Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence: Statements

Ba mhaith liom an deis seo a thapú chun déileáil leis agus caint faoin gceist ríthábhachtach seo. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil seans againn an t-ábhar seo a phlé.

I thank the House for the opportunity to discuss this urgent and very important topic. Domestic abuse is an issue of concern across the Oireachtas, regardless of our political backgrounds. Every one of us will have had to deal with disturbing cases in our professional lives. I will give Deputies an update on what progress has been made in some of the relevant key policy areas and an honest appraisal of where we are and what needs to be prioritised.

First, I speak to those that have suffered domestic abuse in the past or who may be living in an abusive relationship at this moment. One of the key messages from Government to the public over the past 18 months or so has been to stay home and stay safe. However, for some people, that was not an option. Staying home meant you were not safe. Your home was not and is not the safe sanctuary it should be for everyone.

I commend those who have reached out and got the support they needed to exit an abusive relationship. It can be an extraordinarily difficult decision to make but they have done the right thing. Those still trapped with someone who is abusing them physically, mentally or emotionally should know and take heart from the fact the supports are in place to help. They deserve better than what is happening to them and there is a way out. Over the course of today's statements, we will correctly hear criticisms of some aspects of the services that are in place and valid calls for increased funding in some areas. However, it is critically important to state to anyone listening to this discussion who needs to exit an abusive relationship that help is out there.

Over the course of the pandemic, many countries have reported an increase in domestic abuse cases. That is one of the most depressing side effects of the widespread restrictions that were necessary. Unfortunately, this has been borne out in Ireland too. This was predicted by our experts and, from the outset of the pandemic, the Government put in place effective preventative and safeguarding measures. We prioritised help for victims of domestic abuse. We worked collaboratively with front-line service providers and community groups, including Women's Aid, on the Still Here campaign. This campaign worked to reassure anyone at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse that help is available, the Garda will respond in an emergency, and restrictions on movement do not apply if the safety of a person or family is in question.

We have increased the level of funding available to organisations which support victims, ensuring they can continue and build upon their critical work. We have worked with the Garda, the courts and the Legal Aid Board to ensure cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence are prioritised. Operation Faoiseamh, which is a proactive targeted approach adopted by An Garda Síochána to reach out to victims of domestic abuse and target offenders who have breached domestic abuse orders, is continuing and has resulted in a 24% increase in criminal charges brought against perpetrators of domestic violence in 2020 versus 2019.

Deputies will be aware from their work in their constituencies that, through Operation Faoiseamh, An Garda Síochána has helped many victims of domestic abuse throughout the pandemic. I commend and thank the Garda for that. However, I am deeply concerned, as I know all Deputies are, about victims who sought Garda help through 999 calls but may not have been responded to. The Garda Commissioner has assured the Minister for Justice that when someone calls 999 now, he or she can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help. Of course, that should always be the case. The Policing Authority is continuing its own investigation, as is An Garda Síochána. We will have to wait until those processes are concluded, but it is clear something went wrong. This should not have happened. The Commissioner has apologised for this and was right to do so. I understand the interests of victims are being prioritised by gardaí as they deal with this issue, which is the correct thing to do. An Garda Síochána fell short of the high standards the public expects of it, and this House will want to examine the recommendations arising from the investigations of both the Policing Authority and An Garda Síochána and will want reassurance of their full implementation.

The difficulties that have arisen with the 999 service have further highlighted the importance of the service provided by Women's Aid, which recently detailed an increase in calls and correspondence from people seeking help last year. Each year, the Women's Aid impact report plays a vital role in illustrating the stark reality facing thousands of women and children subjected to domestic violence in this country. The headline figures in the impact report for 2020 are harrowing. There were 29,717 contacts to Women's Aid, during which 30,841 disclosures of abuse against women and children were made. There were 24,893 disclosures of domestic violence, including coercive control, against women. Some 340 disclosures of rape were made to the Women's Aid helpline. This is appalling. It takes exceptional bravery to make that call, and making that call is often a last resort for a victim. Behind each call is a person or family devastated by what is happening to them in what should be a loving relationship. I acknowledge the hard work and unwavering dedication Women's Aid has shown in this area. I know each person who contacted it was met with warmth and compassion and supported in their time of need.

Abuse does not always involve physical violence. Mental and emotional abuse is also often devastating. Thankfully, there has been extensive legal reform around domestic abuse and sexual violence in recent years, including introducing an offence of coercive control under the Domestic Violence Act 2018. I welcome recent convictions for coercive control and I again commend the resilience and bravery of victims who have come forward.

It is important to note the nationwide roll-out of divisional protective services units is complete. These units deliver a consistent, professional and sensitive approach to the investigation of specialised crime types, including domestic abuse. The recent enactment of the Criminal Procedure Act introduces preliminary trial hearings for the first time in Irish law. The purpose of preliminary hearings is to reduce delays and increase efficiency in the running of our criminal trials. They will remove some of the uncertainties victims face about potential issues arising after a trial has started, which will help them run more smoothly.

These are positive developments. While a lot of progress has been made, there are areas we must continue working hard to improve. A key priority of this Government is to continue improving services and policies to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We have discussed it on a number of occasions in the Dáil in recent months and have outlined as a Government what we are doing and planning to do. We have not just been talking about this important work; we are progressing the reforms needed to make our system work better for victims. We have some way to go before we have a justice system that, from end to end, places victims at its centre, but I reassure Deputies that this work is of huge importance and is being advanced.

The programme for Government commits to conducting an audit of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across different Government agencies. This important commitment is reiterated in the justice plan for 2021.

The audit was undertaken by external consultants, Mary Higgins and Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop, in consultation with relevant NGOs and service providers, while also taking input from Departments and agencies. The consultants, as part of their work, were also required to take account of the views of those working at the front line. The audit is an important part of the process that is under way to make sure we have the right structures in place in order that Government can respond to all of the issues related to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The audit report has been finalised and is expected to be brought to Government very soon.

The Department of Justice is also working to ensure the development of an effective third national strategy to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This strategy will have a significant focus on service delivery, cohesive governance and oversight arrangements, and placing a priority on prevention and reduction. It will include a national preventative strategy. The audit outcome, along with the ongoing work of implementing Supporting a Victim's Journey, the current review of accommodation needs undertaken by Tusla, and the development of the third national strategy will provide us with valuable guidance for designing our systems to best meet the needs of victims of domestic abuse and improve how we do so in the longer term.

As noted, Tusla is currently undertaking a review of the provision of accommodation for victims of domestic violence, which will take into consideration both the needs of victims and the types of accommodation that are required. I understand that review is also close to completion. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and other Ministers across Government are absolutely committed to addressing this issue and getting it right. The Department of Justice is also committed to delivering the full and timely implementation of the recommendations contained in the O'Malley review. As Deputies are aware, this plan when implemented will protect and support vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. The implementation of Supporting a Victim's Journey is critical to ensuring we have a criminal justice system that works for vulnerable victims at every stage of their journey. It will ensure we can support vulnerable victims and empower them to report offences, knowing they will be supported, informed and treated respectfully throughout the criminal justice process.

I mentioned the roll-out of divisional protective service units and the introduction of preliminary hearings for the first time in Irish law. These are important actions under Supporting a Victim's Journey. Other actions, including the exercise to map the victim's journey and identifying gaps in service provision, are close to completion. We are also taking significant steps to challenge societal attitudes. The Department of Justice has been running a six-year, two-part national awareness campaign to tackle domestic and sexual violence. It is designed to help identify instances or signs of domestic and sexual violence and make us question our acceptance of certain unacceptable behaviours and attitudes. It highlights that, at an individual level and as a society, we must change our attitudes if we want a country that does not accept any form of domestic or sexual violence. As political representatives and leaders in our communities, we in this House also have an important role to play by rejecting any sort of taboo and speaking openly about the issue, making it clear that any sort of abuse within a relationship is simply unacceptable and highlighting the supports that are in place.

I reassure Deputies that the Government understands and is tackling, in a proactive way, the challenge of preventing and responding to domestic abuse. Ambitious targets have been set and we are on course to deliver them. We are committed to building our systems around the needs of victims and we are working with front-line service providers to ensure our response in this area is victim-informed and effective. We have made significant progress but are under no illusions about the amount of work we must continue to do to ensure we provide the best possible range of supports, services and policies for victims of this heinous and often hidden crime.

I am sharing time with Deputy Martin Kenny. I asked for these statements following the publication of the annual impact report published last month by Women's Aid. I very much welcome that the debate is finally taking place. That report contained shocking detail that exposes the horrific reality of domestic abuse taking place right across the State. It revealed that the number of people contacting Women's Aid increased by 43% in the past year compared with the previous year. While we were all told to stay at home due to the pandemic in order to stay safe, home has been anything but safe for the many women and children who have been trapped with an abuser.

The report makes for heartbreaking and really harrowing reading. Behind the statistics are thousands of stories of real families in despair, with women and children being beaten, sexually abused and subjected to psychological torture and coercive control. No one should ever have to live like that. Everyone deserves to live safely and with dignity and to know that if they experience abuse, support will be there for them as and when they seek it. This should be a given in a modern, equal society. However, the reality is that this Government, like the ones before it, fails to support survivors of abuse. That is an unacceptable reality and one that must change.

