruption and related activities. In particular, the Criminal Justice (Corruption Offences) Act 2018 is very important legislation in the fight against corruption, both in Ireland and abroad. Further information relating to the Act and the Government’s cross-departmental approach to tackling corruption and bribery can be found on www.anticorruption.ie.

While I welcome the Minister's statement on this matter, a recent RTÉ programme outlined where over €8 million was taken from people over a number of years, but it is only in the last two to three years that a successful prosecution was brought. That is what concerns people, that something has gone on for ten to 15 years with little or no action taken and a reluctance or inability to be able to bring a successful prosecution during that period. One of the issues is whether we have a sufficient number of people with the expertise, especially in the area of forensic accounting. Perhaps the Minister will outline if additional people will be recruited to deal with that area, so we can deal with white-collar crime in an efficient and timely manner.

This is the reason we asked Mr. James Hamilton and those who worked with him to produce this report. It was to identify ways in which we can support the different agencies. This report will be implemented not just by my Department but also the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, working with An Garda Síochána, the Central Bank, SIPO and many other agencies. This is about ensuring we have everybody working and talking together and putting it on a more permanent footing. While there has been good engagement between the different agencies, to put it on a statutory footing and to have an annual report or plan which people have to stick to and which has a timeline will put more emphasis on this.

One could split a significant part of the recommendation into three - structural change, resourcing measures and legislation. The report found that most of the agencies were well resourced, but there was a lag when it came to the Garda National Economic Crime Bureau. There are currently ongoing competitions to fill a number of new places and I hope this will ensure there are the relevant and exact competencies that are required in An Garda Síochána to follow up on these cases.

I thank the Minister. I hope we do not have to look at a repeat programme like the one broadcast on RTÉ recently. The sum of €8 million disappeared and action was taken only at a very late stage. I hope we do not see that in future.

Unfortunately, I have not seen the programme yet, but I will watch it over the weekend. I have read much of what was in the report. What is important here from a justice point of view is that the Garda has the capabilities and, in the same way as was outlined in the previous question, that the legislation is in place to ensure that it can do its work, and that it has the numbers to make sure it can carry out the physical investigations and the right level of expertise. We have a number of recommendations specifically relating to that. There are two recommendations on new legislation that is required but, thankfully, drafting is under way in the Department. The largest is a community policing Bill, which will underpin all of the new structures within An Garda Síochána. There are also recommendations on being able to detain and question people for longer, as well as recommendations on resourcing. While some of what is required is in train, more of it is new and we will get to work on that. I hope to introduce an implementation plan early in the new year and we will act on that. This is a very serious issue that impacts on many people's lives. It is important that all of the relevant authorities have the capability to deal with this so that we do not hear of any more cases such as the one Deputy Burke outlined.

The next questions are in the names of Deputies Gary Gannon, Neale Richmond, Niamh Smyth, Bríd Smith, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Éamon Ó Cuív and Brendan Griffin. I understand committee meetings are taking place and it is difficult for Members to be present, although Deputy Murnane O'Connor was present but has stepped out. Deputies should make arrangements with the Ceann Comhairle's office for their questions to be taken. Has that been done?

I understand it has.

Question No. 7 answered with Written Answers.

I thank the Deputy. We will move on to Question No. 14 as Deputy O'Sullivan is present..

Domestic Violence

Pádraig O'Sullivan

Question:

14. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Justice the actions she will take to address the rising levels of domestic violence in County Cork; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42423/20]

We know there has been a spike in domestic violence in recent months. It appears the public health measures have, unfortunately, created circumstances in which violence can prosper and spread. What action has the Government taken to address this in my constituency of Cork North-Central?

Since my appointment as Minister, I have significantly prioritised tackling domestic abuse and supporting victims. I assure the Deputy that I am working collectively with my colleagues and with our partners to address the immediate needs of victims of domestic abuse and, going forward, to put in place a system designed and built around their needs.

With regard to his specific question about measures to combat increased incidents of domestic abuse in Cork, as I have said, our collective approach is a national one, but this includes working to make sure appropriate supports are in place for victims wherever they live. I will refer later in my response to Cork in more detail.

I am committed to supporting victims in the short term, including by addressing the challenges presented by the pandemic, and also to introducing an improved and comprehensive approach to providing the services that victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence need. Together with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, I will meet with Safe Ireland in the coming week and we will meet on a continuous basis to try to address many of the concerns it has raised.

I have published and started implementing Supporting A Victim's Journey, which includes the actions necessary for the full implementation of the 52 O'Malley recommendations. This will introduce very real supports and protections for vulnerable victims and witnesses. The update I received yesterday from the implementation oversight group, which I chair, is testament to the real determination of all those involved to meet the ambitious targets set out in the implementation plan.

