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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 22 Jun 2022

Vol. 286 No. 6

Proposal for a Directive on Combatting Violence against Women and Domestic Violence: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann approves the exercise by the State of the option or discretion under Protocol No. 21 on the position of the United Kingdom and Ireland in respect of the area of freedom, security and justice annexed to the Treaty on European Union and to the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, to take part in the adoption and application of the following proposed measure:

Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on combatting violence against women and domestic violence,

a copy of which was laid before Seanad Éireann on 7th April, 2022.

I thank the Senators for facilitating this motion today.

Yesterday, the Government approved my request to seek its approval to opt in to this EU Commission proposal for a directive combating violence against women and domestic violence. The Dáil passed its motion on this matter yesterday evening. The political guidelines presented by the President of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, highlighted the need to prevent and combat violence against women, to protect victims and to punish offenders as a key priority for the Commission. The European Parliament has also repeatedly called on the Commission to propose legislation on violence against women and domestic violence, and on gender-based cyberviolence.

Violence against women is gender-based violence that is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately. It includes all acts of gender-based violence that result in or are likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering. Domestic violence is a form of violence against women as it disproportionately affects women. It occurs in the family or domestic unit, irrespective of biological or legal family ties, either between intimate partners or between other family members, including between parents and children. Again, women are disproportionately represented as victims due to the underlying patterns of coercion, power and-or control with such violence being a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women. It was fitting that this proposal was published on 8 March this year, which was International Women's Day.

The proposal aims to make the current EU legal instruments relevant to combating violence against women and domestic violence more effective by filling identified gaps in protection, access to justice, and support for victims of these heinous crimes. It also seeks to align EU law with established international standards - most obviously the Istanbul Convention, which is widely recognised as the most far-reaching legal instrument to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. While Ireland ratified the convention in 2019, the current EU proposal aims to ensure the application of minimum standards in all EU member states, including those that have not yet ratified and, unfortunately, those that are considering withdrawing. Currently, no specific piece of EU legislation comprehensively addresses violence against women and domestic violence. This directive will be the first act that specifically addresses this type of violence.

All member states address violence against women and domestic violence in legislation and policies but to different degrees. Of course the different approaches can create legal uncertainty about rights for such victims across the Union. While the EU already supports member states in addressing this kind of violence by using funding and policy measures, and relevant horizontal legal instruments, further targeted legislative action at an EU level is necessary to make the existing measures more effective and to further strengthen EU instruments to combat violence against women and domestic violence by laying down minimum rules. For the member states that are parties to the Istanbul Convention, the EU measures would support the convention's implementation. The current proposal would enable further co-ordinated measures across the EU and enable EU enforcement. With the proposal, the Commission aims to strike a balance between ensuring that the obligations it lays down are effective, and leaving flexibility for member states to take into account national specificities and needs when implementing its rules.

In January, this House debated a motion on violence against women where it was recognised by all Senators that we need to do more. As shifts in long-held mindsets and changes in behaviours do not occur over weeks or even months, we need to continue to work as hard as possible to see real changes happen. Tackling domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in all of its forms is a priority for me and this Government. It is a personal priority for me. As all Senators will know, I have worked for the last 18 months on the goals and desired outcomes of the third national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, which I will bring to the Government very soon. I know that this House is as committed as I am to achieving our goal of a society where there is zero tolerance for all forms of violence against women. I hope that the strategy will be the most ambitious to date. Realising this goal requires a range of actions and a collective effort. In tandem with the strategy, we must also be part of a collective effort at an EU level. I do not need to remind anyone how often the issue of violence against women comes to the fore. There have been too many tragic cases and too many times where we have called for more to be done. I have met many victims and their families. The level of trauma and pain that they have experienced really cannot be described.

Violence against women and domestic violence are pervasive throughout the EU. It is estimated to affect one in three women, with one in five women having suffered domestic violence. Looking at more specific types of violence, the Fundamental Rights Agency's 2014 EU-wide survey on violence against women outlined that one in ten women reported that they had been victims of sexual violence, and one in 20 women reported that they had been raped. Cyberviolence is just as prevalent. In 2020, it was estimated that one in two young women experienced gender-based cyberviolence. It is well established that women in general more frequently experience cyberviolence based on their sex or gender, in particular sexual forms of cyberviolence. Cyberviolence particularly impacts women who are active in public life, as many Senators in this House can probably attest to. This can have the effect of silencing women, hindering their societal participation and undermining the principle of democracy as enshrined in the Treaty on European Union.

