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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 24 Nov 2020

Vol. 272 No. 9

Combating Domestic, Sexual and Gender-Based Violence: Statements

I welcome this opportunity to make statements on domestic violence. It is fitting that we are making these statements and have the opportunity to raise this important issue given that tomorrow is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I hope I have made it clear, or that it has been clear, to everyone that since my appointment as Minister for Justice I have prioritised tackling all forms of domestic violence and providing support to vulnerable victims as a priority area of work. We have already made significant progress in delivering on the commitments made so far.

This is not just a commitment on my part, however; this is a whole-of-government commitment. As I outlined in the Dáil only last week, this Government is committed to building our systems around the needs of victims of domestic and-or sexual violence to ensure that anyone who is a victim of these heinous crimes is empowered and supported to come forward. When those victims come forward, the Government is also committed to ensuring they will know the system will work for them and that those who work within it will support them. This is again evident, I hope, in our programme for Government commitments, in the considerations taken into account as priorities in the context of managing the pandemic and in the work being undertaken as a priority within my Department, in conjunction with many other Departments, State agencies, NGOs and stakeholders.

Being able to feel safe and secure, particularly in one's home, is a fundamental right. I know the deep concern that I feel concerning people living in fear of those who are closest to them across Ireland, particularly during the pandemic. For many of us our home is a safe place, but for others it simply is not. I know Members share that concern. Since my appointment as Minister, I have prioritised our national response in this area of work. I welcome that Senators are here to discuss the range of actions taken across the justice sector, the special measures that have been, and will continue to be, taken in the context of the pandemic and, more broadly, to contribute to the dialogue concerning how we can continue to address these issues comprehensively in future. I look forward to listening to the views of Senators and their proposals and ideas concerning how we can continue to work together.

I am also conscious of the calls in recent weeks to bring forward legislation to ensure that the sharing of intimate images without consent is criminalised. I agree fully that this is a form of abuse that has devastating impacts. We have, unfortunately, seen the impacts this type of abuse can have on young people, as well as older people. Today, thankfully, I secured Cabinet agreement to bring forward amendments on Committee Stage to the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, as amended, to introduce two new offences to deal with this obnoxious form of abuse.

The first offence will deal with the distribution, publication, or threatened distribution or publication, of an intimate image without a person's consent, but where there was clear intent to cause harm. This offence has a more severe penalty attached to it, where someone could receive an unlimited fine or a prison sentence of up to seven years. The second offence will deal with taking, distributing, publishing, or intending to do any of those things, without the consent of the person where there is no intent to cause harm. It is, therefore, still a criminal offence, but it recognises a situation where there is no intent to cause harm. The proposed penalty for this offence is a maximum fine of €5,000 and-or 12 months imprisonment. The fact that a person may have consented to the taking of the image at the time it was taken simply does not matter. It is irrelevant. If a person is in a relationship with another person, before or during the time when the images are put out there, that will be an aggravating factor when a judge is sentencing after someone has been found guilty.

The penalties I am proposing to be attached to these offences are serious, but they must be. They recognise the harm inflicted on innocent people when intimate images of them are shared without their consent. Enacting the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 is a priority for me. I have been working closely with Deputy Howlin in this regard and I thank him sincerely. He was the first person to sponsor this Bill in 2017, he has been pushing for its enactment since and we would not have this legislation without that. I look forward to working with him and all parties as we try to ensure this Bill is enacted by the end of the year. The Bill will come before the Joint Committee on Justice next week.

I am aware this is a relatively short period but with the support of Members from all parties and none in both Houses, we could have this enacted by the end of the year.

In the context of the pandemic, the implications of restricted movements for victims of domestic abuse, including in the recent move to level 5, have been a paramount consideration for this Government. From the outset my Department led a multiagency approach to support victims of domestic abuse during this particularly difficult time and also to ensure front-line services could continue and prioritise the needs of vulnerable persons. Additional funding was made available by my Department for organisations that support victims, including victims of domestic abuse, to ensure they have the ability to continue to provide services during this period and also to make people aware they can continue developing campaigns to raise awareness of the supports provided. I have also ring-fenced funding to continue this Covid-specific support through 2021.

The proactive approach taken by An Garda Síochána to prioritise domestic abuse incidents through Operation Faoiseamh should also be acknowledged. In my county, Garda Stacey Looby ran a particular campaign in County Meath - a "go purple" day - to raise awareness and funds for local organisations in the area. I know events like this, along with other engagement and interaction with An Garda Síochána, happened across the country throughout the pandemic. I thank people for that.

It is important to acknowledge that prioritisation of domestic abuse cases by the Courts Service and Legal Aid Board has continued throughout the year. I particularly welcome the adaptive approach taken by the Courts Service following the passing of legislation in the summer to introduce remote hearings to facilitate the granting of protection orders where people could not travel. It was very welcome to see the first protection order granted earlier this year through the use of video technology. That shows the direction in which we can go.

Through the "Still Here" campaign my Department has been working with front-line service providers to get the message to victims of domestic abuse that all services are still available for anybody subjected to, or in fear of, domestic abuse, regardless of the level of restrictions in place. I said this last week and we are trying to continue giving the same message. Irrespective of whether there is a 5 km limit on travel, a county limit or any type of travel restriction, it does not apply to a victim of domestic abuse or sexual violence. It is important we continue to get that message out.

On the question of longer-term planning to ensure a victim-centred approach, we recently published Supporting a Victim's Journey, which is a plan to support victims in sexual violence cases. This comprehensively outlines measures to protect vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. This follows the O'Malley report, instigated by my predecessor as Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan. It had 57 recommendations and four overarching themes, all focused on how we can improve the system for individuals as they go through it. As part of that we are trying to continue to map a victim's journey to identify where there are further gaps in the system, not just relating to the criminal justice sector but in the kind of supports that people may need, taking into account the fact that each person's journey is different, based on his or her own factors and backgrounds. It is important we understand the subject from every possible perspective.

Implementing the points in Supporting a Victim's Journey will be progressed as a priority and we have already begun progressing it, most importantly in consultation with stakeholders, as well as the agencies that will implement the changes. This will ensure that at every step of the criminal justice process, vulnerable victims will be supported, informed, respected and treated with the utmost sensitivity and professionalism by those engaging with them.

An important element of this is of course An Garda Síochána's rolling out of the divisional services protective units, which it has committed to doing by the end of September. It has very much held to that commitment. These units, staffed by specially trained officers, will ensure that when victims of domestic abuse present to An Garda Síochána, they will be met with professionalism and sensitive expert assistance. The Garda, along with the judicial system and other stakeholders, have committed to particular training in this regard.

