I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I intend to share time with Deputies O'Loughlin, Scanlon and Butler.
Vol. 973 No. 5
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I intend to share time with Deputies O'Loughlin, Scanlon and Butler.
Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the opportunity to commence the Second Stage debate on the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) (Amendment) Bill 2018, the purpose of which is to provide greater support to victims of gender-based violence, sexual violence and violence within close relationships. It is important to have this debate in the context of the information available to us on the victims of sexual offences in Ireland. We have learned from the recent statistics on crime which were publicised by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, that there has been a 10% increase in the number of sexual offences reported in the second quarter of 2018. There was also a 10% increase in the first quarter of 2018. While we cannot state definitively what the reason for the increase in the reporting of sexual offences is, it may be because the victims of sexual offences have become more self-confident and feel better about reporting the fact that they have been the victims of such offences to An Garda Síochána. Hopefully, that is the reason for the increase. It may also be the case, however, that the increase is the result of an increase in the incidence of sexual offending in Ireland. If that is the case, it is an extremely worrying development. However, we do not know the cause of the reported increase in sexual offences. As such, I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, will agree that it is very important to carry out further research in this area. The Government committed a number of months ago to commission a new sexual abuse and violence in Ireland, SAVI, report to determine the incidence of sexual offending in Ireland and whether it is on the increase or simply the case that people are more confident about reporting offences. Tomorrow, I will have the opportunity question the Minister for Justice and Equality as to when that report and further research will be completed.
One of the things that makes one realise how distinct sexual offences are is the unacceptably low level of reporting of them. If a person is the victim of a burglary or a standard assault, he or she will, in the vast majority of cases, report the offence to An Garda Síochána. Unfortunately, people, particularly women, who are the victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in close relationships do not report those offences to the same extent. Those offences are not reported to the extent they should be. I read the report published by the One in Four organisation, which does a great deal of good work to represent the interests of people who are victims of sexual abuse. It is estimated in the report that only 15% of victims of sexual abuse make complaints to An Garda Síochána. As legislators, we have a responsibility to take legislative steps to improve those statistics. It is not acceptable to state that there is not much we can do about it because it is simply a tradition that these types of offences are not reported to the same extent as others.
Part of the reason for the low rates of reporting of these offences is that victims can find the legal process and the criminal justice system very intimidating. I am not suggesting that the principles of a criminal trial should be radically subverted, that we depart from the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty or that an accused person should not have full constitutional rights before a court when prosecuted in respect of a criminal offence. However, we must do something to make the criminal justice process more acceptable and comfortable for the victims of sexual violence. One of the factors identified by complainants in prosecutions for sexual offences is that they are not aware of what is required of them in the criminal justice process. The purpose of the legislation is, therefore, to amend section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 to provide that any person who makes a complaint of sexual assault or gender-based violence is given advice, information and assistance from the outset by a solicitor funded by the State. If an individual is prosecuted for such an offence, he or she has the protection and advice of a lawyer from an early stage provided by the State under the criminal legal aid scheme. Similarly, when a woman makes a complaint about a sexual offence perpetrated upon her, she should be informed at the very outset of what the investigation will involve. She should be told what gardaí will do to accumulate evidence, what statements gardaí will have to put together from persons with relevant evidence, that those statements will be provided to the accused, what rights the accused person will have in any prosecution, that the complainant will have to give evidence in court in public in respect of the complaint made and that she will be subject to cross-examination. She should be told what that cross-examination will involve and what protections exist in respect of cross-examination under the current legislation, particularly in the amendments enacted through the Sex Offenders Act 2001 to the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981.
If the Bill is enacted, it will not lead to a remarkable increase in the number of people coming forward. However, it will be part of the solution. It will send a message to women in particular who are the victims of sexual abuse and assault that the State will provide protections to them in the criminal justice process. It will make them aware that they are not alone and that they will be apprised at an early stage of what the process involves. While people have suggested at times that the victims of sexual offences should have legal representation in court, it is important to note that section 34 of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 amended section 4 of the Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981 to provide that in certain circumstances a complainant in a rape trial is entitled to be heard in respect of an application and for that purpose to be legally represented during the hearing of the application. I am not suggesting anything that is a fundamental departure from the principles of a criminal trial wherein the prosecution is represented by one prosecutor who makes the claim against the accused. I am suggesting, however, that we do something through this legislation to provide greater support to women in particular who have been the victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in close relationships. We have to do something to encourage those women to come forward to a greater extent. We must let them know they have the protection and support of the State when they do so.