I am pleased to say that many of the measures proposed in this directive are already part of Irish law, such as the offence of rape based on consent; the criminalisation of female genital mutilation; and the criminalisation of certain forms of cyberviolence. The directive also calls for preventative measures, including by raising awareness and training professionals who are likely to come in contact with victims. My Department regularly runs awareness campaigns in this space, including the Still Here campaign, which we ran during Covid restrictions and garnered very positive feedback. The training of professionals is also a big aspect of Supporting A Victim's Journey, which is my plan to look at how we can improve the criminal justice system as it impacts victims. In that regard, what is being proposed is not new for Ireland.

The directive is comprehensive. As such, there are some measures required that may require a tweak to existing law and practice. As some measures are more targeted at civil law countries, they will need to be fully explored. Since the UK's departure from the EU, Ireland is the sole country with the Protocol No. 21 article. As such, it is essential that we utilise this at an early stage to ensure that we can participate in the discussions and that the final text of the directive takes account of our unique position as much as possible and is shaped to accommodate our common law system as much as possible.

There is a strong reputational aspect to be considered for opting in to this directive. Along with publication of the third national strategy, under Ireland's presidency of the Council of Europe I will host a conference of Council of Europe justice ministers on the topic of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence this September. Given the crossover of timelines between this opt-in and the new strategy, and the significant public attention on this issue in recent months, promoting work on this issue domestically but not agreeing to a common approach at EU level may appear contradictory to our EU partners, particularly at a time when solidarity is more important than ever. Therefore, we should demonstrate to the EU how we are serious about tackling violence against women and domestic violence by utilising our Protocol No. 21 opt-in to participate in this measure.

I commend the motion to the House and appreciate the flexibility with time shown by the Acting Chairperson.

Cuirím fáilte roimh an Aire. Déanaim comhghairdeas léi as ucht a nuachta pearsanta.

I welcome the motion and its contents on behalf of the Fine Gael group. The motion is very much appropriate. What is perhaps shocking is that it is the first piece, as the Minister said in her own words, of European Union legislation to recognise this area of criminality. In many respects we in Ireland are used to taking our lead from Europe and being led by Europe in certain areas like employment law, health and safety law, and environmental law. In this instance, I think we are a little bit ahead of the European Union curve. The Minister deserves credit for the amount of legislation that we have seen, even in the last year or two since she became the Minister, that has actively pursued and put a lot of these matters on the Statute Book so that there is a clear recognition as a Government and Legislature, but also as a society, that the kind of behaviour that is the subject of this directive is not acceptable, and must be stamped out in no uncertain terms because it damages us all.

The Minister talked about reputational damage. Obviously that is at a very high level and it is entirely appropriate that Ireland should, to the greatest extent possible, lead the charge on this issue right down to the people who are affected by this kind of behaviour.

Everybody is affected in a pervasive way by domestic and gender-based violence, including children, women and anybody else in the home, as well as their neighbours, friends and family. It is not just the victim or the person directly affected by the crime. It is like a cancer since it spreads well beyond the direct victim of the crime. There is no doubt that this motion is appropriate and supporting it would be in accordance with domestic legislation we have put in place already. It is also appropriate in the context of Ireland's ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The Minister said that some Council of Europe states are not yet signatories to the convention or are considering withdrawing from it. I am proud that we are not among them. The notion that countries are considering taking those steps, or not taking the step of ratifying the convention, says more about them than we know.

I am proud that Ireland has taken this issue by the horns and is willing to be at the forefront. In recent months, the House passed a motion dealing specifically with violence against women and gender-based violence. We have put our views on the record and clearly stated what we think about these issues. This year alone, we have had some particularly horrific tragedies involving violence against women. We did not need them to know there was a problem but they brought the issue, at the highest end of the scale, to the fore. It is important to recognise that this kind of violence and the criminality that will be the target of this directive extends from one end of the spectrum right across to the psychological and repeated abuse of people in their own homes. The latter may not grab headlines in the same way but it is incredibly damaging for all of us. Realising that is tremendously important.