As part of planning how to deliver our services to meet the needs of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, along with the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, I recently published a request for a suitably qualified expert to undertake an audit of how services for victims are segmented across different Departments and agencies. The results of this independent audit will provide us with a comprehensive analysis to inform how we develop proposals for the most effective future infrastructure. In other words, this is not just about the Department of Justice or the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; it involves housing, health, social protection and education. It is about bringing all the work done across the Government together to ensure where we have a plan, a priority and policy, it can be implemented in the best possible way.

As well as conducting this audit, officials in my Department are engaging with stakeholders to review the grant system in place for voluntary organisations to make sure we are providing appropriate funding directed to where it is needed and that these organisations that provide such vital work can plan ahead and know they will have funding for the year ahead and beyond.

We are also midway through the six-year No Excuses campaign, which is a key action of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, which will finish next year. The aims of the campaign are threefold: to increase awareness of domestic and sexual violence, to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes, and to activate bystanders with the aim of decreasing and preventing violence. This campaign is not only about raising awareness of the help that is available to victims of domestic or sexual violence but also designed to make us question our own attitudes and willingness to excuse what should not be acceptable. It calls on us as individuals and as a society to stand up and call out a range of behaviours that should not be tolerated. We have seen this in the past week or so with the focus on the intimate images. It is important to say that these types of campaigns do work. Having engaged with many of the organisations and NGOs that work in this area, I have heard them say that the number of calls increases when these campaigns happen. While it is important to make sure that the support, services and structures are there to help people when they come forward, it is important that people do come forward in the first instance. Requests for help from victims, as I said, has increased. Unfortunately, we have seen domestic and sexual violence increase significantly throughout the pandemic, but we have also seen people come forward for the first time to talk about the types of abuse and violence directed towards them, which is something we really need to take on board.

I wish to reassure Senators that I am fully committed to combating all forms of domestic and sexual violence. I am working to respond to the needs of victims not just, I hope, in a reactionary way in responding to the pandemic and the changing landscape we see but also in trying to ensure we put in place well-researched and well-structured support for the future. This will provide a victim-centred approach that comprehensively meets the needs of those who require it. As Minister for Justice, it is important to me to put in place the necessary structures and systems and to provide that support. This is about the people who interact with those structures and systems, in particular those who are most vulnerable, and I am absolutely committed to supporting them. I thank Members again for bringing me before the House. I look forward to listening to Senators, taking on board their views, concerns and proposals and, I hope, working with them over the coming years to try to address this significant challenge we face.

I thank the Minister for giving an insight into the important actions being taken on the issue of domestic violence.

I remind Members that this debate will be adjourned after roughly an hour and 15 minutes. Each group has about ten minutes. By the time we get around to each group, that will be the debate adjourned, so there will not be a second round. Many Members have indicated that they will share time, so they might liaise with their groups to make sure they manage to get in on this occasion, but the debate will be adjourned and we will come back to the issue. First up we have the Fianna Fáil group and it is Senator Erin-----

Senator Ward should be first.

Senator Gallagher should be aware that the rota I am working from was agreed at a meeting of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, CPP. I can share the rota with the Senator.

On a point of information, in all the debates on justice for which I have been present, when the Minister is a Fine Gael Minister, normally a Fine Gael member has led off.

I am going with the rota that was agreed by the group leaders at the CPP. If the Fianna Fáil group would like the Senator to go first, I have no problem with that. However, according to the rules we are applying, the Fianna Fáil group goes first. Fianna Fáil has ten minutes. Then it will be the turn of the Independent group and then Senator Ward. That was agreed by the CPP.

I indicated to Senator Ward prior to the debate commencing that that would be the case.

I propose to share my time with Senators Currie and Carrigy.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I am grateful to Senator Gallagher for allowing me to speak because I wish to put on the record my appreciation for the work the Minister has done in this area. The understanding and the commitment she has had in this area are reassuring and impressive. She has listed off a number of schemes that are already in place to address these issues. When I say "these issues", this is a huge area. We could spend, as the Cathaoirleach has indicated, days talking about the various aspects of violence: gender-based violence, domestic violence, sexual violence.

There are so many aspects to it, and it is so pervasive and damaging, obviously to the individuals involved but also to society as a whole. The schemes that have been mentioned are very important. The changes in attitude in official Ireland in recent years are very important. In the Courts Service, for example, the provision for victims in terms of criminal proceedings are really important and much improved. An Garda Síochána has a much more solid understanding of these issues now than maybe it had in the past. The Department of Justice has also prioritised these issues. These are really important steps that we must take to address these issues.

Perhaps the most important step that we as a society can take is in terms of my own gender - men - because the reality is that while men are not the exclusive portrayers of this violence and there are men who are victims, something I do not want to diminish, in the context of some of the issues discussed today, for example, the sharing of intimate images that were dumped on the Internet last week, that is a major issue. I heard the Leader of the House this morning querying the term "revenge porn" that is used. She quite rightly said that the suggestion is that there is something to be vengeful for as opposed to it being a mere act of violence of sorts - maybe not physical violence but certainly a violation of the person whose image is involved. It is also extremely damaging in the same way as direct physical violence is. We should recognise that it is just an act of badness and damage that is akin to violence, and the term "revenge porn" perhaps puts it in a category that is not appropriate. Those images were mentioned, and given the time that I have, I do not propose to explore a very wide gamut of issues in this area.

Deputy Howlin's Bill was mentioned and I support what was said about that. This is important legislation and it is great to see Private Members' legislation taking on the import that it has with the Department. It is a recognition that Members of the Houses can propose legislation that can have a significant effect. I look forward to that Bill.

One suggestion I wanted to make and an idea I wanted to float was the fact that Deputy Howlin's Bill criminalises this activity, and rightly so. The difficulty we have is that in terms of the images that were released last week, the horse has to a certain extent bolted in respect of those matters and we generally have a propensity against retrospective legislation. One of the areas in which we can deal with this issue is at a civil level rather than a criminal level. We often talk about the criminalisation of this activity, which is appropriate, but one of the areas where we can genuinely hit people hard is in the civil sphere. It is often easier and more practicable to take cases on a civil basis. The way we could do that is to empower the person in the image with a copyright of that image. In circumstances where an intimate image has been shared in a particular way without consent and other conditions, the person in the image would assume ownership and therefore its copyright. That is important because it means that the platforms that are being used to share these images can be attacked at a civil level.

We know this works because artists whose material is shared on these platforms, be it Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or whatever, without their consent and where they have copyright can go to those platforms and tell them they must remove the image because the person does not have the right to put it up. Empowering the victim in that respect could be a very powerful way to create a tool to tackle the very platforms that are being used to share these horrible and very damaging images. That is something I certainly will speak to Deputy Howlin about, but it is something that might be appropriate for Private Members' legislation as well to create that copyright issue.