I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, on bringing the Bill forward. Fianna Fáil is proud to bring this legislation forward because there is no doubt that it would, if enacted, provide victims of sexual violence with greater support and protection in the criminal justice process. The existing process does not support survivors adequately. In fact, it treats them poorly. That is not only important for survivors, it is also important because of the message and signal it sends to society about how sexual violence is viewed. We must send a very strong message about this issue.
It is frightening to look at the crime statistics published at the beginning of October by the CSO.
They reveal that the trend of increased incidents of rape and other sexual offences is continuing. The number of recorded incidents of sexual offences was up over 10% for the second quarter of 2018 when compared with the same period the previous year. This trend has emerged over the past number of CSO releases and shows no sign of abating. The figure for the previous year was 16%, the figure for the year before that 10%, and the figure for the year before that 14%. Since 2014, therefore, the figures have increased significantly. While these figures are shocking, they are only for reported crimes. A survey conducted by Plan International Ireland and published last week, on 11 October, found that more than one third of women in Ireland have been physically harassed in public, which is shocking.
There were shocking reports in the national media at the beginning of the academic year on the numbers of students presenting to rape crisis centres reporting having been raped or sexually assaulted. The Irish Examiner ran a front-page story on 25 September stating that since the commencement of the academic year, three college students in Cork had reported to the rape crisis centre that they had been raped. Very sadly, they felt they could not go to the Garda Síochána because of the circumstances. They felt it was their own fault as alcohol was involved. Two out of these three women have reportedly dropped out of college. Similar reports appeared in the media of students in Galway, where almost 50 students have reported incidents of rape and sexual assault in the past six months alone.
There are very many worrying features of these stories, and it is high time something was done to address the issues. Despite the statistics we have from the CSO, the fact remains that sexual offences are grossly under-reported. Sexual assaults are the most under-reported crime in the country and, as we know, many victims do not make a complaint to the Garda. The failure of Fine Gael to commission an updated SAVI report means it is difficult to ascertain the level of under-reporting, but a recent report in the UK found that 80% of sexual assaults there are not reported, and we have no reason to believe it is any different here. This under-reporting is undoubtedly due in part to a perception that the trauma of the attack can be compounded by a gruelling criminal justice process that does not provide sufficient supports to the complainant. Reasons for not reporting are often rooted in fear: fear of disbelief, of impact on family or community, of unjustified blame or of being let down by the system or hounded through it and the media. We have seen a lot of the latter within and outside this country in the past 12 months. What do we need to do? We need to empower survivors to be informed and to be fairly treated participants right throughout the criminal justice process. The legislation my colleague has introduced aims to do a lot to achieve this.
One final comment I will make concerns sexual assault treatment units. There are six units in Ireland and they provide specialist care for women and men aged 14 years and older who have been sexually assaulted or raped. Specialist staff provide medical and psychological support to victims and help gardaí with the collection of forensic evidence. Unfortunately, there have been media reports of victims of sexual assault having to travel significant distances because the closest units have been closed or could not facilitate examination of the victim. It is completely wrong that a person subjected to a significant assault of this nature would then be expected to travel some distance to be examined. At a very minimum, the only unit in Dublin, the Rotunda, should be open on a 24-hour basis, seven days a week.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this issue. I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, for bringing forward the Bill. As the previous speakers have said, we have read the story in the Irish Examiner about three young women who were raped and did not feel they could go to the Garda. I do not know what is wrong. Perhaps they felt guilty because there may have been alcohol involved. That is a sad reflection because young women like that should not be afraid. They should be encouraged at all times to go to the Garda. We also read in the newspaper about Galway and the fact that 50 students there have reported having been raped or sexually assaulted in a period of six months. My God, I do not know what is happening. Is it a fact that this has always gone on but was never reported? I do not know. Then one considers the percentage increase in the number of offences that have been reported. In 2008 there were 1,268 while in 2017, there were 2,885. That is an amazing increase, and something needs to be done to address what is happening here. We all have family members who go away to college in different towns and cities right across the country. It is hard to think they could find themselves in such vulnerable situations and that, for one reason or another, they could be afraid to report this. As I said, everything should be done to encourage every young person who has any such difficulty to go immediately to gardaí and make them aware.
At present we have six sexual assault treatment units in the country. There is one each in Dublin, Cork, Letterkenny, Galway, Mullingar and Waterford. I feel there should be a centre in Sligo as well. My colleague referred to the distance people have to travel to be tested. When an assault happens, it is very unfair that on top of all the distress these people suffer, they must take a long journey and travel, in the case of Sligo, to Letterkenny or perhaps Dublin. It depends whether it is a weekend or whatever. That is not good enough.