I take the opportunity to commend the important work Women's Aid and other organisations across this sector do, day in and day out, to support women and children who need help. They literally save lives. Their services were stretched to the limit before Covid-19 and the pandemic has made their work even more urgent. Women's Aid has warned of the unprecedented and exhausting impact of trying to combat this tsunami of abuse with already overstretched and underfunded resources. I have a direct question for the Taoiseach in this regard. When will the Government take domestic abuse seriously and provide the sector with the funding and resources necessary to give women and children the support they urgently need? We should not make do with half measures.

The Government is very quick to offer sympathetic words about domestic violence and such words are, of course, very welcome. However, survivors need more than platitudes and empty promises. They need clear commitments now that the Taoiseach will end this scandal and finally deliver the funding and investment needed. Nothing other than that is unacceptable. Year after year, Ireland fails to fulfil its obligations under the Istanbul Convention to provide refuge places for those fleeing abuse. Community and voluntary services try to bridge the gaps left by the State's failure but they are pushed to their limits. There are currently nine counties without any refuge provision whatsoever. Where refuges exist, they are stretched to capacity and faced with the appalling situation of having to turn away women and children who are in real danger simply because they have no room for them. We can agree that this is scandalous.

I ask the Taoiseach to commit today to meeting the State's emergency accommodation obligations under the Istanbul Convention. Will he commit that budget 2022 will contain the additional investment needed to guarantee these refuge spaces are delivered? Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage finally commit to including all adults and children living in Tusla-funded emergency accommodation in the monthly homeless figures, thereby ensuring those families are no longer brushed under the carpet by the Government's failure even to acknowledge they exist and count them as part of its statistics?

Recent revelations that members of An Garda Síochána cancelled 999 calls made by people seeking help for domestic abuse have compounded fears that a culture still exists in Ireland in which abuse is not seen as serious and a priority for emergency services.

We have to send the message loud and clear to all those affected that abuse is never the fault of the victim, it is never something one simply has to put up with, and help will be there if one asks for it.

Women’s Aid has called for a complete root-and-branch revision of this system to work out what went wrong and how the Garda can learn from it to ensure it never happens again. Can the Taoiseach commit to that today?

Survivors of domestic violence also need to have the right to take paid leave from work so that they can attend court or medical appointments or arrange safe accommodation without worrying about losing their jobs. Sinn Féin has developed legislation to deliver this, with my colleague, Deputy O'Reilly, taking the lead in that regard, but the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Varadkar, will not consider this legislation in terms of a workplace right. I am again asking the Taoiseach to ensure the Government parties work with us to progress this legislation, to recognise this as a worker's right and to ensure victims and survivors get the support they need. Survivors cannot be expected to wait any longer for these vital rights.

We also need major reform of the courts, which are far too often misused by abusers as a way to continue harassing women and children who have fled. I welcome the establishment of the family justice oversight group by the Department of Justice, but its work must be expedited, along with the family court Bill. This must be delivered along with a statutory child maintenance service and a network of child contact centres to modernise our system and bring it into the 21st century and to protect survivors of abuse.

I want to send a clear message from the Dáil today to anyone listening who may be experiencing abuse. I say to them that they are not alone and they do not have to accept this situation. I assure them that they will be believed and supported in finding safety and rebuilding their life. I would like the Government now to measure up to their great courage and to provide the resources that are so badly needed.

It was very appropriate that, in fairness, when the lockdown came in the Garda Síochána and many others recognised that it was going to be a time of great turmoil for many women in particular who were locked in situations where domestic violence was a threat to their safety and, in some cases, their very lives. That was made a priority, as was appropriate and right. Of course, those fears were borne out, as evidenced by the high number of calls and incidents of domestic violence in the past 18 months during the pandemic.

I am not unique among Deputies. All Members regularly deal with people who suffer as a result of this problem. A woman who came to me recently told me that one of the things her partner used to do was to put their three children in the car and drive away and maybe not come back that night. She would lie awake for the whole night worrying about what was happening. The vindictiveness of doing that to a person, without ever laying a hand on them, reflects the kind of individuals in society who we, as a nation, have to stand up against. These people are bullies in the most extreme form. The way in which they have treated people who are supposed to be close to them as something they can control, abuse and terrorise is atrocious.

I refer to the message Deputy McDonald sent to women out there who are suffering. Although it is not only women who are affected, it is predominantly women who find themselves in these circumstances. There is help available to them. We have to ensure that despite the difficulties there may be with 999 calls or the absence of services and all that, we still have to encourage people to come forward to, please, ensure their lives and those of their children and families are not terrorised in this way. We have to ensure they have hope because there is a generous and compassionate community in this country that wants to help them. They need to come forward and seek that help.

The State has a key role on this issue. I refer to the revelation in recent days that so many 999 calls went unanswered and were cancelled. The Taoiseach stated that we will all wait to see what comes from the Garda Síochána and Policing Authority investigations into this. There needs to be more than that. There needs to be an investigation by a body outside the Garda Síochána in the form of an independent review of how this happened because it was not human error; it was human intention. Somebody intentionally cancelled those calls and ensured these people did not get a response. The system has to be held to account for that as well as the individuals involved. It is clear that this issue cannot just be investigated by the Garda; it has to be done by an outside body. That is one of the clear things that has to come from that situation.

Women's Aid and many other organisations, such as community organisations, are often founded by people who experienced this problem. These organisations seek funding and get some help from the State, but then must fundraise and do all those things to fill a gap that, in all honesty, the State should. The State should provide these services without these voluntary organisations being needed to do it. That is a lesson for us. However, we are in the world we are in and these people need assistance. They need adequate funding to provide safe places, in every county and part of the country, to which women in particular can flee and have a safe place. Many of them do not have that at the moment or are being turned away from refuges. It needs to be a priority of Government that the funding is put in place to ensure these places can be provided for the many vulnerable people who need them.

Reports on this issue are published all the time. There is so much great work being done by Women's Aid and all the other organisations. Safe Ireland has launched a report in respect of all of this. Much of the work these people do, they do because they believe we can do better. They are part of the generous society to which I referred. In fact, they are at its cutting edge. However, we cannot simply push this issue over for that sector to deal with it. It is too big an issue for us to allow that to happen. Deputies are aware that thousands of families are affected by this and that we, as a society and as a country, have to provide them with support. That has to be provided centrally. It has to be something the Government does for its people rather than being something the Government funds others to do. That is the primary change that has to happen.

Although I welcome the various reports that are being carried out and the studies into what is happening at the moment, many such reports end up on a shelf and nothing comes of them. That has been the case for many decades, The opportunity is now. Through the pandemic, there was a recognition that people were in serious danger. Now is the time to act on the reports, rather than just putting them on a shelf, and to provide the services people need to be safe. It is time to make a change not just in how we provide services, but also in our attitude. The attitude we, as a society, have towards all of this needs to change. Men, in particular, have a significant role here. Young men have to learn that their place is to be there for everyone, not just to have some macho attitude to life. Such attitudes have to change. I think all Members will concur with that. However, to make that happen, there is work to be done in all aspects of society, such as the education process. That and every other aspect of how we develop and go forward will have to have the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence at its core to ensure we eradicate it from society and move on.

I warmly welcome the tabling of these statements and the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I strongly support the very direct words of the Taoiseach in his opening remarks to victims of domestic violence - largely women, as well as some children and men - who, right now, are suffering, that people are there to listen. People are there to respond. Collectively, we should send that message to people who are in desperate straits right now.

One of the greatest concerns many of us had at that outset of the lockdown was the potential for the increase in unseen acts of abuse and domestic violence within the home environment. I am afraid that those concerns, not only in Ireland but across the globe, have proven to be well founded. The Women's Aid report has shown that the Covid-19 pandemic and measures introduced to combat it had "an unprecedented and exhausting impact" on victims of domestic abuse. "Exhausting" is a very important word. The victims were ground down and exhausted by the confinement and the constant abuse. Women's Aid reported a 43% increase in contacts with its services and 30,000 disclosures of domestic violence, including almost 6,000 related to children.

One of the issues the Taoiseach referenced was coercive control. That is something that we debated a lot during the passage of the Domestic Violence Act 2018. We defined it in section 39 of that Act. There was concern that there would not be prosecutions because it is do difficult to prove coercive control in court, but there have been. I commend An Garda Síochána and its specialist units on following such cases up. The belittling abuse and control of people's lives, and women's lives, by and large, by coercive men is a shocking destruction of the quality and value of people's lives that must be rooted out.

As others have mentioned, we are hugely dependent on the voluntary groups to organise shelters and refuges for women and their children who are caught up in domestic violence. We need to do better. We are building units. I am very familiar with the one in my home town of Wexford. It is a brand new unit that is currently under construction. There is a fundraising effort to fit it out. The so-called "Three Amigos", Alan Corcoran, Fr. Sean Devereux and Pádraig Murphy, spent the month of May running every day to collect money to provide basic equipment. That should not be the case. I applaud and commend the voluntary effort that sustains it and all the organisers that are involved in providing it, but it is time for the State to step in and ensure that proper refuges are provided as a matter of course and are available to anybody caught in such dreadful situations.