Coming back to the main point that was made, it is important to say that we must all take responsibility, particularly men, for standing up to this. Men of any generation, when an image is shared, a joke is told or a comment is passed, must take responsibility for reacting to it, calling it out for what it is, rejecting that behaviour, having difficult conversations with their friends, and saying this is not acceptable, they are not going to stand for it, and they are going to call it out. The more we do that, the much greater chance we have of tackling this kind of behaviour and stopping it. I thank the Minister for attending.

I thank the Minister and thank her for the commitments she has made to tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. She will leave her mark here and I appreciate her style, which is less about the promises and more about delivering.

It is certainly necessary here. I acknowledge the work of the former Minister, Frances Fitzgerald MEP, in this area as well. In her short time in office, the Minister has secured the greater use of live video links and remote hearings, launched awareness campaigns and secured additional Covid funding. She has launched a plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases. "Supporting a Victim's Journey" is a comprehensive roadmap for implementing the O'Malley recommendations to support and protect witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences.

It is fitting that this debate is taking place on the eve of the UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the 16 days of activism leading up to Human Rights Day, as well as during what has been a horrendous time for sufferers of domestic abuse throughout the pandemic, with a 25% increase in domestic violence calls to the Garda. The Minister's most encouraging commitment is to a truly joined-up approach across Government agencies and to mapping a victim's journey with a review of grant schemes and organisations that work with victims. I believe a joined-up approach is required across a girl's and woman's life too, at every age, stage and circumstance. What behaviour is impacting her and how do we prevent it? What messages of support are reaching her and how do we encourage that? We must support her every step of the way and show society, at every step, what is respect, what is consent and what is not consent. The role of men is every bit as important. This is a societal problem, not a female one.

The silent epidemic has moved to the shadows, but the threat of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence must be acknowledged all the time, not just during a pandemic. Having the "Still Here" messages on the till receipts sums it up for me. It was a powerful way of telling women, in a safe space, that we are there for them if required. That is the type of messaging we must provide. We must deliver on that and build a culture and infrastructure around it. The Minister referred to the word "empowerment". Showing that there is support when people need it is the most important message.

We need more long-term, recurring funding for shelters and outreach services in communities and schools, helplines, digital services, awareness campaigns and a constant presence. I have work to do with local organisations to see how I can channel their work to the Minister. Some of the organisations have asked for clarity on the amount of additional ring-fenced funding across Departments. I thank the front-line workers in domestic violence and the many donors and organisations, such as Safe Ireland, Women's Aid, Men's Aid Ireland and the local refuges, that have helped people to cope. I acknowledge the work of the Garda and the completion of the national roll-out of the protective services units.

We have seen the power of collecting data over the past few months. We must continue to do that. We must also work on our education system at every step, in an age-appropriate way, to address the issue of consent.

I welcome the Minister. One line in her speech struck me: "Being able to feel safe and secure, particularly in one's home, is a fundamental right." It is a right, and I welcome that. I fully support the Minister and I know she will implement our national response in this regard.

I also support the Minister's proposal to bring forward legislation in respect of the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 to deal with the distribution or publication of intimate images without consent and with intent to do harm. As Senator Ward said, there is an obligation on young, not so young and middle-aged men to take a lead and play our part. We must delete the images we may receive and tell the sender that it is not okay or acceptable.

I am sharing time with Senator McGreehan.

I welcome the Minister back to the House. I compliment her and the Government on the swift action being taken in respect of the images mentioned by previous speakers. It is good to see such swift action being taken.

Domestic violence comes into sharp focus particularly at this time of the year, at Christmas time, when families spend more time together and there is increased consumption of alcohol within the household. In the context of getting an indication of the extent of the problem here, I would like to compliment work done by Safe Ireland, the national domestic violence association, which works with 39 front-line services throughout the length and breadth of the country. We have a group, Tearmann, in my constituency of Monaghan-Cavan which doses excellent work and I compliment the staff of that organisation on their superb work.

A body of work carried out by Safe Ireland shone a light on the extent of this problem, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. It traced the prevalence of domestic violence during the first six months of the Covid pandemic from March onwards. The results were very disappointing. It was heartbreaking to see the extent of the problem during that particular time. I will briefly share with the Minister some of the information from Safe Ireland's report. During the first six-month period, 3,450 women and 589 children contacted a domestic violence service for the very first time. Some 33,944 telephone calls were answered during that time. That is an average of 184 per day. Sometimes we forget that behind all those figures there are families in deep distress. I can only imagine the pain, hurt and the mental anguish they are going through to have the courage to pick up the phone. It is important also to remember the ones who have yet to be able to pick up the phone to report that violence for fear of what the repercussions might be. I would like to encourage anyone who finds themselves in that situation to pick up the phone as, I am sure, would everybody in this House. As the Minister outlined, thankfully, there is plenty of help available for people.

The other few statistics I noted were that, on average, 191 women and 288 children are living in domestic violence accommodation every single month. More alarmingly, 1,351 requests for accommodation were not forthcoming because of the fact there was no safe space for those people to be housed. That clearly shows that while we are doing great work, much more needs to be done. In my constituency of Monaghan-Cavan we await a refuge centre for the people of those counties. The Minister might comment on that in her response.

Another area Safe Ireland highlighted was the fact that more funding is coming, which is welcome, but it is coming across a few Departments. It requested that an overall figure be given to it in order that these groups could plan for the years ahead. I compliment the Minister on her work to date. I welcome the initiatives introduced by the Government. Unfortunately, they will be all needed and probably more along with them.

The Minister is welcome to the House and I congratulate her on her appointment. It is very important that we have this debate. It has been called for by many of us in the House since the start of this Seanad.

I am very proud to be part of Dundalk Women's Aid. It is one of 39 Safe Ireland domestic violence member services across the country. It does tremendous work against all odds. It is under-resourced, under-staffed and under-valued by many. The importance of organisations like these is often not understood. They are on the front line, trying to hold things together.

This pandemic has highlighted the scourge of domestic violence. However, the increase in the number of victims of domestic violence during the past few months is frightening. We must not overlook that these women and children were more than likely victims before the pandemic. It might just have got so bad they could not cope anymore. They feared for their lives or the lives of their children during the intensity of the lockdown. Domestic abuse and coercive control are the most under-reported, undocumented, unprosecuted crimes in the country and, depressingly, domestic and gender-based violence is a growing problem which must be addressed. It is an abuse that not only can cause physical hurt but emotional turmoil that lasts an entire lifetime. It can send a victim into the most darkest, loneliest, isolated of places. Violence against women remains widespread in every community, across every background and everywhere we look there is more than likely a victim. This has devastating consequences for women, society and it also has a rippling effect on generations afterwards.