I referred to the audit of services to be completed by the end of the March and to the review of the second national strategy for combatting domestic sexual and gender-based violence, which will inform the design of the third strategy.

I have also referred to the proactive approach taken by my Department since the start of the pandemic and to the Covid-specific funding provided. I draw attention to the Still Here public awareness campaign run by my Department in partnership with public sector organisations and NGOs. This campaign is about getting the message out that services continue to be available to victims of domestic abuse and that the travel restrictions do not apply to victims seeking help. This is a message worth repeating at every opportunity. I urge anyone who is a victim of domestic abuse to reach out for help when it is safe to do so, because the front-line services will support people and prioritise their case.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

An Garda Síochána continues to attach the highest priority to domestic abuse through Operation Faoiseamh. As part of their work to prioritise domestic abuse cases the Legal Aid Board established a helpline to ensure victims of domestic abuse get legal advice and representation where required and the Court Service is facilitating remote hearings for protective orders for those who cannot travel.

I understand that the Cork divisional protective services unit was launched on 4 August as part of the national roll-out and I am sure, like me, the Deputy welcomes this specialist approach to ensuring vulnerable victims are consistently met with the highest standard of specialist professional and sensitive expertise.

There were 19,344 domestic abuse incident reports in the period from 12 March 2019 to 3 November 2019. This year, from 12 March to 3 November 2020, there was a total of 22,540 reported incidents. That is an increase of more than 3,000 cases. There have been 217 prosecutions for domestic violence during the pandemic. It is vital that the Government does everything in its power to address the matter. It is welcome that a number of initiatives have been undertaken, both by the Government and An Garda Síochána, in recent weeks. Operation Faoiseamh in particular ensures that gardaí on the ground are working to address the issue. The Garda has made more than 15,300 contacts or attempted contacts to victims of domestic abuse as part of this operation. While much is being done to ensure that people are aware of the supports that are available, it is, unfortunately, the case that there are gaps, which need to be addressed. One of those gaps is the access to refuge places. I understand that the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is also involved in this area. The issue must be addressed. Could the Minister provide an update on when we can expect to see action to improve the provision of places?

As the Deputy outlined, that work is happening in the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman and his team are currently undertaking an audit, which is due to be completed early in the new year. It is about much more than just bed spaces; it is about ensuring the appropriate services are there and that people in State agencies are working together with the community and voluntary sector.

Unfortunately, the figures are not specific to Cork, as we have seen an increase everywhere. The increase for 2020 compared to 2019 is 14%. If we break down the figures for Cork north, there was a 15% increase in incidents, Cork city had the largest number of incidents and Cork west saw a 20% increase in incidents. It is very clear that this has become even more of a problem than it already was. As Deputy O'Sullivan outlined, significant work has been done by An Garda Síochána's Operation Faoiseamh. There have been 217 prosecutions specifically in this area, 20,699 contacts or attempts to contact victims and 110 prosecutions have commenced, so a significant amount of work is under way by An Garda Síochána in Cork to try to deal with this problem.

It is welcome that a review is under way on refuge spaces. Could the Minister clarify when the review is expected to conclude? Domestic violence is often discussed in the overall context of gender-based violence, but it is broader than that. We know that men are also victims. We also know that child-parent domestic abuse is an issue. I am concerned about the lack of availability of refuge spaces for men within the system. It appears that there is no current research on the need for such places. It stands to reason that there may be an unmet demand that is not being addressed. Is the Department willing to consider the development of male refuge places alongside addressing the need for additional spaces throughout the system?

This is not within the remit of my Department, but my understanding is that the review will be concluded in the new year. I think the timeline that has been set is for it to be done by April. A suite of different actions are being taken at the moment. We have the audit to look at all of the different Departments and services and the support that they provide and how we can put in place a much better structure to make sure that we can drive the implementation of services and bring about much-needed change in this area. We will have the implementation of the review of the second national strategy, which will then feed into the third strategy. The implementation group is working on Supporting A Victim's Journey, which is very specific to people who have been victims of sexual violence and are going through the courts process. As well as that, there is a significant amount of engagement happening. I mentioned meeting with Safe Ireland. I met with countless community and voluntary groups. It is important that we can support them in the work that they are doing. We are currently looking at how we can fund groups in a much better way, as part of the implementation of the O'Malley recommendations. We are considering providing funding for perhaps two or three years so that they can plan ahead and put in place the supports and services. That is something that has been missing. Lots of different actions are taking place and we need all of it to come together because there is a significant amount of work still to do. I am fully committed to that and I know the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, is also committed to that.