I must make mention of the Garda response. The tremendously good work done by the specialist units and Operation Faoiseamh and so on has been fundamentally undermined by the report that 14,000 emergency domestic violence calls were cancelled. Quite frankly, that is just beyond belief. Retired assistant commissioner, Pat Leahy, whom I think is held in high regard by most of us, said that it was likely that vulnerable people suffered as a result. That is certainly a statement of truth. I cannot begin to imagine the double trouble trauma of enduring domestic violence, being in fear, getting the courage to reach out and dial 999, finding the space to do that, and to get no response. Garda representatives were quite understandably flabbergasted by it. How could it happen? It is the basic job and responsibility of An Garda Síochána to respond to such situations. Many members were genuinely flabbergasted at that situation. The full facts must be disclosed, because we have gone through it with other major issues. Some 1.4 million breath tests were recorded that never happened. They were bogus. It was a massive fraud. There were 146,000 people taken to court and 14,700 were wrongly convicted of motoring offences because there were issues with the fixed-charge penalty notice system. They were all scandals of the minute. What ever happened? What accountability has been brought about in these scandals? Each time a new shocking issue arises, the Minister for Justice and the Garda Commissioner say that they are hugely disturbing and fundamentally unacceptable. Yet, they reoccur. This time, on this issue, let us have the full facts of how it happened. This House should demand that.

In my final minute, I wish to make brief mention of the family courts. The in camera rule has great importance and should be maintained, but it means that there is an awful lot going on in the domestic situation that is not known to the public. Last November, the Law Society held a conference on child and family law. Some of its discussion was fundamentally informing. One practitioner, Joan O'Mahony, talked about not being able to learn about the facts of domestic violence at university. She said that we need a more realistic assessment of what has been going on in relationships before we offer separation or divorce. These are matters to which we need to return, because they are of such fundamental importance to many of our citizens who are suffering.

One question that very few would be brave enough to ask me is how old I am. If you did, however, I would say that I am young enough to be a working mother of two teenage boys and I am committed to public service and was privileged to have been appointed not just as Ireland’s 19th female member of Cabinet but also Ireland’s first female lawyer at Cabinet. However, in terms of this debate, I would say that I am old enough to know that there are very few women my age who have not been subjected to some form of sexual assault in their respective lifetimes. I know this because I am one of them. It will not come as a surprise to those of us of a similar age who have suffered this trauma. Sometimes, we have suffered it more than once. It was, and is, a lot more common than many believe. I always take statistics that I read with a pinch of salt. Most victims do not report their crimes. There are many reasons for this, including shame, a fear of judgement and a desire to forget. It should not be this way. As the Taoiseach said earlier, it is a form of hidden abuse. It is important to state that not all abuse is continuous. There can be isolated incidents that can be just as damaging, either at home or outside the home.

No doubt, for someone watching this contribution live or who will read it later, somewhere near to them at this very moment in time, whether it is in a town, a public space, an office, a street or a home, some form of sexual assault or violation is taking place. The Me Too and Reclaim the Night movement, following the murder of Sarah Everard in London, and the social media support for Sarah Grace after the brutal and savage attack she suffered in Dublin have highlighted even more so how vulnerable we can be as women. The scary part about sexual assault, in particular, is that the perpetrator is not always the random monster in the middle of the night, but often a friend, spouse, acquaintance or someone the person knows. It is a corrosive blight on female safety and morale.

The Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows only too well that many of the 36 women Deputies and 18 Senators may disagree on ideology and policy, but on a completely personal and human level, we all agree on one thing: we are all very much a part of the unfinished democracy that is Ireland when it comes to the representation and treatment of women. How much we decide to share is a purely personal decision, but I know that I am surrounded in this House by remarkable, talented, strong women who are all doing their best to bring about a fairer and more compassionate Ireland, regardless of what challenges we may each have faced.

While I am on the subject, I hope that a full debate will be afforded to Members to discuss the further constitutional reforms that have been proposed by the Citizens' Assembly on Gender Equality. I await a response from all party leaders on that. Indeed, I await a response from the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, who I know is here in the House today, to my correspondence regarding the establishment of a special Oireachtas committee. I would also be grateful for a response from the Taoiseach in that regard. As a practising family lawyer, I am particularly interested in the progression of the Family Courts Bill, which others have mentioned. I echo that sentiment.

I welcome the work that has been carried out by the Department of Justice, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, who is present, on the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, which will place a priority on prevention and reduction and should hopefully include a national preventative strategy. While we must do everything we can to prevent domestic and sexual violence, we must also be realistic, and acknowledge that new victims will continue to experience violations. Therefore, we must be very aware of the impact that this new strategy will have on both new and existing victims.

I note the public consultation for this eagerly awaited and most important document closed three weeks ago. I hope the Minister will be able to provide further updates on the strategy in due course. Furthermore, I hope we will receive updates from the Department of Justice on the development and delivery of the national survey on the prevalence of sexual violence in Ireland by the Central Statistics Office.

In recent weeks, I have read the stark and alarming figures contained in the annual reports of Women's Aid, FLAC and the many other organisations that play a role in assisting victims of gender-based violence. Since the pandemic first arrived on our shores, all the emerging data and reports from those on the front line have shown a dramatic increase in the many forms of violence against women and children, particularly in the home, a place that is supposed to be a haven, sanctuary and safe space. While most of us have worked hard to ensure Covid-19 was kept out of our houses, for some women and children the real danger was not something found in the air but rather in the home itself. Almost 31,000 people felt the need to reach out to Women's Aid to make a disclosure of abuse. That represents a 43% increase on the rate for 2019. When broken down, the grim reality is crystal clear: a 30% increase in emotional abuse disclosures, a 24% increase in physical abuse and a 41% increase in sexual abuse. What is even more frightening is that these figures account only for incidents that occurred up to December 2020, which was well before we entered the most recent and longest wave of level-5 restrictions.

Shortly before the election of the current Government, I remember stressing at a meeting of the Cabinet the importance of providing additional supports and options for those women and children who were facing the torturous reality of being further trapped with offenders. That is why I welcomed the non-application of the 5 km travel limit to those who were escaping dangerous domestic scenarios and the recently extended partnership of Airbnb and Safe Ireland to provide temporary accommodation to victims of domestic violence. I was glad to have played my part in assisting with this collaboration in its first iteration.

I have always wanted victims of these horrific crimes to know they are a priority of the Government and that support is always available to them. That is not to say that men do not also suffer from sexual assault and violence because they do, and they should be supported wholeheartedly where it occurs, but it is simply a fact that it is a much more prevalent issue for women. The violence emerging now as a dark feature of this pandemic is a mirror and a challenge to our values, resilience and shared humanity.

I raised this topic during the term of the Thirty-second Dáil, when I was a backbencher. I am not sure whether Members are familiar with the Eurythmics song "Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty Four)", in which Annie Lennox uses four powerfully tragic lines to encompass perfectly how victims of sexual assault continue to feel:

And so I face the wall

Turn my back against it all

How I wish I'd been unborn

Wish I was unliving here

What some people fail to understand is that the consequences and repercussions of a sexual offence against a victim are multifaceted. The scale of the damage inflicted varies from one victim to the next, depending on the level of depravity.

I am not sure if the Minister of State is aware that she is sharing time with Deputy Devlin.

I am not aware that I am sharing time.

The Minister of State is down as sharing time.

Deputy Devlin has five minutes.

Apologies. That is fine.

I am sorry to have interrupted.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I am not sure what happened. I apologise to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for that.

It is really important that we discuss this topic today. Tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence has been a priority of mine. Since I was first elected to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I have repeatedly pressed for an increase in the number of refuge places and the establishment of a dedicated facility in Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown. As a State and society, we must do more to support people, mainly women and children but also men, who are subject to domestic violence. I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to tackle domestic, sexual and gender-based violence as a priority.

During the pandemic, we saw an increase in domestic violence. It continues to be a pervasive problem in our society. Unfortunately, figures for 2020 show that the Garda received more than 43,000 calls to respond to domestic abuse incidents, representing a 16% increase on the figure for 2019. Nearly 15% of women between the ages of 18 and 74 have experienced some form of physical and sexual violence in their lifetimes and nearly 31% have experienced psychological violence.

In May, the Department of Justice launched a public consultation process in partnership with Safe Ireland, which coincidentally is having a talk as we speak, and the National Women's Council of Ireland to inform the development of a new strategy, the third, to combat the problem. This strategy will emphasise prevention and reduction and is to be agreed by the Government by the end of this year. This is welcome and necessary. The new strategy must be supported with resources that provide practical measures to make it easier for victims to report crimes, access justice and protect their families. We need all agencies to step up. Reference was made earlier to the inappropriate cancellation of 999 calls. I welcome the Garda Commissioner's statement and apology for that. The cross-government budget to tackle domestic and sexual violence must be increased in 2022 to ensure bodies such as the Garda and Tusla and NGOs such as Safe Ireland, Woman's Aid and Men's Aid Ireland have sufficient resources.