There have been many positives in recent years.

The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 introduced a wider range of special measures and other rights and protections for victims of these crimes. These and other developments, such as Operation Faoiseamh, to assist the victims of domestic violence are all extremely welcome. They have already had a hugely positive effect on victims' experiences of the criminal justice system but more must be done. We can make this the safest country for women if we act.

As the Minister said, this is timely. The Minister's move on the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 is so important. I will not say too much on that today because I want to concentrate on domestic violence but we need to protect our citizens. Prevention is better than cure. Creeps share these sexualised photos because they can. They abuse and harass women because they can and as a society, we need to stand up for what is right and stop allowing abusers to use women's bodies against them.

The Government needs to focus on areas where an inter-agency approach has the potential to be most effective. We need the Government to ensure the Minister has the reach, responsibility and resources to ensure there is an active and co-ordinated approach from all Government Departments, showing real leadership to work together to transform the statutory, professional and community-based services and supports that women need. We need a complete national infrastructure which is fit for purpose. By putting in place laws to deter domestic violence, by putting in place infrastructure and supports to empower victims to get out of abusive relationships and by putting the victim front and centre of all acts of legislation and policy, we can stop this. We need society to shame the perpetrator and not the victim. It is not the victim's mistake but the abuser's crime.

We are coming into the Christmas season, which, as Senator Gallagher mentioned, is a difficult time for many people. Our homes should be our castles and where we have fun and love but that is not the case when one is living in a domestic violence situation. Christmas will cause an awful lot of hurt, fear and, unfortunately, violence for many families and victims of domestic violence. We have to make sure that support is out there and that organisations such as Women's Aid and An Garda Síochána are there for victims.

I thank the Senator for her important work on this area in County Louth.

I would like to ask the permission of the House to share my time with Senator Hoey.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I welcome the Minister to the House and commend her on all the work she is doing on this issue. I welcome the opportunity to speak on combating domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

I will say a little, as the Minister did, about the dreadful news of the sharing of so many intimate photos of people. This large-scale leaking of images was distressing and a horrific abuse and my colleague, Senator Hoey, will speak more on that. I want to acknowledge, as the Minister has done, that my Labour Party colleague, Deputy Howlin, brought forward a Private Members' Bill three years ago in 2017, namely the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017, or Coco's law, specifically to tackle, as the Minister knows, online sexual abuse of this sort. It is welcome that it is being expedited through the Houses with Government support and I am glad that is being done. This law is long overdue and I hope it will get through the justice committee next week. I know the Minister is working with Deputy Howlin on the amendments and it will be before us in the Seanad so that we can ensure our laws are robust enough to deal with this issue.

To speak more generally about this week, tomorrow is International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The purpose of the day is to raise awareness of the fact that women and girls around the world are subject to many forms of visible and hidden violence, as we know. Historically, the date is based on the day of the 1960 assassination of three sisters in the Dominican Republic and the theme this year is: "Fund, Respond, Prevent, Collect!". We know this is an enormous global issue, with 243 million women and girls having been abused by an intimate partner in the past year. We know that as Covid-19 took hold and as lockdown measures were implemented, violence against women, particularly within the home, intensified in different levels.

I acknowledge the immense work that has been done by so many agencies. The Minister has spoken about the Garda's Operation Faoiseamh, which has been so important. I also acknowledge the work that has been done by NGOs, such as Safe Ireland, Women's Aid and others, which have stepped up to ensure supports are in place for women and children experiencing violence.

The figures are very disturbing. Safe Ireland's Tracking the Shadow of the Pandemic report shows just how many women and children have been affected. Some 2,000 women and 411 children have been in receipt of support from services each month since March. Figures from the Garda also show very high levels of applications for barring orders each day. It behoves all of us to support measures that are being taken to help those who are suffering in this way and to ensure that we are raising awareness about the issue.

I commend ICTU, the trade union movement, which is calling on the Government to ratify ILO Convention No. 190 on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work, as part of marking the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. The trade unions are also seeking to raise awareness about this issue. During the negotiations on the programme for Government, I called for consideration to be given to creating a dedicated ministerial position to address domestic violence and gender-based violence, because we are aware that there is an epidemic across the country.

I acknowledge the Minister's great commitment to the issue, but it is crucial that we would see strong Government leadership across Departments so that a multi-agency and multi-departmental approach is being taken. We must work with NGOs as well. The Minister and I are both speaking at a Women's Aid event tomorrow, as is President Michael D. Higgins, which will highlight intimate relationship abuse. That is an important event.

I wish to speak very briefly about two other areas. In terms of sexual abuse and rape, the Minister has referenced the report by Tom O'Malley. I agree with her that the recommendations must be implemented. We know that the 2017 Act did bring in significant reforms, including, for the first time, a statutory definition of consent, but the other recommendations on supports for victims and complainants in sex abuse cases must also be implemented. We know about the low levels of reporting. We also know about the need to fund the 16 rape crisis centres, which perform an essential service providing advice and counselling to survivors.

In the context of the sex trade, I refer to the important report by the sexual exploitation research programme, SERP, at UCD, which was launched last week. It is an important report on Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which banned the purchase of sex. It showed that violence against women is endemic in the sex trade and that those who enter the sex trade do so in very constrained circumstances. Many see prostitution as an escape route from poverty but the SERP data very importantly suggest that it, in fact, entrenches poverty. I ask the Minister to take on board the important report from SERP. I am aware that there is a three-year review under way into Part 4. It is hugely important that we raise public awareness about this legislation, that we look at expunging criminal records for historical convictions related to selling sex and that we ensure training for all those involved in implementing the law.

We must fund, respond, prevent and collect data in terms of our national strategy and global strategy to tackling the endemic gender-based violence and domestic violence against women.

Domestic violence does not just happen as physical violence behind closed doors. It also happens on mobile phones, family laptops and iPads. It can be image-based, financial, verbal or in a closed WhatsApp group. As our means of communication change and as our lives change with technology, we have to assume that this behaviour carries into the new wave of living too and we need to regulate these spaces.

There are no stereotypes in domestic violence. It can happen in any home, on any platform, in any town, in a number of different ways. As we all become tech natives, we need to know that perpetrators will be held accountable for actions online as well. We in the Labour Party recognised this issue three years ago when Deputy Howlin produced a Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017. This Bill has been trudging along for three whole years. It breaks my heart to think of the harm that has been caused in the past three years to the young people who are bullied online, to the point of taking their own lives. My colleague, Senator Bacik, referenced Coco's Law. For those who do not know, the Bill was named after Nicole Coco Fox Fenton, a teenager who died by suicide after she was continuously abused online. None of the perpetrators has ever been held to account. Deputy Howlin's Bill will provide recourse under the auspices of the law for the perpetrators of such cruel and torturous behaviour online.