I understand Deputy Colm Burke is taking the next question.

Crime Prevention

Neale Richmond

Question:

8. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Minister for Justice the steps she has taken to tackle the rising incidence of knife crime and seizures of knives in communities across Ireland; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41547/20]

I raise the matter of tackling rising incidence of knife crime and the seizure of knives in communities across Ireland. Will the Minister outline the plans that are in place to deal with this and the changes that will be put in place to tackle this growing problem?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter and I share his concern about knife crime and all violent assaults. We are familiar with the problems in neighbouring jurisdictions in this regard and the Government is determined to ensure that similar problems do not develop in Ireland, particularly as any stabbing incident has the potential to cause irreparable physical harm or tragic consequences. This is why a comprehensive and robust legal framework is in place for offences involving knives, including heavy maximum penalties. Under the provisions of the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, the maximum penalty on conviction for possessing a knife in a public place without good reason or lawful authority was increased from one to five years. An Garda Síochána also has an extended power of search without warrant relating to knives and offensive weapons.

Proactive policing measures such as person searches have increased by 76% this year, leading to an increase in the number of seizures. I am advised that the Garda has secured a substantial number of convictions in the courts in recent years for possession of knives or other weapons. As one might expect, statistics on seizures of knives by gardaí in the period from 2005 to 2019 indicate that 44% of seizures relate to individuals between the ages of 12 and 23 and 65% relate to individuals under the age of 30. In addition, it would be expected that as Garda numbers increase, the enforcement numbers for crimes such as possession of weapons or possession of drugs would also increase.

I welcome the reply. The figures I have received indicate a 10% increase in hospitalisation cases arising from knife crimes such as stabbings over the past two years. It is also my understanding that in 2019 over 2,000 knives were seized by gardaí but it is interesting that in the first six months of 2020, part of which involved the Covid-19 lockdown, there were 1,200 knives seized, an increase of 13%. This is of concern to me and my colleagues. My understanding is that in other jurisdictions, major programmes have been put in place to deal with this issue. In Scotland, for example, a major programme was implemented to deal with knife crime that has contributed to a reduction of over 50% in homicides arising from people using knives. Could we aim such a programme at young people and community groups in order to help get the message across on the use of knives?

The increase in knife seizures comes as a result of greater targeted efforts by An Garda Síochána in trying to get knives off our streets as opposed to indicating an increase in crime rates. As I stated, the number of people requiring an overnight stay in hospital because of knife injuries is down significantly, indicating that the number of serious incidents is reducing. I will make inquiries on the Deputy's comment that the rate of hospitalisations has increased by 10%.

Knife crime is largely youth-oriented and we have published a draft youth strategy. We hope to refine it and have it published in final form in the next month or two. That will help to target those vulnerable young people who are exposed to knife crime and perhaps getting involved in those kinds of incidents. It is about redirecting them and education and awareness programmes will be very much part of that process.

I thank the Minister of State. It is important that I acknowledge the work being done by gardaí and all the youth organisations in dealing with the matter. They are contributing to the efforts to deal with the problem.

I thank the Deputy for his contributions. I will certainly bring his concerns to the attention of the Department and An Garda Síochána.

Family Support Services

Niamh Smyth

Question:

9. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Justice if she will address the issue of parent alienation; if her attention has been drawn to this issue; her plans to address same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42208/20]

I hope that the Minister will address the question of parental alienation, which is arising more and more in family courts and the Courts Service as a whole. Will she outline how the Department will deal with it?

We need an overhaul of the operation of the family justice system to ensure that it becomes more efficient, that our courts are more family-friendly and that we put the family at the centre of all the work done.

I am very much aware of the concerns that the Deputy has raised about parental alienation. This is a very complex area and, like her, I have met many people who have raised concerns about it. This is something I want to consider as part of our wider programme of family law reform. I intend to arrange for research to be carried out by my Department early next year on this. Changing the legislation is not the only option and there may be other appropriate interventions that need to be done at an earlier stage to deal with different types of behaviours. The best interests of the child will of course be paramount in any considerations, whether they relate to legislative change or other types of measures to try to work with and support families.

A family justice oversight group has recently been established in my Department. In addition to officials, the membership of this group also includes representation from the Judiciary, the Courts Service, the Legal Aid Board and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. The group held its first meeting in September and has been tasked with driving progress on the development of a national family justice system. This is a high-level group that will co-ordinate the delivery of the various elements of this project and I will meet the group again in the morning.

The Oireachtas joint committee recommended that consideration should be given as to whether laws should be amended to take into account cases where one parent is wrongly influencing a child or children against the other parent. The family oversight group that has been established will consider this recommendation, as well as others, and it will also consider the research being commissioned by my Department in the new year.