The provision of emergency accommodation to allow people to exit abusive relationships is critical, particularly given the issues concerning the general shortage of housing, with which we are all familiar. I understand Tusla is finalising a review of emergency accommodation nationwide. I hope this review will result in a joined-up policy. For far too long, we have seen refuges fall through the bureaucratic cracks.

As I mentioned, from 2009 I, first as a member of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, and others have been pushing for a refuge in the south-east of Dublin but, unfortunately, owing to the stance of both the council and Tusla — it was the HSE at the time — it has never taken hold. This is not good enough and it must change. Women and men and their children all across Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and the rest of the country deserve better. We need a single lead agency to take responsibility for planning, funding and the construction of the family refuges.

We also need to see practical measures to support victims, including paid leave to attend court, faster access to housing support and generous allowances from community welfare officers to offer support in meeting day-to-day needs as victims break free from abusive relationships.

There are actions that, if taken, would have significant outcomes in tackling sexual, domestic and gender-based violence. It is reassuring that there is increased awareness of what domestic abuse is. Many people, including me, once believed that domestic violence was only where physical violence occurred and that physical violence alone was the only reason a barring order or protection order could be obtained. It is reassuring that people are becoming more aware that it is not just physical violence that constitutes abuse within the home or within a relationship and that abuse can involve coercive control or financial abuse, for example. A lot more needs to be done, however, to continue to generate awareness of what abuse is, the information on what supports are available and the laws people can rely on to resolve issues. Education on what comprises a loving and respectful relationship is paramount.

Many young people are accessing pornography, which is feeding and normalising abusive and controlling relationships. Measures need to be taken to counteract this. Educating our youth is vital.

The experience of the court system is one that many victims of abusive relationships find daunting at the very least. Currently, there is no link between the criminal court system and the family court. Therefore, decisions made in the family court are often made in the absence of information on the level of violence and control that may have been perpetrated against one partner within a relationship. Consequently, access to children may be granted to someone who has already committed severe violence against one partner and frequently in the presence of the children. This is highly dangerous and an unsafe practice that must not be allowed to continue. Children must be listened to and have their decisions on access taken into account. There must be a system established whereby trained personnel can work with children and determine the best course of action for them in regard to visitation with the parent where there has been abuse.

Currently there are no supervised contact centres where supervised access is granted. There is a need for a full and thorough review of the court system and how it deals with people who have been subjected to domestic abuse and the impact it has on children. There also needs to be a plan put in place to deal with the serious backlog of cases within our court system. It has worsened because of the pandemic.

Action on the non-payment of maintenance needs to be taken so one party will not need to resort to court, which is a tedious and costly affair. This is often used by the abuser to continue to exert control over a former partner. A statutory maintenance authority is urgently needed to deal comprehensively with the issue of maintenance.

Our talking about the crisis that is domestic violence may give hope to those suffering in horrific circumstances and encourage them to reach out and seek help to end their nightmare.

It saddens me to say the problem of domestic violence is getting worse. We all have to work together to address it. Covid-19 without doubt made a very horrible and dangerous situation for vulnerable people even worse. We must be conscious there will be long-term fallout for victims. We must resource and support them.

I welcome the additional protections that were put in place in the Covid-19 emergency legislation. These specifically recognised the horror that is domestic violence. This welcome awareness must continue into the future.

The shocking recent revelation that 3,100 calls from victims of abuse to An Garda Síochána between October 2019 and last year went unanswered was scandalous. That the Garda Commissioner had to issue a public apology for this entirely unacceptable failure shows the seriousness of the situation. A further investigation should take place to ensure this never happens again, and additional measures to those already introduced should be put in place to prevent it. That very vulnerable victims of domestic abuse, after having taken the courage to seek help, were silenced by the very authorities that were meant to protect them and keep them safe is scandalous. We all must do better by victims.

There have been very welcome moves in recent years to address this scourge but we have much more progress to make. A stigma still exists for men and women suffering domestic abuse and we as a society need to smash it. A safe haven and safe space must be available for victims of domestic abuse. Anything else is a failure.

Before finishing, I applaud and thank the efforts of all groups offering services and supports, and I appeal to victims to please reach out if they are suffering abuse. They do not need to suffer alone.

Any opportunity to discuss sexual and domestic violence in this House is a good thing. For too long, victims have had to suffer in silence and fear as the State and our society have failed to recognise and respond to these crimes. However, I raise the same points every time, as do other Deputies, so until we address the underlying causes rather than just talk about them, victims and survivors will continue to suffer in silence.

Two weeks ago, like other Deputies have outlined, we found out that over 40% more people contacted Women’s Aid last year compared with 2019. This trend is also reported by West Cork Women Against Violence Project which has experienced a similar increase in calls. Campaigners and support organisations had warned us this increase was going to occur.

That same week, we discovered that more than 3,100 emergency calls made by domestic violence victims to 999 were cancelled, as it were, between 2019 and last October. This is particularly alarming as victims, on average, are assaulted up to 35 times before reaching out for help.

Highlighting and discussing these matters is important, but without substantial policy change, more people are being and will be condemned to sexual and domestic violence. One of the key measures the Government can take is to provide sufficient refuge space. The Taoiseach said in his statement that Tusla is undertaking a review of accommodation.

I have raised repeatedly in this House our obligations under the Istanbul Convention to provide one refuge space for every 10,000 people, and instead of meeting this international standard, the Minister and Tusla have insisted on the much lower provision of one refuge space per 10,000 women, which is 50% of what we should have. While I welcome the review, we do not need a review to tell us that at the very least we need 50% more refuge spaces at the moment.

The continual refusal of the State to put in place the minimum amount of refuge space undermines any strategies and casts doubt on commitments to help those in need. It is essential to note that for anyone affected by domestic or intimate violence, there is always support and alternative accommodation out there, often thanks to voluntary services filling in the gaps the State is not filling. If you are in that situation, seek help, because it is there.

Refuge space is one part of a complex issue. Safe Ireland’s No Going Back report outlines the transformative response required that considers the intersectional factors and an integrated approach. Domestic and gender-based violence has emotional, psychological, financial, physical and many other interconnected manifestations. An adequate response needs to reflect this complexity. We need Departments and State agencies to understand the issues involved and provide exceptions and supports.

In rural areas, it is often GPs or those in family resource centres who have to assist victims. They need more support, training and funding to deal with these issues. We need to ask ourselves if staff in public services are trained to assist victims. Does our immigration process protect vulnerable migrants whose status depends on their partner or family member? What systems are in place to detect less visible cases, such as elder abuse or financial abuse of people with disabilities?

Each of these indicates some of the complications involved. Campaigners have repeatedly called for a dedicated Minister with reach across all relevant Departments and agencies with which a survivor may interact, and a Cabinet standing committee. We need this leadership to drive the necessary transformative change to provide integrated support, on-the-ground specialists, and preventative strategies. When will we see this leadership?

Sexual violence overlaps with domestic violence, but it is also an issue that needs targeted responses. Research from Trinity and Maynooth universities has established that 49% of women and 19% of men have been sexually assaulted or harassed, with almost 15% of Irish adults having been raped. These are deeply worrying figures, especially when the true figures are, realistically, a great deal higher. In 2019, more than 14,000 contacts were received by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre national 24-hour helpline. There were, however, only 3,307 offences reported to An Garda in 2019. The prevalence of sexual violence is seriously underestimated.

The Realities of Rape Trials in Ireland report has highlighted the issues with our justice system's response to sexual assaults. Delays, with cases taking years, have a significant impact on those involved. The use of so-called sexual experience evidence, although rare, is completely unacceptable. Unfortunately, social understandings of consent, pre-exisitng biases and rape myths are found in our juries.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McEntee’s, move towards reform in this area and the use of pretrial hearings, but sexual violence and rape crisis support organisations have outlined the further necessary changes which the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth need to implement immediately. These include introducing guidance for juries to address rape myths and providing free legal advice and information for anyone reporting or considering reporting any type of sexual offence. There is a clear need for a significant strategy on improving the broad understanding of sexual consent. This involves evidence-based sexual and relationships education in all schools and compulsory consent classes in further and higher education, but it also means reaching adult groups and using existing organisations to help adults understand issues of consent and abuse.

It is important to note that sexual assault does not have to involve being restrained or penetration. It is any sexual act you are forced into against your will. This needs to be understood by all people and most importantly by our State services. Speaking at the Committee on Justice recently, Deirdre Kenny of One in Four, explained how in cases of rape and sexual assault, "The law is applied to the crime, but very little attention is paid to how the system interacts with the personal impact of the crime." We need a radical change to ensure our legal system and State services are victim-centred in all instances of sexual, domestic and gender-based violence.

In rural areas, sometimes the way people in these situations report and seek help is very different. For example, in the past, if you were presenting as homeless in a rural area, you went to your local community welfare officer. Due to the increased demand on that service as a result of the homelessness crisis, people now have to go to the local housing authority. In one example in west Cork, you would have to go from Castletownbere to Clonakilty and there is not even a bus service to there, whereas before, you could always go to your community welfare officer. Recently there has been a proposal to move the family courts out of west Cork and into the city, which would mean that somebody seeking a domestic violence order potentially would have to travel for two hours and may not have transport.