This is an important issue, which affects many of our family members, friends and colleagues. The Minister cited statistics on the number of women who have been the victims of violence at some level. They are targeted in different ways. We need to put down a marker. I like that Seanad has already passed motions on this issue It is entirely sensible and consistent for us to support this motion and to exercise the option under protocol 21 to make sure that Ireland can lead on this as much as possible. I commend the motion and the Minister on bringing it to the House.

I congratulate the Minister, her husband Paul and baby Michael on their great news. I wish her every good health in her pregnancy.

I welcome this directive and support Ireland's opt-in to it. While we have already implemented many of the laws and provisions mandated in the directive, our show of support for this move to combat violence against women across the EU is nonetheless important. Incitement to hatred has been a criminal act in this country since 1989. We criminalised the non-consensual sharing of intimate images only last year. Our law prohibiting female genital mutilation was signed in 2012. However, some fear there may have been a hidden spike in cases of female genital mutilation during the Covid-19 due to the lack of scrutiny in communities. In the wake of those lockdowns, efforts must be redoubled to re-educate persons living in Ireland, who may come from or have ties to a country with a culture where female genital mutilation is practised, that it is illegal here and the consequences are severe. Women and girls affected by female genital mutilation must also be able to visit any hospital and be seen by a doctor free of charge.

Regarding the section on safe reporting and risk assessment procedures, there may be a slight concern regarding measures taken against suspects prior to trial. This would be dealt with in national legislation. We must ensure the balance between protection for those who may have been the victims of violence and the presumption of innocence. I appreciate the inclusion of a reminder to member states that the competent authorities should take into account the fundamental right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 11 of the charter when assessing whether material qualifies amounts to incitement to hatred or violence. That is another important area in which to ensure balance.

All in all, I support this directive and the message it sends, that Europe is no place for the barbaric action that is prohibited by these laws and that we must work tirelessly to ensure the safety and security of our women and children.

I welcome the Minister back to the House and congratulate her on her recent personal news. I wish her and her family good health and happiness for the future.

On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group, I support this motion. As the Minister said, it is good to see that we are not being led by the EU on this. We are doing it ourselves and leading the way with legislation in this important area. That is good to see. Any additional measures that can be taken to protect women have to be taken. Unfortunately, it is a women's issue, but those responsible for violence against women are predominantly men. We men need to reflect on that. To use the Minister's words, we need to ensure there is zero tolerance of domestic violence. It is a major issue which affects the physical, emotional, social and financial well-being of individuals and their families. It came more to the fore during the Covid pandemic when people were hemmed in. My heart goes out to those women who were caught in such circumstances and felt helpless.

I commend the Minister on the work she has done in this area with colleagues from my party, specifically Senator Lisa Chambers who has done work in this area. Deputy Jim O'Callaghan issued a document earlier today. It is not reactionary but would give us direction relating to violence against women and how as a society we should respond to that.

The most important issue we have to bear in mind when it comes to violence against women is the provision of refuge. While we are doing good work on refuge centres, as the Minister knows, there are nine counties in this State that have no safe house or refuge for women who find themselves in this position. My home county, Monaghan, and County Cavan, are two counties where there is no refuge centre. I came across a case recently where a lady simply had nowhere to go locally. The issue has been compounded by the lack of housing and the arrival into our country of Ukrainian people. While we are, rightly, doing our best to help them, their arrival has exacerbated the lack of accommodation. We have a crisis due to the lack of accommodation. I commend the members of Monaghan County Council who have come forward to offer a site for a refuge centre in Monaghan, which would also cover County Cavan. I have met officials from Monaghan County Council about the issue a number of times. I commend the members of the council and the executive who have stepped forward to offer help with providing a suitable site, or perhaps even a building, that would help women in this crisis situation.

Work has been done to identify gaps in the provision of refuge centres. Will the Minister comment on the progress of that work and the review? When it is hoped that will be concluded? The Government made a commitment. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, committed that he will not be found wanting once this review is complete. Money is required to provide such a centre. I am sure the Government, of which the Minister is a member, will not be found wanting. It is a critically important issue which is more acutely felt due to the chronic lack of housing, not just in cities like Dublin and Cork but across the country.

I would like to see progress on this issue and I would welcome comments from the Minister if she has an opportunity to contribute at the end of the debate.