A family court Bill is being drafted, following approval of the general scheme by the Government. The family court Bill is a commitment in the programme for Government and when enacted it will be a key element in the development of a more efficient and family-friendly court system that puts families at the centre of its activities, providing access to specialist supports and encouraging, in a most important way, the use of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings. The development of a comprehensive and sensible family law procedure, particularly for vulnerable families, will be central to this new system.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

In the preparation of the general scheme of the family court Bill, account has been taken of the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, which published its report on reform of the family law system just a year ago.

There is no specific legislative provision regarding parental alienation in Irish family law but section 246 of the Children Act 2001 provides for an offence of frightening, bullying or threatening a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to the child's physical, mental or emotional health or well-being. There are also legislative provisions in place to deal with child welfare, particularly regarding the relationship between a child and his or her parents or guardians, providing the framework for a legal response to a wide spectrum of child welfare issues.

Parental alienation is probably one of the most severe forms of emotional abuse. Last May, the World Health Organization officially recognised parental alienation syndrome for the first time, deciding to include it in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases, coming into effect in 2022.

When a couple splits and the people go their separate ways, it is so important that children born into the relationship do not become the collateral damage of a very acrimonious break-up. Our family court services must have in place resources and expertise to prevent the manipulation of one child or children to reject his or her father or mother, so will the Minister comment on that? Our justice system must ensure that one parent cannot wrongfully influence a child or children against the other parent and cause untold and permanent damage to a relationship. The parents who are at the receiving end of parental alienation may be deprived in many cases of seeing children for long periods so we must have supports to ensure that their mental health is catered for as well.

When any couple or family decides to separate, it is a difficult position, and when children are involved it can be even more difficult. This is particularly the case with the involvement of young children. We have all engaged and met with constituents and people who have gone through such difficult experiences. It is really important that the right supports are given to those families by agencies at a very early stage.

I have said that we must reform the family court structure and often when a case gets to court, the problem has gone too far and an adversarial scenario may have developed.

What we need to do is try to provide support at a much earlier stage and that is why there will be a much greater focus on mediation.

On parental alienation, the WHO guidance clearly states that incorporation of the description does not indicate WHO endorsement or any sort of formal recognition but the very fact that the WHO has mentioned it is obviously a signal. It is a very complex area, which is why more research is needed. It is something that I want to act on because there are undoubted problems here.

I hope that the review, negotiations and the work of the stakeholders involved will bear fruit for the parents who find themselves in acrimonious break-ups. I am delighted to hear that children will be first and centre in all of the mediations and discussions. As the Minister has quite rightly said, early intervention is key in preventing children from being isolated in the context of the wrongful influence of one parent against the other. I welcome the Minister's response and encourage her to move the process, engagement and round-table conversation with the stakeholders forward as quickly as possible. We must ensure that our family court services have the expertise at the table to deal with these situations and that the right supports are in place. Parents who are at the receiving end of parental alienation are undergoing untold mental health problems and supports must be put in place for them.

One of the things that has struck me at the last few meetings I have had on the development and modernisation of the family law system is that it is not just about new courts, judges or systems but also about making sure that ancillary supports are provided as well. We must ensure that it is not just the physical environment that is conducive to helping families to get through very difficult situations but that all of the supports are around them as well. As Deputy Smyth said, it is not just about going through the court system but also about making sure that support is provided during what can be a very traumatic time.

In terms of parental alienation, we must look at all avenues. Several countries have looked at the possibility of legislating in this area, including the UK. Indeed, it looked at it twice but both times decided against legislation. Brazil is one of the only countries in which parental alienation is a criminal offence. We need to look at this carefully. The upcoming research and review will look at what has been done in other jurisdictions, as well as the resources available to us now, the people we have in place, where they are working and how to make sure supports are provided to families, not just in terms of the physical built environment but also the structure of the court system itself.

Domestic Violence Services

Jennifer Murnane O'Connor

Question:

11. Deputy Jennifer Murnane O'Connor asked the Minister for Justice the actions she will take to address the rising levels of domestic violence in Carlow; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42420/20]

Christmas is fast approaching and it will be unlike any other. I ask the Minister to outline her plans to combat rising levels of domestic violence in Carlow. Will she be increasing supports for those seeking help in domestic violence situations? Specifically with regard to Christmas, what emergency plans are in place to keep services open? It is so important that services remain open for people experiencing domestic violence.

I thank Deputy Murnane O'Connor for her question. Regarding her query about measures taken to combat increased domestic abuse in Carlow, I will respond in more detail later but would emphasise that our collective approach is an all-encompassing national one and will continue thus.

