I thank the Cathaoirleach for inviting me in to be part of the inaugural debate under these new structures. As a Minister who gets invited into Seanad Éireann to speak in debates, it is better to speak after hearing everybody's contribution. It is not for me to advise Seanad Éireann on its business, but it is a more informative way of approaching these matters. It has been an honour for me to sit through this debate. We all attend debates in the Oireachtas from time to time that are a little bit flat - tonight was anything but. I am struck by the passion and strength of feeling across the political parties and groupings in the Chamber. I am proud to stand here on behalf of the Government to wholly endorse the motion put forward by Senator Ruane and thank her for her leadership on this issue. I always try to listen closely to what colleagues have to say but I listen particularly to what Senator Ruane has to say on matters like this. I know she has a lifetime of work behind her. I thank her for bringing that expertise, for the way she did not just rush in with a motion and for the clear body of work she did to arrive at this point. I thank our dear friend, Senator Norris, as well and everybody who has contributed.
There is probably not a more timely moment for this motion. I was on college campuses yesterday in Kerry and the thing that struck me was the noise. When you walk into colleges, you hear the noise of students and staff, the noise of excitement, hope and giddiness of people being back on college campuses and seeing each other. There is an obligation on all of us to make sure that the campus is a safe place and that excitement, joy, hope and optimism are maintained throughout the college experience. This is not always the case, and that is the challenge confronting all of us. I thank Senators for the opportunity to be here. We should, in passing the motion, not just acknowledge the motion. We should make a commitment to each other. I make a commitment to this House, considering the strength of feeling on this matter, that this is not a once-off debate. We should look at ways in which we can work together, as Members of Seanad Éireann in the Senators' case and as a member of the Government in mine, to try to make real, discernible, concrete progress on this. I look forward to working with Senator Ruane and all colleagues across Seanad Éireann on achieving change and reforms for victims of bullying and sexual harassment.
Before I speak on the specifics of my Department's work, I will say a few words on the broader context of sexual harassment and sexual violence. It is a statement of the obvious but it is important to say that no country, community or institution is immune to the occurrence of sexual harassment and that it can happen to anyone and anywhere. I was struck by a number of Senators who made the point that starting this conversation at third level is too late. I share that view. How do we have this conversation at a much earlier stage in an age-appropriate way? My colleague and friend, Senator Carrigy, made the point about social media. I think it has a real role. I launched the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's annual report a couple of years ago and was struck by the centre's fear and concern in relation to how young people, particularly young men, are now learning about sex. It is on mobile apps and they are getting a very perverse view of the world. It is a frightening time to be a parent. There is an obligation on us as a Government, I say to Senator Warfield's point, to move forward with the reforms that need to take place in relation to RSE and, to Senator Joe O'Reilly's point, in our primary and secondary schools, as well.
We know sexual harassment affects men and women but sexual harassment and sexual violence against women and girls is an issue of gender equality. Without a sustained, consistent and ambitious effort to eradicate sexual violence and harassment, real gender equality remains elusive. As for bullying, this act of aggression and dominance cuts to the bone of the victim and, like cases of sexual violence and harassment, it can have a profound impact on an individual's life, livelihood, relationships and participation in communities. It must be our collective aim to work together in partnership to build a society, culture and institutions where these behaviours are not tolerated. To protect victims and ensure accountability, we must prevent through information and awareness-raising, especially on matters such as consent, we must reduce through putting in place structures, procedures and policies that severely limit the potential occurrence of sexual harassment and bullying and we must support. We must ensure that every victim of sexual harassment and bullying is given the right supports and the space to heal and that people in institutions are held accountable for bullying and sexual harassment.
Tackling sexual harassment and violence in third level is a key and explicit commitment in the programme for Government. My Department, like the Government as a whole, remains committed to addressing this issue. Experiences of sexual harassment and violence have a hugely negative impact on each individual, affecting overall well-being and academic and professional attainment. They also impact at the institutional level, permeating the cultural norms and having a direct effect on student and staff retention, as well as on institutional reputation. Higher education institutions have a responsibility to their students and staff and must foster a campus culture that is clear in the condemnation of unwanted and unacceptable behaviours. They must set out their stall that every student and staff member is entitled to safety and to active participation in all parts of college life.