Another element of Deputy Howlin's Bill would be to make it a criminal offence to distribute intimate images without consent. Image-based sexual abuse or violence is a repugnant vile act. It is a heinous act that is designed to shame and gain control over a person who has had their intimate images shared without their consent. We are all aware of the news in the past week that a large cache of illicit images was leaked online. While the full details of the case remain to be revealed, it is very clear that the issue of image-based sexual violence is a real one in this country and one that must be tackled immediately.

Image-based sexual violence is a real issue in Ireland, and must be tackled immediately. Image-based sexual violence has been an offence in the UK since 2015. In the first year alone, 206 people were prosecuted under the new law there. Too often, women are the targets of online abuse. I want to take a moment to have it noted on the record that the response online to me speaking out against image-based sexual violence was nothing short of shocking. As I said at the time, I will not be silenced. Those who seek to intimidate those of us in public life who speak out against these sorts of violent crimes will not silence us.

I am someone who has experienced sexual violence. I am not alone, and I am possibly not the only person in this room who has experienced sexual violence of some form. There are people who are watching this debate who have experienced sexual violence. I want to put it on the record: I believe you, I see you, I hear you, and it was not your fault.

I warmly welcome the fact that there has been so much recognition from across the political landscape of the various serious and corrosive impacts that sexual violence can have on a person. While we need societal change in respect of sexual and domestic violence, I hope that as legislators, we undertake our duties to ensure there is robust legislation in place to deal with these vile acts. Too many vulnerable people, both young and old, are affected by harmful online bullying and harassment. That private, intimate images of young people can be shared online is totally unacceptable. Harassment, stalking and aggravated online bullying are not acceptable; they have never been acceptable. I look forward to the day in the coming weeks when they will be criminal offences, and the perpetrators of these egregious offences will be held to account under the full force of the law. I look forward to working with the Minister and colleagues across the political spectrum to put an end finally to something that has been a very difficult process for a number of people watching.

I would like to share my time with Senator Garvey.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank her for the work she has been undertaking along with my party colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman. I also wish to congratulate the Labour Party, particularly Deputy Howlin and Senator Bacik, for its hard work over a long period in this area. I know they will all be speaking tomorrow and I look forward to it.

Two years ago I attended a convention on the centenary of women being granted the right to vote in Ireland. At the event were the granddaughters of Emmeline Pankhurst and Hanna Sheehy Skeffington. I am sure many Senators will know Micheline Sheehy Skeffington. We took part in an exercise at the event, in which we raised a number of fingers to demonstrate how we rated the advancements that have been made in various aspects of gender equality. On the issue of violence, we all put up a fist because nothing has changed for us in the last 100 years when it comes to gender-based violence. I was going to speak about the fact that at the event, which was attended by approximately 200 people, I could count on one hand the number of men who were there. In that context, I was delighted when Senator Ward spoke about the importance of men getting involved in this work. I was going to comment on how shameful it is to need to have Taoiseach's nominees to bring some sort of gender balance to the floor of this Chamber, but if we also have men speaking about these issues, that will also advance things for all of us. I do not think the Minister mentioned it in her opening statement, but I would like her to speak to her Cabinet colleagues about the importance across all of the Ministries in terms of gender-based violence.

I spoke in the Seanad this morning on the importance of education. We are out of date by 20 years when we talk about coming into the 20th century in respect of sex education in schools. A survey of over 2,000 students that was carried out by NUIG and the Union of Students in Ireland earlier this year showed that just 15% of women and 20% of men in third level education were satisfied with the kind of sex education they had received in secondary school.

We have to stop wrapping up religion with sex in this country. It is beyond time. In that survey, a secondary school boy said he was told by a religious teacher, who was clearly teaching sex education, that he would be better off looking at the cycle of the woman with whom he was engaged in intimate relations rather than using any form of contraception. That goes on into third level. Consent is lacking as part of that education programme and we cannot expect to see any advances at all unless we address this issue urgently. I ask the Minister to bring that to attention of her Cabinet colleague.

This is the first programme for Government to refer to domestic violence. The Minister has mentioned some of the things she is undertaking and I welcome all of them. Coercive control is now a crime and we saw the first prosecution earlier this month. There is also the domestic homicide review, the amendment of the Bill about which we were speaking earlier, and the implementation of a plan for refuge space.

Senator Currie also spoke about this but I would like to bring to the Minister's attention the importance of organisations and NGOs knowing how much funding they have. It is an incredibly difficult cause for an organisation or NGO to raise money for. They do not feel comfortable going out and asking the public for money for it in the same way they would with other things. As a society, we have to get more comfortable with calling out sexual violence but as a Government we also need to ensure we put funding in place to close that gap and make up that shortfall.

We have a very serious matter to discuss today. Some 15% of all women and 6% of all men in Ireland have experienced severe domestic violence from a partner. That would, statistically, put at least three of us in this room in that category. I concur with Senator Hoey that she is, sadly, not the only one in this room who has suffered from sexual abuse. I can personally vouch for that. The sad thing is that I know very few women who have not been harassed sexually or abused verbally at some stage in their lives. As younger women we may have put up with it but now, as older women, we know it is not acceptable. However, there is still a cohort of younger women who are putting up with these low standards which we have to nip in the bud.

One of the important things I wanted to talk about today is the education aspect of this matter. Sometimes, the perpetrators themselves are not even aware that what they are doing is not acceptable because we do not have the vocabulary for it. We might feel it in our gut that it is wrong, whether as victim or perpetrator, but we do not have the vocabulary to use our words to protect ourselves when we are in an uncomfortable situation. Often, having the right words at the right time can deflect a situation before it escalates.

I have been researching this issue and there are some social enterprises around education. Life Connections is one of the only ones I could find that works with adolescents from a preventative point of view. This was a pandemic before we ever had a Covid pandemic and that is one of the missing pieces of the jigsaw. What the Minister said about interdepartmental stuff is great but if we plan to nip this in the bud, prevention and education has to be a proper part of it. Women's Aid was founded in 1974. This has been going on such a long time but the Minister might be the one who finally puts it to bed. This House might do it too, because 40% of the people in this House are female.

I really appreciate what Senator Ward said. It would be great if a lot of men did what he suggested, called out other men and said it is not good enough or acceptable anymore. Sometimes when women try to say such things they are told it must be their time of the month or that they are just being emotional and a woman and so on. It is important for men to call men out as well. Most men are good people but unfortunately they are getting a bad name and there are lots of generalisations about men because of those few. It is nearly more of a responsibility for men than women to call out this activity.

On a positive note, I refer to two excellent courses.