There is no doubt that domestic abuse incidents have increased during the pandemic. We also know that services are going to come under increased pressure in the period leading up to the winter weeks and afterwards. In the first few months of the pandemic we had a full lockdown and it was only after society started to open up again that services started to see a massive increase in demand because people felt that they could actually seek help and that it would be available. In that context, we know that pressure is going to increase, which is why we have tried to make sure that additional funding was provided this year and in the budget for next year. This funding will support community and voluntary organisations, as well as An Garda Síochána and various State agencies. Additional resources, support, enforcement and services have been made available and domestic abuse cases are being prioritised by An Garda Síochána, the Courts Service and the Legal Aid Board. Covid-specific funding has been made available for this year and next.

I would like to assure the Deputy that we are not just looking at addressing immediate challenges but are also looking at how to improve services going forward. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman and I are anxious to have the input of partners working in this area and have been talking to various community and voluntary organisations, as well as stakeholders in various Departments because this is not just an issue for our respective Departments but also for the Departments of Social Protection, Housing, Local Government and Heritage and Education. We need to educate all of society about the issue of consent, what is acceptable and unacceptable, what to look out for and how to support people. We will deliver on the programme for Government commitment to audit how responsibility for this area is segmented. We will analyse the work done by various Departments and make sure that we have a functioning structure in place. Obviously, when there is a national structure in place, that disseminates down into individual counties and the work being done there. This provides better structures on a county by county basis. I will revert to the Deputy on County Carlow in my follow-up response.

Today marks the last day of a 16-day campaign highlighting domestic abuse and violence and is an appropriate time to reflect on the plans of the Department of Justice in this area. Evidence shows that women, children, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities and the elderly have been hit hardest by the pandemic and this has been compounded by a widespread increase in domestic violence. A core issue of concern is unreported incidents of domestic violence.

There has been a 25% increase in reports of domestic abuse in Carlow which is worrying and frightening. While I welcome the introduction of a resource officer and outreach from Amber Kilkenny Womens Refuge Project, which does great work, I must ask again about a women's refuge for Carlow. This is an enormous issue for me. Carlow should have its own refuge and I have been fighting for this for a long time. We also need to look at the issue of housing and how to provide emergency housing for women in domestic violence situations.

Deputy Murnane O'Connor has raised very valid points and that is why it is so important that the aforementioned audit takes place. It will be concluded by March of next year and will take into account the fact that there are also housing and social welfare support issues involved here. Work is being done by Tusla at the moment to review the current bed capacity in order to ensure that we have enough places. I am very conscious that a number of counties do not have their own refuge but Carlow and Kilkenny tend to work together in this space.

The figures I mentioned earlier are quite significant, with An Garda Síochána contacting or attempting to contact 20,699 victims of domestic abuse, which highlights just how many people are in very difficult and challenging situations. The number of cases has increased, as has the number of people coming forward for the first time. The types of violence that we are seeing, particularly against women but also against men, have also increased. This is a massive problem and is not just something that has arisen because of Covid-19. It has always been there but Covid-19 has shone a light on it and I have prioritised this issue as Minister for Justice.

It should be acknowledged that a huge amount of work was done in partnership with Beat 102-103 on awareness raising. We know that when we raise awareness, people do come forward and report. In particular, Ms Michelle Heffernan has been nominated for the Mary Raftery Prize for her work, for which I thank her.

I welcome the audit that is being undertaken because we must assess the services being provided by An Garda Síochána, Tusla, local authorities and the Department of Social Protection, among others. We must have an holistic approach to this. Services must be more accessible and more information must be provided in order that people better understand the issue. We know that people are doing their jobs to the best of their ability; that is not in question. The issue is getting the audit right, which will have a massive impact on people's lives.

I must also congratulate my own local radio station, KCLR, which has been focusing on domestic violence and abuse in recent weeks, in the run-up to Christmas. Everyone is playing his or her part but it is important, in the context of the audit, that the Department considers a women's refuge for Carlow. I know of people who were referred to refuges in Kilkenny and Waterford but they were full. We are referring women to refuges that are full.

The lockdowns have been tough on everyone but, for victims of domestic abuse, they have been hell. Their homes are not their sanctuaries. They find sanctuary outside their homes when they discover a safe space somewhere else. They were robbed of this chance for months during lockdown. The Minister gave them assurances and clarity that travel restrictions did not and do not apply to them. This was very welcome and an important move. What other actions is the Minister taking to support victims of domestic and sexual abuse and to deliver long-term and lasting cultural change?