I will share with Senators a few initiatives my Department has advanced since it was founded a little over a year ago. Senators will be aware of the framework for consent in higher education institutions, launched in 2019. Its core values are transparency, consistency and integrity, and these underpin all aspects of the framework. It is key to the creation of an institutional campus culture which is safe, respectful and supportive and where students feel safe, empowered, confident and capable in their relationships with fellow students. However, I think it is too easy to hide under a national framework. One can publish glossy documents and say, "Here is this framework document". It is well intentioned, a lot of work went into it and I do not mean to be flippant or dismiss it, but more important is how that framework is applied to each institution, and what the president of college X or college Y does to make sure all of his or her staff and students are safe. I think that is at the heart of what Senator Joe O'Reilly was suggesting.
The first letter I wrote to the presidents of every higher education institution when I took up this role was not about traditional issues like funding, safe returns to college and all those important matters. It was on the issue of how they will strengthen their individual and collective actions at institutional level. I wrote to every president of every higher education institution and asked them strongly to develop individual institutional action plans on tackling sexual violence and harassment and to align it with the framework. What are you going to do about it? I asked them to submit their action plans to the Higher Education Authority and to report against them every year. That is the only way we can measure the progress. I am pleased to say every institution has now published an action plan, has published the institutional plan on their website and is reporting on progress in implementing the framework and the action plans. They are due to submit that first progress report in the first quarter of this year.
I was taken by the point made by Senator Chambers that it is important that there are on-campus campaigns to communicate these so that every student and staff member understands what they can expect, what they can do if they have a complaint, and, in response to Senator Seery Kearney's point, how the procedure works and the steps they can expect to be followed.
The reason I wrote that letter in August 2020 and that I have prioritised this issue, in addition to the fact it is a key commitment in the programme for Government, is down to Dr. Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin. I met her and was taken by what she had to say. She put it to me clearly that there were simple steps. She did not just come and tell me her story. I do not mean to be dismissive about that because her story was powerful and compelling and what she encountered was disgraceful. She also came to me with a concrete list of things we needed to do. That is how Dr. Ní Shúilleabháin works. One thing she said was that we needed an evidence base and data. If we are serious about eradicating sexual violence and harassment, we need to know its prevalence and type. Work to build the evidence base on issues of sexual violence and harassment is under way and, earlier this year, I launched surveys for the first time into staff and student experiences of sexual violence and harassment in our higher education institutions. This will be an annual survey.
I praise the USI, which has done work in this space. I do not think it is acceptable that we leave it to, or put the burden on, a student union to carry out these things. We should be doing them as part of the core business of a Government Department and a higher education authority. The Higher Education Authority expects to be able to report to me on these surveys shortly and we will use this information to further develop the most effective and targeted policies to tackle sexual violence and sexual harassment.
A number of projects and initiatives are under way in relation to how we raise awareness about harassment, consent and reporting.
My Department and the HEA have funded Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education in Ireland to develop that speak-out tool. This will enable students and staff to report anonymously incidents of bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and sexual violence. People will want to report in different ways. The tool will also assist in recording the prevalence of the incidents on campus. I am pleased to say it will be launched in the coming weeks and rolled out during this academic year.
My Department has partnered with the Department of Justice, and with NUIG on its active consent programme. I was pleased to be at NUIG with Senator Dolan recently. We now have the very first online learning hub, which will, for the very first time, provide an integrated, publicly available resource on sexual consent awareness and learning. This builds on a very substantial body of work that has been undertaken through the active consent programme and comes as part of the Government's initiative to improve the understanding, meaning and importance of consent in sexual activity, communication and violence prevention. Senators may have noted that, just yesterday, I was delighted to launch the #UnmuteConsent campaign. This is really going to make a difference to awareness levels and encourage more conversations on consent. I thank all the institutions, namely, the IUA, THEA, HEA and USI, involved in this campaign.
As all of these projects progress, my Department will continue to work in partnership and collaboration to raise awareness and provide training on sexual consent. I take Senator Wall’s points on training staff, providing the resources and providing information on sexual violence and harassment to students in higher education. I am positive and excited about some of the initiatives. I feel genuine energy and momentum from so many stakeholders. I thank them for and commend them on their leadership and want to work with them in that regard. I also want to take a more proactive approach to the issue of bullying. I am aware the motion refers to that. I am proud that the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre in DCU hosts the UNESCO Chair on Tackling Bullying in Schools and Cyberspace and the International Journal of Bullying Prevention. As we gather more data on the issue of bullying, I intend to outline several measures that we intend to take, specifically on the issue of bullying, later this year.