Deputy O'Reilly is sharing time with Deputy Clarke.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate. I echo the comments expressed by previous speakers. I hardly know a woman among my acquaintances or people I work with who has not been in some way the victim of a sexual assault. It does not necessarily have to involve restraint or penetration but it is that common that it is terrifying when we think about it. Regrettably, as a younger woman I might have brushed it off, whether it was a man on a bus wanting to rub the back of your neck or sitting too close to you. There are a whole load of things like that and you just get off the bus, shake it off and think, "I will not think about it." Now, however, I am mindful of my daughter, who is a young woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, and that is a very good thing.

It is good we now have the opportunity to speak out. However, that has to be matched by support services. In that regard I pay tribute to the people who run the Aoibhneas service in my constituency. They do Trojan work. During the first lockdown, calls to Aoibhneas's helpline increased by 125%. When the restrictions were lifted, it saw a huge influx of women, for the most part, whose homes were not safe for them or their kids. We need to do an awful lot more. It is wrong that a heavy emphasis is placed on the need for dialogue. That is important but it cannot stop there. We cannot simply come into this Chamber and talk about this and commend the fact we now speak about issues of domestic and sexual abuse in a way perhaps we did not when people my age were younger. We have to do more. We have to do better.

In the few seconds remaining to me I urge the Government to work with me to pass my legislation which would give paid leave to the victims of domestic abuse. We in Sinn Féin have gone out to consult. We have done all the work on this. It is ready to go. It is about to go to Committee Stage. I want the Government to work with me because this leave is a workers' rights issue and a workplace issue, particularly when your workplace becomes a site of abuse. We need to give that support to men and women who are victims and survivors.

I echo Deputy O'Reilly's call for the Government to support the very important legislation she has introduced. It is vital.

We know through research and study that sexual, domestic and gender-based violence has a negative impact physically, emotionally, financially and psychologically. We also know it is insidious and pervasive. Increasing numbers of organisations are raising concerns about the formation of unhealthy relationships in our younger population. As an elected representative and a mother, I am not trying to gloss over parental roles in these cases. There is, however, an active space for schools, colleges and sporting organisations to have a positive impact, and there is a responsibility on us as legislators to provide fit-for-purpose frameworks for policies and laws and, more importantly, resources to support the efforts of these groups. None of us as adults, and certainly as parents, relishes the reality that there are teenagers out there being subjected to this level of abuse, but they are and we need to face that reality and deal with it. Our wishing it away is not helping our teenage girls and boys. It does not help them to recognise the signs of coercive control in intimate relationships. Campaigns such as TooIntoYou by Women's Aid need to be properly resourced and continued, as do the other organisations that work tirelessly with survivors of gender-based violence and domestic abuse. They need to be properly funded and adequately resourced.

There are, however, other, very easy steps that can be taken. There can be no more letters sent by Tusla to the woman who has been battered black and blue by her partner telling her it is her responsibility to shelter her children from physical violence. That is unacceptable. It was unacceptable when it was sent and it remains unacceptable today. Not a single corresponding letter was sent to the perpetrator of that violence. No more - that needs to end. I say to the women of Longford and Westmeath and to the men who may be suffering: reach out. It is never too late. There are always support services there. Whether it is Longford Women's Link, Westmeath Support Service Against Domestic Abuse, or Esker House, reach out to somebody. There is help. There is assistance.

The situation of domestic abuse calls to the Garda being ignored is a major scandal. It is not a scandal that should be ended with an apology and a promise to do better. In just one shocking case a woman phoned 999 three times in one hour begging for help for her and her children. In her first call she reported she was being assaulted, in her second call she explained her partner was threatening her children, and when she did not hear back she phoned a third time to plead for help. All three calls were ignored; she and her kids were abandoned. We know now she was one of 3,000 emergency domestic abuse callers who were ignored by the Garda. The apology from the head of the Garda, Commissioner Drew Harris, is simply not good enough, especially considering the fact the Garda can find the time and the resources, for example, to break up the picket line of the Debenhams workers or, incredibly, to pursue and prosecute an activist for ROSA, Aislinn O'Keeffe, precisely for the crime of organising a protest against gender-based violence during the pandemic. However, women looking for protection from abuse are ignored. This means we are not dealing with just a few bad apples here. This is systematic and despicable. What is exposed by this situation is, on the one hand, the unfortunate and horrific prevalence of gender-based violence within our society and, on the other, a failure to take it seriously in a systematic way by a patriarchal and sexist capitalist state and its various actors.

I will share with the House some figures to indicate both sides of this. People have probably seen the figures but they are worth noting. They show the scale of the so-called pandemic within a pandemic of gender-based violence. Women's Aid received more than 30,000 disclosures of abuse in 2020, a 43% increase on the figure for 2019. Of those disclosures, almost 6,000 involved a child victim. Women's Aid described this huge number of contacts as the tip of the iceberg. On the other side of this, Women's Aid CEO, Sarah Benson, claimed the current family law system is repeatedly failing those who need help and in some cases is a tool for the abusers to continue to torment their partners even after they leave them. There is also the completely inadequate number of women's refuges. That is the situation facing people.

I will make particular reference to one area. My colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, met with the group FairPlé, which campaigns for gender equality within the arts. It has raised the issue that there is a significant number of cases of harassment and abuse within the industry. We have seen this being exposed worldwide. We know that artists, women in particular, can be vulnerable in this sector because of the precarious nature of employment in the sector and because of the power, authority and control that can be held by those at the top. FairPlé is demanding that all public funding should be linked to appropriate representation and the establishment of an independent body that people could go to to complain.

There are many other issues I could raise but my time is up. It is not just words we need from the Government; we need funding and action.

Those who experience gender-based violence, mainly women, should get a big helping hand but instead the State stacks the odds against them. If you have rung 999 in recent years, the Garda might have cancelled your call and ignored your plea for help.

If you try to leave the family home, you are confronted by a housing crisis and a shortage of refuge places. If you try to achieve financial independence, you are hemmed in by low pay and childcare costs. The society of the mother and baby homes and of the Magdalen laundries is in the past, but the attitudes that underlay them still live on. The system is not fair. It has misogyny in its DNA. I find it incredible that the only person in the entire State facing prosecution under the Covid laws for being an alleged event organiser is a woman who organised a small stand-out on the streets against femicide and gender-based violence, Aislinn O'Keeffe from Limerick, a member of the socialist feminist group ROSA. In March, she organised a stand-out in the aftermath of the Sarah Everard murder. The stand-out was socially distanced and attended by ten people wearing masks. She was fined €500, but she refused to pay and is now awaiting a court summons. Her case says a lot about the system. It is a case that should now be dropped.

It is not appropriate to talk about court cases in the House or to express views on them.

We all have a role to play to make the world safer for women, for girls and for all young people in all their diversity. Gender-based violence is a global emergency. Having these statements as part of today’s Government business means we are highlighting the urgency of this matter.

The Women's Aid report showed a staggering 43% increase in contacts compared to 2019. Almost 15% of women between the ages of 18 and 74 years have experienced physical and sexual violence in their lives. Nearly 31% have experienced psychological violence. These statistics show us that this is an emergency. Women's Aid has made 43 recommendations. It is vital that they are considered in our strategy. We have to listen to people and I ask that these 43 recommendations be considered.

I welcome the third national strategy, especially as it will have a significant focus on service delivery and will place a priority on prevention and reduction. It will include a national prevention strategy. Public consultation has begun but it is important that we highlight communications. I have serious issues with communication. It is one of the most serious issues that we have as a Government.

Carlow’s Women's Aid needs support and funding. It does great work. It is yet to be contacted about this review. We need to look after the small rural towns such as Carlow and learn what is necessary to support them to make the system better for women. Across the country, we must do what we can to support local organisations. I can only speak for my own area, where Carlow Women's Aid does a marvellous job. I also want to compliment Carlow County Council which has been fantastic in providing emergency accommodation in my constituency. However, we need to look at resourcing supports properly. We do not have a women's refuge in Carlow. It is absolutely shameful that this is the case in 2021. The Taoiseach spoke about the audit which is looking at the overall responsibility and co-ordination. I welcome this but we must all play our part. We need an all-of-government approach that is well co-ordinated. Regardless of party, we all have a responsibility to respond to domestic sexual and gender-based violence.

I know how hard the gardaí work. Their role is vital, particularly in supporting of victims of domestic abuse, but I was very upset to hear of the cancellation of more than 600 emergency domestic violence calls to 999 in 2019 and 2020. I welcome the Garda Commissioner’s public apology to those who did not receive the standard of service from the Garda that they required and deserved. I have received phone calls about this. We cannot let this happen again. It takes an enormous amount of strength and bravery to make one of these calls and support should be there when it is sought. I am assured that when someone calls 999, they can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help those who most need it. Gardaí play an important role. It is important that we recognise that and I say "well done" to them.

Since 1 January 2019, coercive control has been a criminal offence in Ireland. In 2019, Ireland also ratified the Istanbul Convention on violence against women. Our criminal legislation now enables prosecution for online and other forms of abuse. We are doing more. The online safety and media regulation Bill is about to go through these Houses. We need to make it safer for women to be online, and we need to make it safer for our children. We need to learn more about the level of intimate relationship abuse experienced by young people. For us to know how to help we really need to know what the issues are. It is all about communication and speaking out. People need to know that there is someone there to talk to and who can help. There are so many people out there who will help but the biggest issue is encouraging people to get help.