In response to both Deputies, information is key. It is very important that victims of domestic abuse, violence and sexual abuse know what supports are available to them. A key recommendation of the O'Malley report, which then fed into Supporting a Victim's Journey, was that there should be greater access to information in different forms and through different media. At the implementation meeting yesterday, at which I met representatives from the Departments of Health and Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, An Garda Síochána and my Department, it was clear that a great amount of work is under way to provide this information through an online platform and updated website but to also provide it where people are and in the places they go, including public spaces such as Garda stations and libraries. People will then know where to get information and what services are available. We need to ensure that those services are there for them. That is why we are continuing to invest not only in the community and voluntary sector, but at a national level through Tusla with a view to ensuring people have the services they need when they take the very brave step of seeking this help in the first instance.

Prison Visiting Regulations

Éamon Ó Cuív

Question:

12. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Justice the arrangements which have been made for personal visits by families to prisoners at Christmas due to the Covid 19 crisis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [41112/20]

This has been a very difficult year for many but it has been particularly challenging for prison management, prison staff and prisoners. I compliment the staff of the Irish Prison Service, IPS, on the way in which Covid was kept out of the prisons. I also recognise the co-operation of prisoners who have been deprived of visits, and many other things in the prisons, as a result. What arrangements have been made to allow for prison visits over the Christmas period to happen in as generous and humane a way as possible, while remaining consonant with public health advice?

I appreciate the Deputy's concern and thank him for raising this important issue.  I am assured that every effort has been made by the IPS to continue physical visits during this pandemic.  As the Deputy is aware, it was necessary to suspend physical visits to prisons, first in March and again in October, following public health guidance.  The service is acutely aware of the need for prisoners to maintain contact with their families and a new video visit system was introduced which has allowed families to continue to support those in custody. Feedback on the use of this system has been generally positive.  I understand that additional phone calls have been also been facilitated.

The IPS has announced arrangements to allow all those in custody to book a physical family visit between 16 December and 6 January.  Each prisoner will be entitled to one physical visit, limited to two people, which will be limited to 15 minutes in duration.  I understand this time limit is necessary to ensure that the maximum number of visits can be facilitated, having regard to the need to reduce the number of booths in use for distancing purposes and the need to fully sanitise surfaces between visitors.  All visitors will be behind clear screens and visitors and prisoners will be required to wear face masks at all times. No physical contact will be permitted. All visitors will also be subject to the Covid-19 screening procedures which have been in place since March and visitors are requested not to attend if they have any symptoms, if they have been in contact with a person who has gone for testing, if they themselves have tested positive for Covid and have yet to be cleared by their doctor or if they have been abroad in the preceding fortnight.

I understand that this is very difficult for the families concerned, particularly after such a difficult year.  However, the IPS has worked tirelessly to safeguard prisoners and staff and this continues to be the primary consideration.  We are all hoping next year will be a very different year but for now the IPS must continue to ensure that the prison population is protected from the virus and it is continuing to make use of alternative means of keeping prisoners and their families connected. Prisoners will continue to be able to avail of 20-minute video visits and additional daily phone calls are also being facilitated during the Christmas period.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I realise the health challenges involved. It is a question of balance. I recognise that video visits have been made available, although there have been some gremlins with that system. It is certainly a help but, all as all of us have discovered in our own lives, video visits, Skype and so on are no substitute for personal contact. We are also aware that one of the big losses involved in being in prison is the loss of family contact. This has been exacerbated this year. We also know that good family contact can also have an effect on outcomes for prisoners after they leave prison.

The Minister of State said that two people will be allowed per visit, one of whom will obviously be an adult. If there are two or three children in a family, that family will be placed in an invidious situation. I imagine that the number of prisoners with children is not equal to the total prison population. Can anything be done to introduce some flexibility because it seems that this will be very difficult for people at this very special time of the year?

I thank the Deputy. I absolutely understand that the loss of family contact has an impact on prisoners. This is something which has affected people across society over the last year as a result of Covid. I agree that prisoners having contact with family helps with stability and can result in better outcomes upon release. I also agree that having to choose which two members will attend a visit will put some families in a very difficult situation but this has been necessary across all of our services. We have seen it in nursing homes as well. Very difficult choices have had to be made. I will certainly encourage the IPS to introduce any flexibility it can while allowing for health considerations and concerns.

I am glad to hear the Minister of State say that because I believe flexibility is what we need. Not all situations are the same. There is not the same pressure in all prisons regarding visits. In the context of the health issue, I would make the case that the risk presented by two members of a family who live together is no different than the risk presented by three. If they live together, one would imagine that whatever one catches, the others do. The humane thing would be to make arrangements for children to be allowed visit over the Christmas period in both the male and female prisons. If prisoners require multiple visits, which people who do not have children will not, that should be facilitated. We are asking parents to make invidious choices between children. As I have said, not every prisoner has children. Many do not.