There is a level 8 course in Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, that covers domestic abuse and coercion, and looks at real data on how to prevent this. In my home county of Clare some amazing people started Clare Haven Services, which I used myself in the past. Mary FitzGerald, Colette Redington and Gerry Brennan were at the forefront of that. After years of working in Clare Haven Services they realised something else needed to be done and that they could not just firefight all the time. I would describe the service as the accident and emergency side of domestic violence and abuse in that it is at the end of it. They have set up a group called Haven Horizons that looks at the education side and how we can prevent it from happening. I do not believe that anybody is born and sets out to be a perpetrator or an abuser, or sets out to be a victim, but it is happening. There has to be a huge emphasis on it. It needs to be brought to Cabinet so we can all work together, particularly for funding. I have fundraised for Clare Haven Services and for Aware, but these services should not have to be fundraised for. They should be mandatory services. It is such a huge part of who we are as a nation to see how we treat our women and our children, and to see how we treat this huge issue. We have to look at that and not have these amazing NGOs living in fear of not being funded. They should not be charities. They should be State-funded and guaranteed every year.

I must say hats off to the group in Clare, in particular. It will have the first level 6 FETAC course. It will be launched in January and will be available online. It will be open to everybody and anybody. It is to do with education around domestic violence and coercive abuse, which is a huge unnamed and unrecognised issue we also have. Coming as I do from an education background, I believe that we must look at these services and put to bed this horrific and archaic abuse that people have to deal with. I look forward to supporting the Minister, Deputy McEntee. I believe that she could be the woman for the job.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to the Seanad for statements on domestic violence and gender based violence. I apologise if I leave the Chamber without hearing the Minister's response because I must go to a committee. I will listen back to it.

Domestic violence is an issue that is particularly personal to me. We in Ireland have a very long way to go to improve on the issue. I welcome the recent improvements by this Government and the previous Government around coercive control and the implementation of divisional protective services units, which are very positive developments. It is also worth noting that the Government has supported great initiatives such as Operation Faoiseamh and the Still Here campaigns. I echo what other Senators have said, however, that it is not enough to just reference the campaigns or to namecheck them. It is absolutely essential that domestic violence services are modernised and backed up with the resources that assist them to carry out their vital work.

Reference was made to the Safe Ireland report. The figures are stark: 3,450 women and 589 children contacted a domestic violence service for the first time this year and 33,941 helpline calls were made, which averages at 184 calls per day. This is 184 cries for help every single day in this country. What is even more terrifying is that fact that between March and August of this year 1,351 requests for refuge went unmet because the services were full. This means that eight women a day were turned away because there was nowhere for them to go. Fleeing from a domestic violence situation comes with enormous risk. Consider the eight women a day who made that decision, who built up the courage to flee, and are then turned away because of the lack of refuge places. In nine counties in the State there is not even a refuge for women to go to. Not only is this a national scandal, it is also a breach of our legal obligations under the Istanbul Convention. I am aware that it was not during the Minister, Deputy McEntee's time, it was her predecessor Minister, Deputy Flanagan, when Ireland ratified the Istanbul Convention, but we are still failing to meet one of its basic asks. The Council of Europe convention is very clear when its sets out the obligation to provide a minimum number of refuge spaces, and that number is one refuge space for every 10,000 women in the population. Does the Minister accept that obligation under the convention? If she does, will the Minister correct the situation whereby we were misled by a previous Government Minister, former Deputy Zappone, that the number was one refuge space per 10,000 people in the population?

This is clearly false. I hope that now we have a new Government and new Ministers, we will have an acceptance that that interpretation is false and that the resources will be made available to provide the necessary refuge spaces.

I also echo comments from others in welcoming the announcements of additional funding for Tusla. Will the Minister outline how much of that is being allocated to domestic violence services? The Department of Justice has additional funding to support its new strategy, Supporting a Victim's Journey, but what we hear from domestic violence services is that they have no clarity on how much of that will go to fund their services. Will the Minister clarify that for these organisations and give a commitment that the funding will be available to them, that it will be criteria led, that it will be fair, and that it will be regionally balanced?

Safe Ireland also reported that, every month, 15 women in refuge are unable to move on and free up those spaces for other women because there is literally no suitable accommodation for them to go to. I know it is not the responsibility of the Minister's Department to fix the housing crisis, and God knows it needs fixing, but will she give a commitment that these women will at least be counted in the homeless figures because currently they are not? They are part of that cohort of the hidden homeless that exist in this country.

My party leader, Deputy McDonald, and her colleague Deputy Louise O'Reilly introduced the domestic violence leave Bill to the Oireachtas last week. When I was in the European Parliament, I successfully introduced a report outlining why domestic violence leave is so critical and why financial security is so important for victims of domestic violence. This type of leave already exists in New Zealand, the Philippines and regionally in Canada and Australia. Apart from the personal emotional and psychological cost of domestic violence, it also results in excessive absenteeism from work and can reduce productivity. It puts victims at an increased risk of losing their financial independence. A British trade union-led study found that 2% of employees lost their employment as a result of absenteeism caused by domestic violence. Domestic violence leave will facilitate women to access court appointments and doctor appointments and to source alternative accommodation so that they can escape the situation that they are in. I ask that the Minister give a commitment to supporting this Bill as it progresses through the Houses.

I offer my solidarity to the women who have found themselves victims of image-based violence and image-based sexual abuse this week with the sharing of their intimate photos on online platforms. I think we were all shocked by what we read about those images being shared and the number of men who were involved in sharing those images, but I think what probably shocked us even more was the type of commentary that has followed from some quarters. It shows that we have a very long way to go in this country in tackling misogyny and victim blaming. I welcome the fact that the Minister has committed her support of Coco's law and I guarantee that Sinn Féin will not be found wanting in working with her and all of her colleagues across the Houses to ensure that this legislation is finally brought in and that it is fit for purpose. Although I think we do need firm commitments, I echo what others have said: we do need men to stand up. I welcome Senator Ward's comments and I think more of his colleagues need to start saying that publicly. I echo the comments of Senator Garvey around the importance of education. I would like to hear the Minister say that she will go to Cabinet, and that they will develop a strategy to address victim blaming, misogyny, and attitudes towards consent in this country because we have a long way to go.

I am very glad we can have this discussion. Many of us from all parties have been calling for action and a debate on this since this Seanad first convened. It has acquired particular urgency this week in the context of the image-based sexual violence we have been hearing about.