We need to reach out to our young people and highlight healthy relationships and what an unhealthy relationship looks like. Many people who watched the highly acclaimed “Normal People” said it was a great lesson in consent. We really need to open conversations around consent and around healthy and unhealthy relationships and to remove the stigma of seeking help, which is the biggest problem. We can overcome this and tell people that we are there to help.

I welcome the €2.7 million in additional funding to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, as well as support for victims and the contingency funding related to the pandemic. However, we need more. There is a serious requirement to identify the needs and then to fund them.

It is vital that the Tusla review of emergency accommodation nationwide be completed as a matter of urgency. We urgently need to implement a comprehensive strategy to combat trafficking of women and girls. We all know this is urgent. I ask all Members across all parties, inside and outside the Government, to play a role in ensuring we do everything we can to help people, particularly women and young children.

The words "domestic" and "violence" simply do not belong together. Home not being a place of safety for a woman or her children should be anathema to us as a State and as a society. We see eyes the colour and size of ripe plums, but we do not see the invisible violence when it is at home - the sly kicks to the stomach, the spine or the labia; the bank accounts checked; the shopping money doled out; and the taunts about weight, looks, family or figure. That invisible violence is echoed by the State in how it abandons women in their safety needs, their housing needs and their healthcare needs, as we have seen with CervicalCheck. Even now, there are women worried about starting labour alone or getting bad news from scans alone because, despite the Taoiseach's earlier protestations, there is still no clarity or consistency in maternity hospital attendance. No chosen birthing partner is a visitor in a maternity hospital.

We talk a great game about equality and respect for women and girls, but what we deliver as a State is vastly less because culturally and institutionally there is the old residue that women deserve less and cannot be trusted. When women ring 999 in a domestic violence crisis, there is nobody to pick up their calls because terrified women making emergency calls are not important enough for the State's police force. They were ignored and cancelled. This patriarchal State is still deeply suspicious of women. You would never know what we might get up to. This State's mindset allows social welfare inspectors to rifle through a single mother's knickers drawer. Women no longer get the belt of a crozier but we can still get a right belt from the State when we are waiting on a housing list or in emergency accommodation or when we are desperate to get help for a son or daughter who needs a school place or therapy for their mental health.

This speaking time is given to statements on action to tackle sexual, domestic and gender-based violence. Given its own violence against women and in all actions it will take to tackle it, the State and the Dáil could do well to start looking at itself. It can start with the response to Deputy Martin Kenny's call for an independent investigation into the disgraceful scandal of the cancellation of 999 calls from victims of domestic violence. The action to tackle domestic violence and gender-based violence must start here in the Dáil, in our attitude and in legislation.

Domestic abuse is sadly all too common in society and not enough is being done to prevent abuse and support victims. While domestic violence is more commonly perpetrated by male abusers, it can also be committed by women. The domestic violence prevention programme, Choices, only accepts male abusers. There is currently no facility or programme for female abusers. This is deeply concerning and I would like to know the rationale behind it. Abuse committed by female abusers is a serious issue and it must be taken as seriously as abuse committed by men. Survivors of female abusers can often face stigma due to the violence not fitting into society's understanding and general norms. At least one in seven men in Ireland experiences domestic abuse in his lifetime but less than 1% of the budget for domestic abuse goes to support for male survivors.

Today, I spoke with Men's Aid, the national charity that supports men and their families who experience domestic violence and coercive control. It receives up to 27 calls a day from men. In the first quarter of the year, it received 1,644 calls for help. These calls come from men from every conceivable walk of life, including carpenters, CEOs, GPs, civil servants, men living on the margins, homeless men and suicidal men. It is disgraceful that Men's Aid is not funded to provide the freefone service. We have a duty as a society to support all victims of domestic abuse. Every victim deserves to be believed and supported. For example, if a man has to leave the family home, there are no supports available and the children often remain with the abuser. Unless this changes, it is very difficult for men to go from being victims of domestic abuse and coercive control to being survivors of domestic abuse and coercive control.

In December last I had the opportunity to speak on the Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill, which was introduced by Sinn Féin and received support from all sides of the House. I will take the opportunity to reinforce some of the things I said on that occasion, but also to highlight some very concerning developments which have come to light in recent weeks.

We all know that abuse can take many different forms: sexual abuse, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, threats, intimidation, manipulation, neglect, financial control, domineering behaviour, coercive control and other threatening and controlling behaviours. The figures available from the National Crime Council show that one in seven women experiences severe abusive behaviour of a physical, sexual or emotional nature from a partner at some point in her life. Its survey estimated that 213,000 women had been severely abused by a partner. These figures display the extent of the problem. The figure of 213,000 will no doubt have increased since then. It is not just women who are on the receiving end of such abuse either, but it appears that men are less likely to admit vulnerability in that regard or to seek help. Plenty of work is being done to encourage men to get help, but there is still work to be done to encourage greater openness.

A couple of major problems presented in the past month with regard to domestic abuse. The first is a reported increase in the level of domestic abuse. Women's Aid reported a 43% rise in contacts with its services from 2019 to 2020. Among the difficulties being expressed is that due to lockdown and working from home, victims found it even more difficult to get away from the abusive situation. People reported being stuck with abusive partners all day, but with no money and no housing it can often seem pointless to think of leaving. We must ensure that the message and train of thought changes through making provision for victims.

The second issue concerns how disclosures of abuse have been dealt with. I shall repeat the final sentence of my speech from last December: "to those who may be currently experiencing domestic abuse ... seek help in any way they can from the gardaí, local support services, a trusted friend or family member. Do not suffer in silence." When I advised victims of domestic abuse to seek support from sources such as the gardaí, I did so in good faith in the belief that if victims of abuse contacted the Garda, they would find the help they needed. Unfortunately, recent reports show that the Garda response in a large number of cases appears to be unsatisfactory to say the least.

The news that gardaí cancelled 3,120 domestic abuse calls is hugely concerning and stomach-churning. The investigation found that only 35% of those cancelled calls were cancelled legitimately. The report says that in a further 20% of calls there was a Garda response but no official record was kept, while the remaining 45% of cancelled calls are still under investigation. I hope we will see a thorough investigation and report on the remaining 45% to identify the reasons for cancellation and the procedures put in place to prevent the problem from occurring again.

We can all see the problems with revelations like this. We have seen over many years the efforts made by support services and support groups, but campaigns to encourage people to seek help will only be successful if people are confident that the help will be available when sought. Picking up the phone to ask for help is a big step. It is often a very traumatic step and it takes a lot of courage. In the last month we have reports splashed all over the news that domestic abuse calls are being cancelled. What is the damage as a result? How many people will decide to suffer in silence rather than seek help?

In a follow-up to the news of the cancellation of domestic abuse calls, we saw news last week that the Garda had launched a follow-up investigation into more than 19,000 other cancelled emergency calls related to crimes such as sexual offences, assaults and burglaries. I hope there is some innocent explanation for all of this, and that people's cries for help were not ignored or cancelled by gardaí. Nonetheless, we need answers, because the perception is already out there now that help was not always forthcoming when required.

The gardaí involved in the cancellation of calls, not on a legitimate basis, have done a great disservice to their colleagues. We should never paint all gardaí with the same brush, but it is fundamental to the reason we need some very targeted, dedicated and visible campaigns to help to repair some of the reputational damage that reports like this will no doubt have caused.

A great many things can be done to improve the situation for sufferers of abuse and for those who commit abuse. We must recognise that in addition to punishment, in most if not all cases, the abuser needs help with rehabilitation and possibly treatment for an underlying condition which may be causing them to act in an abusive way. Even if the abuse is at such a level where the punishment is a prison sentence, we must have systems in place where the abuser is less likely to reoffend on his or her return to society at the end of the sentence. Otherwise, the punishment is just kicking the can down the road. This is a big challenge. I know work is already ongoing for the rehabilitation of offenders and perhaps we could look at ways of further supporting such rehabilitation. Whatever we do, we must make sure we have the basics right, and to me the basics include confidence in the fact that when an abuse call is put into the Garda it will be dealt with in a thorough and professional manner.

We can have numerous awareness campaigns and television ads that encourage people to seek help but, first and foremost, we must ensure that when that help is sought, it is available. When the victim of abuse shows the bravery required to pick up the phone, we must ensure there is a helpful response at the other end in order that the feeling of hopelessness ends in a positive, not a never-ending negative.

I pay tribute to those who are involved in dealing with men and women victims of domestic abuse or violence of any nature, such as Women's Aid, the Wexford Women's Refuge, Still Here and gardaí, many of whom are the only port of call for victims and have done their job to the best of their ability.

I want to start by pointing out that the programme for Government refers to domestic violence as an epidemic, and that was long before Covid hit our shores and long before we saw, as Deputy Paul Murphy said, a pandemic within a pandemic. Many Deputies present in the House today have quoted the figure from Women’s Aid of a 43% increase to its helpline, and the Garda is reporting a 22% increase in domestic assaults. The pandemic has heightened and highlighted the challenges we face in terms of dealing with domestic violence.