I again thank the Deputy. As I have said, if any flexibility can be allowed, I will certainly encourage the IPS to allow it. It will, of course, have to consider both the practical difficulties and the difficulties arising from Covid and the public health advice, which must be followed. This will obviously result in a very difficult situation for the families concerned, especially where young children are involved. It is difficult to be separated from one's family at any time but it will be even more difficult for those prisoners and their families at Christmas. I understand that the IPS will be facilitating temporary release for a small cohort of prisoners, as is the normal practice. Applications are currently being considered in that regard. With regard to the mental health of prisoners, the Minister is working very hard to try to improve the supports available to prisoners not only in the short term but also in the long term.

State Pardons

Brendan Griffin

Question:

13. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Justice her views on the campaign to posthumously pardon a person (details supplied) further to ongoing correspondence from this Deputy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42427/20]

Táim fíorbhuíoch as ucht an tseans chun an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a phlé inniu. What is the up-to-date position in respect of the campaign to posthumously pardon Mr. John Twiss, who was executed in 1895 for a crime that most independent observers now concede he could not possibly have committed?

As the Deputy will be aware, representatives of the Michael O'Donohoe memorial project have gathered a considerable amount of material relating to this particular case, including a transcript of the trial from the mid-1880s. They have met with officials in my Department and provided material in support of an application for a presidential pardon under Article 13.6 of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Following consideration by officials, I understand that an opinion was formed that the conviction might be considered unsafe.

I am advised that the then Minister agreed that this case potentially demonstrated, in all the circumstances, a miscarriage of justice. On foot of this, my Department engaged an expert on 19th century trial law in Ireland for their expert opinion on the safety, or otherwise, of the conviction. I understand they have largely completed their work, save for some issues which will involve accessing the National Archives once they are open again. When that is completed, the report will be submitted to me. I can assure the Deputy I will consider it as soon as possible and make my recommendations. If at that stage it is decided that a pardon should be recommended to the President, I will do so then.

I thank the Minister for her response. I acknowledge the great work the Michael O'Donoghue Memorial Heritage Project has done on this case. For the relatives of John Twiss, it is very emotive and important that they have justice done for their ancestor. I acknowledge the Minister's enthusiasm from the start. Within days of taking office she was on the case. I also acknowledge the work of her predecessor, Deputy Flanagan, who took the case very seriously and moved it forward. I hope that all of those working on the case can prioritise it and complete their work as soon as possible. This has gone on for 125 years and it will be 126 years in February. The passage of time does not diminish the hurt caused to the Twiss family and everybody in the district, particularly his descendants, who want to see justice finally for John Twiss.

Just because it is a long time ago, some people might ask whether it would make any difference. Where a miscarriage of justice may have occurred, it is extremely important that we correct the record. We need to provide clarity and assurance to the family. I will give some more detail in the process. Following the initial consideration of a case by departmental officials where they form a view that there was potentially a miscarriage of justice, we bring in the independent expert to examine all the information on the case. I again thank those who have provided that information to the particular expert in this case.

If it is advised that a presidential pardon should be awarded, I will bring that to Cabinet and then it goes on to the President to decide following advice of Government as to whether a pardon should be granted. I reassure the Deputy that this case has not been forgotten. It is being worked on and as soon as I get the report from the independent expert, I will act on it as quickly as possible.

I am very grateful for that reassurance and I know what it will mean for the family of John Twiss, as well as for people like Johnnie Roche, who has never given up the fight on this along with his many colleagues in the Michael O'Donoghue Memorial Heritage Project in Castleisland. They firmly believe in John Twiss's innocence. Many experts over the years have examined the case in detail and have found there is no possible way this man could have committed the terrible crime that was committed. Let us not forget that there was a victim in James Donovan, who was murdered callously in 1894. However, John Twiss did not do it and that is why justice is really important here. The BBC has featured this documentary on a number of occasions. Based on the precedent set in the Maamtrasna case, I hope a pardon will ultimately be granted here.

I again reassure the Deputy that this case is very much ongoing in my Department. It has not been and will not be forgotten. As soon as I receive the independent expert advice, I will act on it as quickly as possible. I am very conscious that people have been awaiting this for a long time and obviously they would like to get an answer as quickly as possible. I commit to the Deputy that I will provide that answer as soon as I can.

I will now go back to Question No. 10 in the name of Deputy Bríd Smith.