It is about sending the message out to people that as far as we are concerned, and speaking as a man, there is absolutely no justifiable reason women should have to tolerate, or even live in fear of, possible violence against them. That is a message that not just I but every man in the country has to look in the mirror and do all they can to ensure there is zero tolerance when it comes to women living in fear of what might happen to them at the hands of any man.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire maidir leis an rún tábhachtach atá os ár gcomhair anocht. I begin by welcoming the Minister and join colleagues in congratulating her and her family on her personal news.

On International Women's Day this year the EU Commission published a proposal for a directive to combat violence against women and domestic violence through criminalisation of and sanctions for relevant offences, protection of victims, access to justice, victim support, prevention, co-ordination and co-operation. The Commission has also proposed an EU-wide data collection obligation on member states, as there is currently inadequate data collected on violence against women across the EU. That is also the case in this State. There is already some cause for concern about the reaction to the Commission's proposal, with questions being asked about the need for it when we have the Istanbul Convention, which is a human rights treaty of the Council of Europe against violence against women and domestic violence. However, six member states have yet to ratify the Istanbul Convention and the Polish Government moved legislation last year which, if passed, will see the country withdraw from the convention it ratified in 2015.

The Minister has acknowledged this State is not meeting its obligations under the Istanbul Convention to provide adequate accommodation with wrap-around supports such as psychological care and childcare. It is hardly an appropriate response to the convention that Tusla provides one third of the refuge places this State is obliged to provide and, as my colleague Senator Gallagher said, nine counties have no domestic violence refuges at all. Both the Minister and Tusla's recently published review of emergency accommodation advise that the number and range of safe accommodation spaces available to victims of domestic violence needs to increase substantially to meet current needs, projected future needs and international obligations.

The Court of Justice of the European Union published its opinion late last year regarding the convention, which has been blocked by some member states. The court decided the Council can ratify the convention by a qualified majority. This decision has been criticised for its ambiguity in stating: "... nothing precludes the Council from extending its discussions in order to achieve ... closer cooperation between the Member States and the EU institutions in the process of concluding that agreement, which may involve waiting for the ‘common accord’ [in other words, unanimity]." The Commission has said that its proposal for a directive: "... is different to the Convention in that it sets minimum standards for EU Member States within the areas of EU competence, including the criminalisation of cyber violence offences that is not specifically covered by the Istanbul Convention".

While considerable progress has been made with respect to combatting violence against women and domestic violence, more needs to be done by this Government when the following points are taken into consideration. The EU proposal provides for harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace, yet the Government has failed to endorse the International Labour Organization's Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 (No. 190) which aims to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, among others, has asked it to do so.

The current programme for Government commits to examine the provision of domestic violence leave, yet there is no provision in the legislation as published. Sinn Féin's Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill 2020 is a comprehensive, robust and thorough piece of legislation, prepared in consultation with the domestic violence sector, to provide protections for employers in line with those contained in existing leave legislation. If the Government's legislation to deliver on its commitment on domestic violence is not imminent, I urge the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to work with Deputy O'Reilly to progress the Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill so we can collectively deliver on this entitlement on which we are all agreed.

In supporting this motion I am mindful, as I said earlier, of the progress made and the need for more to be made in dealing with a range of related issues such as safe accommodation and other projects aimed at combatting violence against women and domestic violence.

I join others in congratulating the Minister on her great news and wish her and her family well. I welcome this motion to opt in to the EU proposal for a directive on combatting violence against women and domestic violence and say "well done" to the Minister for all the great work she has done on the issue.

Domestic violence is an absolute scourge and one that has certainly intensified during the pandemic. There was a 43% increase in calls to Women's Aid from 2019 to 2020. The increased time spent at home was a burden for us all but for many people it was profoundly dangerous and even lethal. There have been several high-profile cases of femicide in recent years. They were acts of brutality that highlight the continued dangers posed to women by male violence. We have lost women like Nadine Lott, Seema Banu and her daughter, Asfira, and her son, Faizan. These killings are senseless and incomprehensible and leave such extraordinary pain in their wake. This should remind us that for many people, the family home is not a refuge from the challenges and hardships of the world but a volatile and frightening place where they can experience great instability and risk. That absolutely 100% needs to change.