I commend my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, for bringing this Bill to the Dáil. It should be widely supported, and I hope young people out there will be aware that this will help them if anything happens to them in the future.
I also commend my colleague, Deputy O'Callaghan, on bringing forward the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) (Amendment) Bill 2018. This legislation will give greater support and protection to victims of sexual violence through the criminal justice process, and the most important word in that line is "victims". It is timely that we are here tonight to discuss this. It is disappointing to look around the Chamber and see so few Deputies to discuss the victims of sexual violence.
We were all shocked to see the crime statistics published at the beginning of October by the CSO. They reveal the trends of increased incidents of rape and other sexual offences. There were shocking reports in the national media at the beginning of the academic year on the number of students presenting to rape crisis centres reporting having been raped or sexually assaulted. The Irish Examiner ran a front-page story stating that three students, having started in university in Cork earlier in the year, reported to the rape crisis centre that they had been raped. Unfortunately, the women felt they could not present to the Garda. They felt it was their own fault as alcohol was involved. We must remember that many of these students are in first year and away from home for the very first time. We must consider the absolute horror of being sexually assaulted, the fear, the absolute shame they experience and the feeling that they cannot go the Garda because people will judge them and will ask if they were drinking and what they were wearing. Can they confide in anyone? Who can they turn to? We are all very fast to pass judgment, but when a young girl is really desperate and should be turning to the Garda and she feels she cannot, it is very timely that we see a Bill of this nature to try to help people who are in a distressed state.
There are many worrying features of these stories. I am glad something is being done to address the issues.
The Bill seeks to afford greater support and protection to victims of alleged offences involving sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in a close relationship. Tonight's debate is a necessary one. There is no doubt that the level of under-reporting is partly due to the perception that the trauma of the attack can be compounded by a gruelling criminal justice process that does not provide sufficient supports to complainants. Our goal is to empower survivors so that they can be informed participants in the criminal justice process who are fairly treated throughout that process. This legislation aims to do something to achieve this goal. Every victim should feel encouraged and adequately supported by the State to pursue justice. This essential legislation will ensure victims of sexual offences and gender-based violence are given all relevant support and State-funded legal advice at the earliest stage of the criminal investigation.
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for introducing the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) (Amendment) Bill 2018. He has raised a number of important points. The Government and the Minister for Justice and Equality share his aim of providing greater supports for victims of crime. The Government is committed to ensuring victims of crime are given the information and supports they require. Interacting with the criminal justice system can be very daunting for victims of crime. The Government has worked hard to introduce measures to alleviate the difficulties that victims face when they interact with the criminal justice system. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Government are conscious that the judicial process should not be a source of further trauma to anyone involved with respect to the rights of victims and accused persons. Victims must feel confident that they are part of a system that is sensitive and responsive to their needs and does not cause them further harm.
This Bill seeks to amend the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 to provide for a solicitor, funded by the Minister for Justice and Equality, to provide relevant information and legal advice to victims of sexual and gender-based violence on the processes and actions required for criminal proceedings to be brought. The Minister for Justice and Equality understands what the Deputy is seeking to achieve with this proposal. There is merit in those aims. I believe this proposal should be viewed in the context of existing supports that already provide for some of these aims. The 2017 Act already requires the Garda Síochána to provide every victim of crime with information on the criminal justice process and the role of the victim within it. The proposed amendment would require this information to be given to the victim a second time by a solicitor. I remind the House that a number of legal advice and legal aid services are already available to victims of sexual violence. The Legal Aid Board offers an advice service to victims who wish to seek advice in cases involving a prosecution for rape or aggravated sexual assault. This is separate from the provision of legal representation for a victim in a case in which his or her prior sexual history is raised by the accused. Both of these services are available without a means test and are free of charge. Late last year, legislation was put in place to abolish the requirement for a financial contribution by applicants for civil legal aid in domestic violence cases in the District Court.