It has also highlighted in many ways the inadequacy of our response to domestic violence. According to Safe Ireland, we have one third less refuge space than we should have, based on our population figures. Tusla has told me there are nine counties with no refuge at all. We heard from Deputy Ward about the failure to fund Men's Aid so it can provide even a freephone helpline. These are all examples of how we are not taking domestic violence seriously and how we are not doing enough on domestic violence. These are all issues that need to be addressed quickly.

When a victim of domestic violence makes that difficult and dangerous decision to leave and to escape, we need to ensure the help is there for him or her, that there is housing, refuge and supports, and that when he or she picks up the phone and dials 999, the call will be answered instead of being cancelled. Quite simply, we need to do more in terms of domestic violence.

I think we are doing some things right and I want to dwell briefly on some of these. With regard to the Garda, the roll-out of the district protective services units is an excellent initiative and it provides a great resource for front-line gardaí, many of whom are doing great work in this difficult and challenging area of domestic violence. There is an opportunity missed in not having Tusla ensure social workers are seconded into or linking closely with the district protective services units. I appreciate this is not within the remit of the Department of Justice but of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. It is something I have raised repeatedly with the Ministers from those two Departments when given the opportunity to speak. I understand there is roll-out of the Barnahus model from Tusla, which is an excellent model for dealing with child sexual abuse, but we can do better by ensuring there is a link between Tusla and the district protective services units. I appreciate this is an issue for the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth because, as I have said before, when we want someone to dance, we have to make sure they have been asked and that they are invited. While I will, of course, say it to the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, I would encourage the Department of Justice to reach out to that Minister and to Tusla to ensure creative ways are found to ensure the social work and child protection elements that are needed within the district protective services units are in place. Let us face it: as well as the victims, the children in the home are as much a victim of the emotional abuse perpetrated as part of domestic violence as the person receiving the physical abuse.

I want to take a moment to highlight the story reported in the Irish Examiner this morning about the treatment of a female solicitor by, it is to be hoped, a small handful of members of the Irish Prison Service. I understand this incident was investigated and, although I do not know what the next steps are, certainly what was reported in the Irish Examiner is very concerning. It is particularly concerning when it comes on top of other stories that have been reported to me by people within the Irish Prison Service of deep-seated sexual harassment within that service. I am concerned that more stories will be coming out, and I hope, if more stories do come out, we respond to them properly. I hope the Minister will reach out to the woman at the heart of the story in the Irish Examiner to ensure this does not happen again and that any deeper issues within the Irish Prison Service that it speaks to can also be addressed.

It has come to my attention that the Deputy is sharing time with Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan.

Thank you. I was just about to finish as I had run out of things to say. I will leave it there.

I apologise to Deputy Costello if I put him off his train of thought. His contribution was well made. I am just finished an online call with Safe Ireland. Speaking to groups in my constituency, such as West Cork Women Against Violence, has very much underlined for me and painted a picture of some of the horrible, horrific and terrible experiences women in particular have gone through. This has been exacerbated over the course of this pandemic, but it is something that has existed for a long time and continues to be a huge societal issue.

The ask of these representative groups is very simple, namely, that we put domestic violence right at the very centre of Government policy. Their ask is simple and straightforward and they do not mince words. They want domestic violence and how it is dealt with by the Government to be taken out of Tusla, which at the end of the day is a child and family body, and instead to have its own place within Government and within a Department. I echo that call today because it is vital if we are serious about dealing with this. By doing that, we can stop the silence, the stigma and the shame that is associated with domestic violence, which is vital going forward. We can create an atmosphere where groups like West Cork Women Against Violence can excel in terms of the services they provide to women who find themselves in these horrific situations through no fault of their own. I reiterate that call today from Safe Ireland.

There has been discussion in regard to the recent revelations about Garda calls and, again, the ask of these representative bodies is very simple. At the moment, the training received by gardaí in terms of responding to domestic violence call-outs, which make up a large proportion of their work and their call-outs, is completely inadequate.

Training needs to be increased in Templemore from the start of their training and to be updated and developed so that An Garda Síochána is in a position to deal with all incidents of domestic violence, gender-based violence and sexual violence. Another example of how this violence towards women is going online is the story of a brave young woman in my constituency who experienced online sexual violence against her where an Instagram account purporting to be her, using her image and profile, was set up with explicit images. You can imagine the horrific experience that young woman went through when that happened to her. She made the point that the gardaí were not equipped to deal with that situation. They need to be. That can only be done with intense training to deal with those situations.

I refer to the lack of accommodation, especially emergency accommodation. The West Cork Women Against Violence Project funded its own safehouse to cater for one family. We need to look at this. We cannot have a situation where women who have these horrific experiences are put into accommodation such as bed and breakfast accommodation where they may be surrounded by more men. You can imagine what a traumatic experience that would be after having been through a domestic violence situation. That needs to be addressed. It can be addressed by implementing and, most importantly, funding the recommendations that I hope will be in the Tusla accommodation review. If we can put domestic violence at the centre of Government policy, then we can, as a nation, be at the forefront of responding to domestic violence.

Tackling violence in domestic situations can be difficult for local gardaí. It helps when the local garda has some knowledge of a person. This is why we must encourage gardaí to settle into our communities and become involved in the area. A worrying recent development has seen Ireland being placed on a watchlist by the US Government due to failure to combat human trafficking. The trafficking in persons, TIP, report 2021 confirms that for the second year running, Ireland will remain on a watchlist due to its inadequate response in tackling the problem. Ireland has been placed on this watchlist by the US Government for failing to combat human trafficking as migrant women continue to be brought to Ireland and forced into the sex trade. This is a dreadful reflection of the lack of urgency shown by this Government to deal with this issue, despite being aware of the situation.

Domestic abuse victims can be women and men. One in seven domestic abuse calls is from men. The other six are from women, which is six too many. We must encourage men to make the calls themselves because they have had a mental block on doing it over the years. Domestic violence against women must be stamped out and the law must be adhered to. Strong sentences must be forthcoming for those who carry out this kind of sick crime. Gardaí come in for much criticism here. They deal with this daily. We always look at the negatives. No one is prepared to look at the positives when the gardaí work on this. As I said, local gardaí are important and should be acknowledged for the work they do on this, because it is a difficult situation. Somebody mentioned that very few think of the children. The children need to be thought about. It does not just affect the man or the woman but the children in the family too. It is a sad reflection on society to think that during the pandemic, there was a 43% increase in domestic violence, mainly against women.

I thank the gardaí for doing such good work in this area over the years. Mistakes have been made but those who have not made mistakes have made nothing. I have often heard that. The letter of the law must be adhered to and the gardaí are the only ones who can make sure that is done. I take the opportunity to acknowledge the retirement of a local garda, Martin Hegarty, in Castletownbere. I thank him on behalf the people of Beara and west Cork, where he has spent the last 30 years. He is a prime example of what community policing is all about. On behalf of the people of west Cork and Beara, I wish him the best and a long retirement. I hope that we will tackle the issue of domestic violence. Whether it is against males or females, it needs to be at the forefront of political agendas.

This debate is hollow and meaningless, as the Government has consistently failed to address key issues concerning domestic and gender-based violence over the last year. The ongoing lack of action by the Government is both worrying and pathetic. For example, there is a disgraceful delay in publishing two reports which aim to highlight the grave nature of the situation and utter lack of provision of services and emergency accommodation to assist sufferers of domestic and gender-based violence. This House continues to have statements on domestic and gender-based violence but there is an ongoing failure on the part of the Government to address the issues raised time and again. During the pandemic, there has been a horrific increase in domestic violence.

The physical, spiritual and social cost of domestic violence is shocking. The economic cost is €2.2 billion. I salute An Garda Síochána in Tipperary, including Sergeant Ray Moloney, Sergeant Kieran O'Regan in Clonmel, Garda Claire Murphy, and the community gardaí in Cahir, Jenny Coff and Noel Clavin. When the new sexual violence unit was set up in Tipperary, it was far oversubscribed and needed two sergeants and ten gardaí. The gardaí are zealous and want to do their job, which is fabulous, but it has been blocked institutionally. Many State organisations are blocking it. Commissioner Drew Harris has to take responsibility. I salute the staff in Cuan Saor women's refuge in Clonmel, including Geraldine Mullane, Verona Nugent, Breeda Bell and many others, as well as all the volunteers who help.

Some 3,120 calls to 999 about domestic violence were cancelled, which is despicable and shocking. Problems are continuing, including in the Prison Service. There was a story in the Irish Examiner today about a solicitor and what she was expected to do when she went in to meet a client. The harassment, coercion, intimidation and victimisation of decent prison officers that is being carried out by the cabal that runs some of our prisons is disgusting. I have raised it here before, as has Deputy Peadar Tóibín. We have spoken and written to the Minister. I have written to the Minister and may as well write to Clew Bay or Bray Head because I have not got a response. There is an institutional cover-up of the bullying and intimidation of good, decent prison officers. They are coerced, have false allegations and smear campaigns against them, and have letters sent to their homes making scandalous allegations. The prison authorities and the Minister for Justice refuse to deal with this. Some of this is done against female prison officers too. It is done by a power-hungry group that wants to keep control. That is systemic in our society and Government Departments refuse to deal with it, since it is supposed to be okay because it is institutional. It is not acceptable to drive people demented, to drive them to suicide or to drive good prison officers out of their jobs. This needs to be investigated. Reports and statements here are no good. Proper, robust legislation is required to allow the gardaí to do their job.

