I would like to assure the deputy that I, and the Government very much share his concerns for anyone who has been impacted by any form of behaviour that is of an inappropriate sexual nature.
With regard to the Deputy’s question regarding legislation in relation to whistling or persons making comments of a sexual nature, I am not aware of any criminal legislation that makes provision specifically for this type of behaviour if it is a once off incident, as opposed to more persistent targeted behaviour that could be classified as harassment. However, I can assure the Deputy that addressing all forms of sexual violence and ensuring that we have robust legislation and policies to support and assist victims to come forward is a key priority for me and my department.
The Deputy will be aware that enacting the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill is a priority for me and that I am working with Deputy Howlin in this regard. I will be taking a number of amendments to Deputy Howlin's Bill to Government this week with a view to getting approval to submit them at Committee Stage on 01 December. Among the amendments proposed will be one to section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. I am proposing amending this section to broaden the scope of the offence of harassment to cover persistent communications to or about a person and to increase the maximum penalty from 7 years’ to 10 years’ imprisonment to reflect the harm caused by the most serious forms of harassment.
The Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021, which is a whole-of-Government approach to delivering on the many actions necessary to address these matters fully, is coordinated by my Department. The Strategy includes input from relevant community and voluntary groups as well as other stakeholders across the sector.
Overall, the Strategy aims to considerably strengthen the law and structures in Ireland targeting domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and considerable progress has been made in addressing these issues through the Strategy.
Raising public awareness on these issues is a key feature of our overarching response in this area and my Department is currently midway through the No Excuses campaign, a national awareness campaign to tackle domestic and sexual violence and sexual harassment. The campaign is a key action of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence for 2016 to 2021. The purpose of the campaign is to intensify the public’s awareness of sexual harassment, domestic and sexual violence, to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes, and to activate bystanders. The overall aim of the campaign is to make all of us face up to the excuses we, as a society, make for unacceptable behaviours and to call on us to speak out against them. This will contribute to a change in society's attitude to sexual harassment, domestic and sexual violence in order to decrease and prevent this type of behaviour and violence.
I want to reassure the Deputy, but more importantly to reassure anyone who is a victim, or at risk of sexual abuse, that help continues to be available and to contact An Garda Síochána.
Our laws in supporting victims of sexual crime have been significantly strengthened in recent years, including by the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 and the Domestic Violence Act 2018. However, I can assure the Deputy that my Department is continually examining our laws in this area in the context of their effectiveness and to identify if any changes are required.
In relation to funding, in 2020, my Department provided just over €2 million in funding to support training and awareness initiatives in relation to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence and €1.9 million euro in funding to support victims of crime, including victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This year I have secured funding of over €2 million for combatting domestic, sexual and gender based violence and €2.1 million to support victims of crime. In addition, I have secured €2.3 million to implement Supporting a Victim's Journey - A plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases which I published last month.
Supporting a Victim's Journey - A plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases which I published last month will be implemented as a priority and it includes the provision of specific training for all of the key personnel a victim comes into contact with during the course of their journey throughout the criminal justice system. Such personnel includes the Gardaí, the DPP, the judiciary and the legal profession. Engagement on development of training programmes for serving Gardaí, the legal professions and members of the judiciary who are participating in sexual offences investigations and trials has already started, and I expect this training will be rolled out in 2021.
The Deputy may also be interested to know that the rollout of the Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSU) within An Garda Síochána is now complete with DPSUs in every Garda division across the country. The completion of the rollout of DPSUs means that specially trained officers are available nationwide who will be responsible for engagement with, and interviewing of, vulnerable victims. This will ensure that when vulnerable victims of crimes such as sexual violence present to Gardaí, they are met with a consistently high standard of specialist professional and expert assistance.