I want to turn to the specific and important issue of non-disclosure agreements, NDAs. It might be helpful to mention when it is appropriate to use an NDA. There can be times when it is appropriate, but it is never when there is anything to do with sexual harassment, violence or bullying. Senator Warfield, in making a broader point about our higher education institutions, stated NDAs are often used in the commercial world. An NDA or confidentiality agreement can be signed between two companies when they are doing business with each other and need to exchange business to benefit the partnership. That is the purpose of it. The Government and Oireachtas are fully against the use of NDAs in cases of bullying or sexual harassment in the third level sector and, I would suggest, any other sector. As stated in Senator Ruane's motion, NDAs limit the accountability of perpetrators. That is why we are very happy to support this motion tonight. At a time when Irish society is challenged to really listen and take action to stop sexual violence and bullying, NDAs have absolutely no place when cases such as those in question arise within institutions or the workplace. NDAs have the effect of silencing victims and, in doing so, can prevent healing and recovery. Crucially, they damage the prospect of accountability for perpetrators.
Let me quote a woman whose words I came across in researching for this discussion. She is a victim of sexual harassment. Her words were captured in the Australian Human Rights Commission's report from 2020 entitled Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. Referring specifically to an NDA, she said:
All the while going through this heinous process, I had no voice. I was silenced. I couldn't [because of my NDA] speak to friends, current and present. I had, and still have, no social media participation … I cannot, without severe implications, tell my story to either assist my healing or to help other survivors.
I will not be standing over the silencing of any victim of sexual harassment or bullying in Irish higher education institutions. The use of NDAs runs contrary to the values of transparency, consistency and integrity that I said were in the framework of consent.
My Department is engaged with the representative bodies of the higher education institutions, namely, the IUA and THEA. We have been advised that these representative bodies also do not support the use of NDAs in their responses to incidents of bullying or sexual harassment. Individual complaints of sexual harassment or bullying should progress through the formal investigative and, if necessary, disciplinary procedures within a third level institution. I am deeply concerned to hear any account of the use of an NDA by any Irish higher education institution.
Next month I will be introducing legislation to modernise governance laws in higher education. It will be an interesting debate. Senator Joe O'Reilly touched on the matter. I value educational and institutional autonomy so much. We all do, but that is not some sort of fig leaf whereby, as legislators, members of the public, taxpayers, citizens or human beings, we do not have to exercise our right to demand a certain standard. Maybe Senator Ruane's legislation might present an opportunity to discuss these issues. I intend to propose in legislation that the HEA will have the ability to set guidelines in key areas and sanction non-compliance. Please do not come at me saying that it is an attack on institutional autonomy. It is not, and saying so is complete baloney. Having the ability to set guidelines is exactly what we should expect to be able to do in a modern republic. I really look forward to discussing that with the Senators.
The composition of governing authorities is important also. I look forward to discussing that with the Senators. It also sets the culture. In my time as Minister, I have been honoured to have been able to appoint the brilliant Noeline Blackwell to the governing authority of UCD, where she brings her expertise in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. I was also delighted to have appointed in NUIG somebody from the Galway Rape Crisis Centre, its CEO. Who we appoint to our governing authorities says something about our values in terms of what is important to us. It is not just about being an accountant or addressing those important matters concerning financial probity; it is also about other issues, including inclusion. This is such an issue.
Senator Warfield asked me about the broader work being done by my colleague, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, whose title is nearly as long as mine. He is preparing an important report that explores the prevalence of the use of NDAs more broadly in sexual harassment and discrimination disputes. I understand that the report is primarily concerned with the potentially unethical use of NDAs in cases of alleged sexual harassment or discrimination, with reference to the nine characteristics protected under the Equality Act. I very much look forward to the Government receiving that report shortly.
I thank Senator Ruane and all the other Senators. We have kicked off or, hopefully, taken forward a really important debate tonight. I look forward to working with the House seriously, including on the legislation, to get these matters right over the coming weeks and months.