I do not want to use the word "welcome" because I cannot convey my sense of frustration that I am back here talking about domestic abuse during statements. The only change here is that we are talking about actions to address domestic abuse. That is a slight positive change.

The Taoiseach's speech was very good on generalities and positive messages with very few specifics. If we are talking about actions, I had hoped, at the very least, he would have given specifics. Deputy Howlin reinforced that by stating we should all collectively give a message to victims of domestic violence that they are not alone. I do not think that is my role. My role is to ensure that services are adequately resourced and that I use every opportunity in the Dáil to hold the system to account.

The Taoiseach's speech today was not adequate. He referred to an audit and a report by Tusla. In response to a question I asked last September, I found out that Tusla was carrying out a review of services on the ground. This was the most basic review of the need for refuges on the ground, and whether they were adequate, yet here we are today. I hope the Minister of State tells us in her closing statement when that review will be published, why it was delayed and what is going on. The terms of reference of the report looking at the segmentation of services stated it would be finished by March. It is now July and the Taoiseach made a speech today giving us no reason that has not been published. Maybe the Minister of State could address that in her closing remarks.

The Policing Authority tells us the response from An Garda was not adequate. In May, the chairperson expressed his, and the authority's, acute disappointment and intense frustration that information in the possession of, and immediately available to, An Garda Síochána had not been, and was not being, provided to the authority. Again, the Taoiseach did not give us an idea when the internal review by An Garda will be completed. There are no dates. My colleague, Deputy McGrath, referred to the cost. At a conservative estimate, the cost of not treating domestic violence is more than €2.2 billion per year. Researchers from the university in my city tell me that figure is grossly underestimated.

We need to deal with domestic violence on every level, but, first, let us please stop talking about it and let the Taoiseach come back to tell us about the actions, one, two and three, identified by the Minister for Justice almost a year ago. I would appreciate it if that could be done by the Minister of State. That would be progress.

We are told that one in every five women experiences violence, domestic violence and abuse in their relationships. That is a gut-wrenching statistic. If we really think about what that means, the eradication of domestic violence needs to be right at the top of our agenda. We are talking about so many women. Approximately 370,000 women will experience some form of violence or abuse in their lifetime. That is the population of counties Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Donegal and half of County Mayo. If we consider that probably as many children will also be in the same position, living in homes where coercive control and domestic violence are to be found, then we see the incredibly negative, heartbreaking impact on their lives as well as the negative societal impact.

Sometimes I think that we, as a society, do not fully appreciate the extent or horror of domestic violence, where women and children are afraid to live in their own homes. This afternoon, I attended most of a webinar facilitated by Safe Ireland, which gave us a comprehensive and thought-provoking picture of the journey victims of domestic violence take from a fearful coercive situation to one of independent living. The challenges faced by those trying to navigate that journey are overwhelming. The objective of this webinar was to let us know how we, as legislators, can make a difference to those who are navigating a journey, which was called, "No Going Back". Those who spoke talked of the critical co-dependencies that keep women and children in homes where there is domestic violence. They talked about the four pillars of legal protection, health services, secure income and housing. I do not have time to go through them, but each is an important piece of the jigsaw that helps women make that journey.

As Mary McDermott said, we have 19th-century infrastructure in this country trying to address a 21st-century problem. That is why our response must be comprehensive, co-ordinated and resourced. I heard the Taoiseach speak earlier about different Government agencies and ongoing audits. That is fine, but we should be well past that point. The problem is immediate and massive. Speaking of 19th-century infrastructure, on too many occasions I have had to raise the fact that the constituency I represent, covering Sligo-Leitrim, north Roscommon and south Donegal, does not have a domestic violence refuge. Victims have to access rental accommodation. It is scandalous and unacceptable that these black spots for refuges for victims of domestic violence exist across the country.

We do not need an audit on this. We know when something could be tackled immediately. I hope I never again have to stand in this House and say that there is no refuge for victims of domestic violence, or no plans for such a refuge, in my constituency.

I welcome the statement from the Taoiseach and the shared level of concern demonstrated by Deputies. I also welcome the opportunity to hear their views on how we ensure the best outcomes for victims of domestic abuse and violence. No person or family should have to endure these experiences. My Department is fully committed to combating this type of violence.

Along with the Minister for Justice, Deputy Humphreys, one of my key focus areas is the continued implementation of Supporting a Victim's Journey. We are working to create a victim-centred system that supports and empowers victims and gives them the confidence to engage with all services knowing they will be supported, informed and treated with respect and dignity at every point and by every person they come into contact with. The supports being introduced will be provided regardless of whether criminal proceedings are in train and will extend beyond the trial and verdict because victims do not stop needing support at the end of a trial.

The way our system has historically treated victims of sexual violence has, quite simply, not been good enough. Victims did not feel supported and the system did not protect them from further trauma. When it was published, it was made clear that Supporting A Victim's Journey was to be a living document and we are continuing to listen to victims as they courageously share their experience of the criminal justice system with us. We are considering how best to address additional concerns that have been raised and will continue to prioritise this aspect of our work.

The issue of emergency calls from victims of domestic violence not being responded to has also been raised by a number of Deputies. It is, of course, of particular concern to us all that anyone experiencing domestic abuse and, indeed, anyone in a vulnerable position, who summoned the courage to seek assistance may not have received it. It is vital that the best interests of victims and anyone whose calls were cancelled inappropriately are the priority and focus as this is being investigated.

In February, the then Minister for Justice, Deputy Helen McEntee, requested the Policing Authority to oversee the ongoing work by An Garda Síochána to review how 999 calls were handled. It is welcome that there has been ongoing engagement on this issue between the authority and the Garda Commissioner at both their public and private meetings. The report from the authority on this matter will be provided to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and she will consider any recommendations made in that report. Importantly, the Garda Commissioner has assured the Minister that when someone calls 999 now, he or she can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help and, of course, that should always be the case.

When I launched the Women's Aid impact report for 2020 last month, I was immediately taken aback by the headline figures of more than 30,000 disclosures of abuse against women and children, almost 25,000 disclosures of domestic violence, including coercive control, and 340 disclosures of rape to the Women's Aid helpline.

Each of these calls represents a woman or, perhaps, a family in dreadful circumstances, desperate for help. It was upsetting and it is an area that is justifiably a priority for this Government.

I was heartened also at the report launch. It is important to recognise the incredible work undertaken by everyone across the sector who plays such an important, but usually unheralded, role as we strive to achieve our strategic objectives on domestic abuse intervention. This collective contribution not only brings a focus to the often hidden consequences of domestic violence but also provides the support services so vital to those who reach out. I share that collective aim. I am committed to making sure we have the necessary systems in place to ensure victims' needs are met in every practical, legal and emotional way.

Supporting victims is crucial and this means, in part, having in place robust legislation to bring perpetrators to justice. The landmark Domestic Violence Act 2018 recognises in law the devastating impact of coercive control on those on whom it is inflicted. I echo the Taoiseach in welcoming recent convictions for coercive control. It conveys the message that perpetrators cannot act with impunity, and it changes how as a society we view and tackle such heinous behaviour. The bravery of the victims in these cases is to be commended. It is hoped that as more convictions follow, other victims of coercive control will feel confident to come forward.

The Taoiseach spoke earlier about my Department's continuing commitment and response to combating domestic abuse and the wider issues of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The Taoiseach and a number of Deputies referred to the audit on Government responsibility, the review being undertaken by Tusla of emergency accommodation, and the development of the third national strategy. I can inform Deputies the audit report has been finalised and I expect to bring it to Government before the summer recess. I understand the review of emergency accommodation is also nearing completion.

It is vital we have in place the right structures and supports for victims. This is a personal priority for the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman and me. The information from the audit and review will feed into the development of the third national strategy to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This whole-of-government strategy will place a priority on prevention and reduction, it will include a national preventative strategy, and it is on track to be adopted before the end of the year.

Domestic abuse can devastate an entire family unit. It is important to mention a number of important actions under way in my Department to ensure we have a justice system that works for families. A family justice oversight group has been established to agree a high-level vision and key medium and longer term objectives for the development of a national family justice system. In parallel, a dedicated family court structure is being established under the forthcoming family court Bill. As part of its work, a public consultation on the future of the family justice system has been recently completed and a dedicated consultation with children and young people will commence later this year. As I mentioned, a family court Bill is being drafted and its enactment will be a key element in the development of a more efficient and user-friendly family court system. This will be a system that puts families at the centre of its activities, provides access to specialist supports, and encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings.

I thank Deputies for their invaluable contributions on this important and often difficult issue. We are working hard on it and will continue to do so, liaising closely with all relevant groups and stakeholders across the sector to meet the needs of victims and to continue to combat domestic abuse.