It is also important to note that in the wider context of the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a shocking increase in terms of the vulnerabilities associated with violence against women and that this increase is international. The United Nations has described violence against women during the pandemic as a shadow pandemic and has referenced calls internationally having increased fivefold. Our obligations internationally relate to the Istanbul convention, the Council of Europe convention on gender-based violence and domestic violence and the United Nations sustainable development goals. Those are our long-standing obligations in the international context. The other international context is that epidemic of violence and the reductions in many countries across the world in protections, as we have seen recently with some European countries seeking to reduce these protections and exit the Istanbul convention. It is important that Ireland remains strong and is a leader in that regard.

Within the pandemic, as has been described, there were 33,941 helpline calls and 27,000 incidents to which the Garda were called in terms of domestic violence and intimate partner violence. It is a terrifying time for many people across Ireland. I refer to the horror, not so much of what happened last week because imaged-based sexual violence was happening, but the exposure last week of the depth of image-based sexual violence in Ireland, which was very harrowing and distressing for many. It exposed, as has been said, not just that this type of violence and abuse was happening but also the attitudes and entitlement that seem to underpin it, which came across in the commentary in regard to these actions as well.

I welcome that the Minister is supporting the legislation. My group will support it and work to strengthen it and ensure it moves speedily through the Houses. I would like to flag a couple of key issues that I think will be important. It is important not only that this is identified as image-based sexual abuse and violence but that it is identified as sexual abuse and a sexual offence. That is important. It should not be about image without consent, which is also very important, it should be specifically a sexual offence and have that effect. I welcome the idea of looking into "real or threatened" behaviour. The threat of such images is one of the issues we discussed in our deliberations on coercive control. It is important too much emphasis is not placed solely on the intent. We do not want intent to become a defence in relation to the conduct of this effect. If the effect is on a person whose images are shared, that should be our central focus. The experience of such persons and their needs must be centre-focused.

As I said, coercive control is an example of how, if we work cross-party on legislation, we can make an immense difference. The offence of coercive control was introduced in the last Seanad. It involved cross-party work by some who are Members of this Oireachtas such as Senators Clifford-Lee and Ardagh, members of Fine Gael, members of the Civil Engagement Group, including me and former Senator Colette Kelleher, as well as Senator Bacik and others. There was extremely close co-operation, including from Sinn Féin via former Senator Máire Devlin. I am highlighting this work because it required people really co-operating. We were told it was impossible to bring in a coercive control offence, that it could not be implemented and would be unenforceable, but we pressed and persevered and over six months the position of the Government changed and we did introduce an offence of coercive control. It has been extraordinarily important as a message in terms of what is or is not acceptable in terms of how people treat each other. It has been an empowering message for many and has allowed people to stand up and say that how they are being treated is not accepted, it is wrong and it is coercive control. I was glad to see the first successful prosecution taking place last week. I highlight this to encourage us to be ambitious around image-based sexual abuse and sexual violence. A change and a shift is really important. It can happen and it has an impact.

We talked about homes a lot, which are on our minds because of the pandemic, but one other important aspect of that legislation is the fact that it includes other intimate partner relationships including dating and other relationships where a person is being targeted with coercive control. It is not simply for those who live together. If people are being targeted with sexual abuse or coercive control it is important for them to know they can take action even if they are not living with the person concerned. It is important to say that because a lot of younger women, in particular, who are in dating relationships and who experience sexual violence and abuse do not know that this legislation applies to them and that they are protected under the law and have rights.

There was real legislative progress in the last Oireachtas and now we have the task of implementing that legislation. The big piece was the pushing forward of the Istanbul convention. However, the problem is that the ratification has not yet been followed up by the requisite resources. We have spoken about a bystander campaign but I am concerned about the consequences of running such a campaign, of encouraging people to reach out, to call and take action when we know that 1,351 people were turned away from shelters. For somebody who takes the step of leaving an abusive situation to be met with a closed door is unacceptable. We know that the point at which such action is taken, when somebody tries to make a break for it, is when he or she becomes most vulnerable. Furthermore, it is not acceptable for Ireland to use a sophism to suggest that we only need half of the number of shelter places as every other country that has signed up to the Istanbul convention. The suggestion that we need one for every 10,000 women, rather than one for every 10,000 members of the population must be addressed. We should not be trying to come up with maths-like solutions to what are real and sometimes life and death situations.

In terms of funding and resources, Safe Ireland has called for €7.5 million. There is a concern that there are still counties in Ireland that do not have shelters. Members will know of the difficulties faced by shelters. I know that the Galway Rape Crisis Centre, for example, has again and again faced the possibility of closure and being on the brink. Constantly struggling is the norm for shelters around the country. I welcome the Minister's commitment to multi-year funding but it must be really robust and substantial. It is also important, in the context of the role of Tusla which was mentioned earlier, that this is not just funding for services but also for advocacy. I am concerned that those engaged in supporting the women - predominantly but not exclusively - who are accessing services and supports are able to have a say and provide feedback on what is needed. This is really crucial work, which we saw with organisations like the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, Safe Ireland, Rape Crisis Network Ireland and others in terms of driving that really positive debate around coercive control and making it an offence. I urge the Minister to ensure that the voice of those affected by this issue and the capacity of organisations to support that voice is also part of the picture in terms of resourcing the change in culture vis-à-vis domestic violence in Ireland.

Supporting the Victim's Journey is a really positive start in terms of changing the extraordinarily and shockingly high fallout rates. A very small number of people actually report violence and then many disappear from the system because it is so gruelling. Supporting the Victim's Journey is really important but I ask the Minister to comment on the issue of training for judges. Will training be provided for judges around how they engage with these issues? I ask because understanding is needed.

There is a lot more to be done in every sector including in academia and the workplace. ICTU and others have put forward proposals in this regard. I encourage the Minister to support the domestic violence leave issue. We need safer cities.

Lastly, I raise the issue of consent. The most important issue is freedom and ensuring that women have the freedom to participate in society sexually, personally and in every other aspect of their lives. That is the reward and that is what happens if we make these changes.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today. I support Coco's law. Some weeks ago, the parents and grandparents of two beautiful girls were outside the gates of Leinster House with the girls' photographs. Looking at the images of these girls, one found oneself wondering what happened, why and how. My mind immediately goes to the mother and father standing in a mortuary looking at the cold body of their beautiful child, dead. Why? They do not know and neither do we. We know that there was some online harassment involved. We might think of it as childhood playing but it is not. We have taken the bullies out of the school and brought them onto social media. Being online and anonymous allows these bullies to do and say what they feel like. There is no way, or at least it is extremely difficult, to track down who is saying something to someone. People may think that, at the end of the day, it is only a bit of fun and that they are only giving someone a hard time but we forget that none of us, no matter how strong we are, can take constant harassment.