Deportation Orders

Bríd Smith

Question:

10. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for Justice if her office will allow deportations of failed applicants for international protection to take place during the Covid-19 crisis or if a halt to deportations only applies to level 5 restrictions; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [42528/20]

I greatly welcome the indication the Minister gave yesterday in the Seanad that no deportations would be allowed during the pandemic. My question might seem a bit redundant, but I ask her to reiterate the Department's intention regarding those who have received letters. I put particular emphasis on the cases off the two care workers that I have raised with the Minister repeatedly. What do they need to do next? I acknowledge that Minister has given me written answers. What are their next steps? Should they make an appeal directly to the Minister? What is the position of deportation?

I wish to reassure the Deputy and repeat what I said yesterday that my Department has taken and will continue to take a pragmatic approach and most importantly a compassionate approach to immigration arrangements in the context of Covid-19. The approach to deportation orders will continue for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A decision to suspend the issuing of negative international protection decisions during level 5 restrictions had already been taken and this remains in place. Under the International Protection Act 2015, a person receives a letter informing him or her of his or her negative international protection decision and informing that person that he or she no longer has permission to remain in the State. The person is required to confirm within five days whether he or she will accept the option of voluntary return. It is important to note the person is not required to remove him or herself from the State within five days.

For the duration of level 5 Covid-19 restrictions, I asked my officials to review the issuing of letters. No refusal letters or letters enclosing a deportation order have issued to anyone who has been unsuccessful in seeking international protection since.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, there have only been four cases where individuals have been deported from the State. Three of those cases arose from deportation orders issued prior to March 2020. For the one case where the deportation order was issued since March 2020, that person was returned to their country and was not a failed international protection applicant.

For those found not to be in need of international protection, a detailed consideration is always given to all aspects of their case. This must be carried out before a decision is made whether to grant permission to remain. While I will not go into details of individual cases here, there is a very clear process. I urge anybody applying through that process to provide as much detail as possible. All considerations are taken into account - family situations, work situations, humanitarian situations and their country of origin. All this detail is really important. When making an appeal, including in the cases the Deputy has mentioned, such people should provide all that information along with any new information that may have come to light that might not have been taken into account in the initial response.

I thank the Minister; that is very helpful. Just before I came in here, I spoke to two care workers who have received deportation orders. Their concern now is that one of their work permits has expired and the other will expire in the next couple of weeks. That does not help us because it means that two care workers who could be doing very useful and vital work during the pandemic are unable to because they do not have work permits. They cannot apply to extend their work permits because of the refusal of leave to remain they have received. It is complex and it is hard for me to know how to advise them. Based on what the Minister has just said, I take it that they should make an appeal, reiterating and outlining all the circumstances they have faced and are facing, along with the details of the basis for appeal. I take it that the Department will look favourably on that, particularly in the case of care workers, artists and other people who make a contribution to our community.

As the Deputy outlined, we are in a very difficult and complex situation. Taking one action can potentially have an impact in another space. It is really important to have joined-up thinking and provide as much reassurance to everybody who is impacted by this. I can speak to the Deputy separately about the individual cases. We want to reassure people that they will not be deported throughout this pandemic. The figures show that this is the approach we have taken from the outset. Where there are complex and difficult cases, I encourage people to continue to engage with the relevant agencies and the Department. As the Deputy noted, situations change and different scenarios arise. Until we are made aware of them, it is hard to respond in great detail. Where situations change or difficult scenarios arise, we will try to work with them to find the most appropriate response we can and to respond in the most compassionate way we can.

We are out of time, but Deputy Bríd Smith can make a brief comment.

I welcome what the Minister said. I will ensure that these issues are followed up. Ultimately, the pandemic may spike and subside here and in other countries, but if these are the conditions under which people are allowed to remain, then the deportation orders are like a sword of Damocles hanging over them. It is a tragedy and a pity. These are human beings who have a huge contribution to make to our society. In the end, this needs to be resolved outside the context of this Covid-19 crisis, because we do not want to lose valuable workers and people from our society and push them back to some place where they do not feel safe. That is a wider philosophical and long-term question, but it is important that we take it into account. If we are just relying on the conditions caused by the Covid-19 crisis for them to be allowed to remain, then this is still a very stressful factor in the lives of those concerned. What the Minister said, and said emphatically, is welcome but there is still a problem for these people in the long term.

We have a robust system in place. At the same time, it is a system and ,like any other, it can always be improved. That is part of a wider discussion and engagement which may need to take place after this. I reiterate my comments from yesterday to the effect that we will continue to take the same compassionate and pragmatic approach we have taken throughout this pandemic. I give that reassurance. I also stress something else I said yesterday. We are rolling out a new vaccine programme and I wish to state, on the record, that no information provided by anyone who comes forward will be passed on to any type of immigration service or otherwise. It is important that people come forward and get this vaccine, and that includes those going through the international protection system as well.