There has been huge progress made on some fronts in tackling this issue. The first successful prosecutions for coercive control are highly significant. It is so important there is now an offence that captures the continuous and multifaceted oppression that characterises abusive relationships. The roll-out of domestic violence training for some gardaí has meant some victims receive much more support throughout their complaint process and this is no doubt welcomed. However, the level of support victims can expect is still inconsistent. That is the concern and it is totally unacceptable. These are people at their most vulnerable who have overcome major psychological hurdles to take action to protect themselves and to make their abuser accountable. They must be able to rely on support that is consistent, professional and victim-centred no matter where in Ireland they are and whoever happens to be dealing with them.

I worry about the fallout of the cancelled 999 calls scandal and its impact on domestic violence in Ireland and worry for the victims whose calls were cancelled. Were they able to get further help down the line? Did they suffer further abuse in the interim? I also worry about the damage it has done to victims' confidence in An Garda Síochána and whether it has produced a chilling effect for people reporting abuse. I am aware there is an independent investigation into the issue under way, as well as an investigation into the effectiveness of Garda investigations of domestic abuse being conducted by the inspectorate. I hope the results of these reviews will provide clarity, transparency and crucially accountability.

Action must be taken in the spirit of this motion to increase the funding made available to groups providing services to victims of domestic and gendered violence and to expand access to safe refuges. Currently, one third of counties have no safe refuges for women and there are no refuges for men who have been victims of domestic violence. A lack of these refuges combined with the inaccessibility of housing creates a dangerous trap for victims of domestic violence. When victims are faced with the prospect of homelessness and they feel forced to stay in abusive and dangerous situations this exposes them to further risks and sometimes ends tragically, as we all know.

It is not just about using the right language or even passing the right laws to punish offenders - to truly tackle domestic violence and violence against women we need to create a society that provides the material basis of women's freedom. That means having childcare, housing and healthcare that is accessible to everyone. We need profound changes to address the route causes of this issue but this motion is definitely a step in the right direction and extremely welcome.

I thank Senators for the, I think, unanimous support for this motion. I appreciate there was short notice or a short timeframe but that is the way the opt-in motions work. It is important we send a very strong message not just nationally on what we are doing but also on an EU level and internationally that we will not tolerate any form of domestic, sexual or gender-based violence or violence against women. Opting into this at the start means we can be part of the legislative process to steer and direct how this EU proposal will go.

It is really important. It is also important that it aligns with what we are doing at home - whether that is legislation, policy or the focus on the delivery of services, as some have mentioned - and that it is based around the four key pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution and policy co-ordination, on which the third national national strategy will be based.

I reassure the Senators, who have raised many issues, that the strategy has been finalised. In the finalisation of the strategy I have worked with my own Department; the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Department of Health; the Department of Social Protection; the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth; the Department of Defence; the Department of Education, the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science; the Department of Transport; the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. A huge amount of work has been done, with quite a number of actions coming from all of the Departments.

I wish to specifically reference the work done in the area of refuge, as most Senators have raised the issue. I am very much aware that the number of refuge places that we have, namely, 141, is not enough. It is nowhere near enough. There will be a very clear plan within the new strategy setting out our intention in that area in the short, medium and long term. We must acknowledge that it will take time to develop. There will be an increase in the number of refuge accommodation places and safe houses. We will also look at other ways to keep people safe, whether it is at home or elsewhere. There is an interdepartmental group which comprises my own Department, staff from Tusla and officials from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The group has looked at the current structure. It has looked at how it works and how it does not work in terms of the development of new refuges and accommodation. The group has also considered how we can change it, improve it, and how we can ensure that gaps can be filled in the counties where there is no refuge accommodation and also expand where we know there needs to be further development. We are not just looking at women, which is the main focus. We are also ensuring that support is provided for male victims. That will very much be a key element of the strategy. As I said, the publication of the strategy is imminent. It will be published in the next few weeks. I thank the Senators for their support. They are doing their own work in this area. As Senator Ward mentioned, the House has already passed motions on it. The Senators have stated clearly that it is an issue that they want to deal with and to put on top of the agenda. That is very welcome.

Question put and agreed to.
Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 6.33 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 6.45 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 6.33 p.m. and resumed at 6.45 p.m.