I recall from my time as a teacher, teaching a computer course, mainly to young men who were 18 or 19 years of age. I was sitting in my office one day when the door burst open and a young man stood before me in floods of tears. He kept shouting, "I am not a homosexual." I tried to figure out what was going on. The Internet was not around at that time but there was a messaging system on the computing system we were using. It started with one message a day, then it became two, then ten and then it was a message every 15 minutes. This young man was subjected to this treatment because he had an effeminate way about him. If the Internet had been available at that stage, it would have pursued him outside of the college and followed him into his home and into his bedroom.

The year I became president of the Teachers Union of Ireland, twin girls committed suicide in Donegal within two weeks of one another. I remember visiting the school. It was in absolute disarray. The teachers and children were in a state of nervous tension. The principal told me that he sat in his car at night because his family could no longer take the messages coming into the House. He sat in his car at night while his staff supervised social media and tipped him off as to where there might be a problem. This was going on constantly. He told me that what bothered him was that the parents of these children made sure they changed into their pyjamas, brushed their teeth and washed their faces before they went to bed but that the one thing they would not do was take their phones off them so they would not have access to social media. The children, therefore, bring the harassment to their bedrooms with them.

This brings me on to where we need to go. We need Coco's law and I congratulate Deputy Howlin and all in the Labour Party for bringing it forward. We need to go back to our education system as well. We need to instil in children who go through the education system what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. As a teacher, I have had occasion to talk to parents who insisted that their little John or Mary would never do anything, but they do. They drove some beautiful young girls to take their own lives. That is what it is about. The more quickly society wakes up to that fact, the better. Members of this House have been harassed. We eventually tracked down the person who was harassing a former Labour Party Senator and he was taken before the courts.

That sort of harassment goes on all day, every day. It occurs across all socioeconomic groupings and genders.

That brings me to the topic of domestic violence. It never ceases to amaze me. One can meet a lovely couple who have just met and are madly in love. Everything seems fantastic. They get married or simply move in together and set up a home. Somewhere along the line it goes terribly wrong. It says something about our society that we are prepared to turn a blind eye to the violence that goes on. Any woman I have ever known who was subjected to domestic violence was broken and destroyed by the time it became public knowledge. Women's mental health is ruined. Recovery takes years.

I do not know why any man would go that way. A woman can be a hard person to live with and I am sure men can be hard to live with. Some of us do not seem to be able to argue, get the frustration of normal human relationships out into the open, solve the problem and move on. All too sadly for so many women and some men, we end up in a situation where violence is the only solution. It is pretty harrowing to think that couples who start out so beautifully can finish that way.

We must be mindful of an issue that came up as a result of the 2008 economic crash. I have met a significant number of women who are single parents today. Their husbands borrowed money on the strength of the family home and when things took a turn for the worse they inflicted another sort of violence. They walked away, leaving these women with children and nothing else but debts, problems and the constant threat of losing their homes. We have no solution. I dealt with one woman whose husband had doubled the mortgage through a predatory lending company. When the cheque for the second half of the mortgage arrived he picked up the cash, which he told her he was using to pay off tax debts, and left her with nothing. The ruthless banks known as "vulture funds" came after her. They did not go after him to find out what he had done with the money. My colleague, Senator Ward, is looking at me. I know the family home was the asset and that is what the banks naturally pursued. I can understand that. However, this is a form of domestic violence that nobody sees.

The type of violence we are talking about takes place in the shadows, without the knowledge of the general public. Sometimes even the relations of those involved do not know how badly the relationship has broken down. By the time a woman makes it public that she is suffering from domestic violence that she can no longer live with, she is a broken individual. I remember when the first refuge centre in Galway opened in the 1970s. People thought we did not need one in Galway because that type of thing did not happen there. The numbers read out by my colleagues today put the lie to that. Somebody said that Covid-19 has accelerated this. I do not believe it has. Rather, there is no respite at all now. Husbands, wives and children are at home all of the time. This has brought the issue into the open once again.

I will support the Labour Party and I hope we see some strong legislation on this.

I would like to share my time. I will take two minutes, with the same length of time for Senators Mary Seery Kearney and Shane Cassells.

We have another five minutes, so whoever is in the middle will have to speak next time.

I am happy to wait until we adjourn.

That is fine. I thank Senator Seery Kearney.

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. This is a difficult topic. I heard the Minister speaking on this issue and its impact on women especially in Ireland in difficult and terrifying situations. The Minister stated public information campaigns make a difference. That is why we must talk about this issue, ensure it is not a hidden secret and bring it out into the open. I speak clearly about active bystanders as well. The statistics are shocking and the home is not a safe place. I pay tribute to the and No Excuses campaigns from the Minister's Department, which make it clear that people in this situation can travel outside the 5 km limit. I also refer to the national roll-out of the Garda divisional protective services units. I also mention MOVE Ireland - Men Overcoming Violence, which is a fantastic initiative I heard of recently. We must support those counsellors who are working with men in group sessions to change behaviours and attitudes.

Which parts of the country are piloting live video links and remote hearings? I ask these questions in the context of huge backlogs in courts. I come from an area where there is a great deal of disadvantage. Many women are engaging with legal aid, but there are huge backlogs. There is a wait of two to three months to access legal aid in County Galway and there is no full-time Legal Aid Board in Roscommon. On that aspect, how do we encourage solicitors to take on more legal aid? They are turning away from it in droves. On front-line policing, when will all gardaí receive the specialist training, and will it also include details of and referral to groups such as MOVE Ireland?

I thank Senator Dolan for sharing her time. Some powerful statements were made during this debate. Some contributions touched on the point that many counties do not have shelter or support services. I record my appreciation for the services provided in County Meath. Those services, like many others throughout the country, started in a voluntary capacity back in 1987 in Navan. Over the decades, countless women and families have been supported, and mainly voluntarily until the HSE and Meath County Council provided funding to support the services in recent times. I acknowledge what Deirdre Murphy and Sinead Smith have done in keeping those services going.

One aspect I will touch on are the other victims of domestic violence, namely, the children impacted by that violence. The support services provided must then get into the complex area of supporting those children. Imagine how scary it is to be brought to a women's refuge as a result of domestic violence in one's home. I refer to what the professional team there are trained to do to ensure that is not as scary an experience, in respect of the assessment and the report plan for children coming into a refuge. I also refer to the one-to-one interventions provided. There is a "Mammy and me" programme for mothers with children under four years old, as well as group programmes for children. I record my thanks for the work going on in my local refuge at Flower Hill in Navan and in those throughout the country.

On the issue of funding, and State support, which has been raised by several Senators, many people are also supporting these services in a private capacity. Every year, there are Christmas appeals. The impact of Covid-19, though, means that this year the normal hampers and other supports usually brought to women's refuges are not allowed. It is possible to support women's refuges online this year, however. I ask people to make themselves aware of that possibility and to support these refuges online where that is possible.

Sitting suspended at 4.15 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.