The Government is committed to improving the supports and protections available to victims of crime, particularly victims of sexual violence and domestic violence. This commitment was evident in a number of Bills which passed through these Houses in recent times. The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 explicitly recognises, for the first time in Irish law, the rights of victims of crime. This Act gives victims the right to comprehensive information on the criminal justice system, including their role within it, as well as information concerning the progress of the investigation and any court proceedings. The Act provides for every victim to have his or her needs individually assessed to determine what specific advice and supports he or she would benefit from during the investigation and trial process. The Domestic Violence Act 2018 significantly enhances the legal protections available to victims of domestic violence. Among other measures, it criminalises non-violent coercive control in an intimate relationship, allows for an emergency barring order to be applied for in a case in which the victim lives with the adult perpetrator and enables a court to prohibit a perpetrator from communicating electronically with the victim. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has strengthened the law to protect children in our society. This Act enhances and updates the laws combatting sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children. New provisions introduced in the Act include new offences regarding child sexual grooming and measures to tackle child pornography.
These three Acts have introduced a number of measures to better protect victims during the trial process and to provide for special protection measures for victims where this is deemed appropriate. These measures include greater potential for the use of screens and video evidence. Provisions to regulate for the prevention of cross-examination by an accused person have also been introduced for victims of sexual offences and domestic violence, with new rules provided for the disclosure of third-party counselling records in sexual offence cases. To further assist victims during the trial process, victims under these Acts are entitled to be accompanied in court by support workers. To maximise the benefit for victims from these legislative reforms, the Department of Justice and Equality is providing €1.712 million in 2018 to fund services to victims of crime. This is administered by the Department's victims of crime office. In addition, Tusla, which is the primary State funding agency in this area, is providing €23.8 million to support services for victims of domestic and sexual violence. Among these services, Tusla provides funding for rape crisis centres and refuges.
Following the recent considerable legislative reforms in this area, new structures and arrangements are being put in place across the criminal justice agencies to make the system more victim-oriented. A victims' support group, chaired by the Department of Justice and Equality, is in place to co-ordinate the work of the various criminal justice agencies in progressing towards the full implementation of the EU victims directive and the related victims of crime legislation. One of these new structures is the Garda victims' service office in every Garda division, which is responsible for communicating with victims and prioritising their needs. These offices ensure each victim of crime is kept informed of the progress of his or her case and of the supports which are available to him or her. These offices are staffed by dedicated and specially trained personnel who operate to a standard operating procedure.
In addition to the Garda victims' service offices, the work of the Garda national protective services bureau and the roll-out of the Garda divisional protective service units will significantly strengthen the Garda response in dealing with domestic, sexual and gender-based crime. These new units, which are part of the wider Garda modernisation and renewal programme, will be staffed by gardaí with specialised training and expertise to provide advice, guidance and assistance to gardaí who investigate specific categories of crime. These units will work to ensure a more professional and consistent quality in the policing service in supporting victims of these crimes. The units are being rolled out on a phased basis, starting with three divisions - Louth, Dublin metropolitan region west and Cork city - and the full expansion of these units to all divisions is expected by the end of next year. Victim liaison supports are in place in the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.
On the courts side, new customised victims' facilities have been introduced as we have been upgrading and modernising our courts infrastructure. As part of the second national strategy on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, a national awareness raising campaign has been under way aimed at attitudinal and societal change to support the prevention of domestic and sexual violence. This campaign utilises a high-impact media approach to reach and inform a national audience about these issues. I was interested in what Deputy O'Callaghan said earlier about increased reporting. We need to do some research here to see whether this awareness campaign has had an impact in this regard. There is a need for a high impact. It may well be the case that people are coming forward and reporting because of this campaign.
While a great deal of work has been done to enhance protections and supports for victims of crime, the Minister for Justice and Equality recognises that more improvements are needed. To that end, the Minister has established a working group to review the adequacy of the mechanisms available in law and practice to protect vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. Mr. Tom O'Malley, who is a senior lecturer in law at NUI Galway and a member of the Law Reform Commission, has been appointed to chair this working group, which consists of experts from relevant areas including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Courts Service, the Probation Service, An Garda Síochána and the criminal law reform division of the Department of Justice and Equality. The terms of reference for the review have been published. They include, among other things, the provision of practical supports for victims through the reporting, investigation and trial processes and an examination of the provision of additional legal supports to witnesses during the court processes. This expert forum is considering the issues raised by this Bill. I understand that its report should be available by the end of this year.
As I have said, the Government agrees with Deputy O'Callaghan's aims. The enhancement of protections and supports for vulnerable victims is very important to the Government and, I take it, to everyone in this House, including the Minister for Justice and Equality. While the Government is not opposing this Bill, I encourage all Members of this House, including Deputy O'Callaghan, to await the outcome of the review that is under way on the protections that are available to victims of sexual offences and to take that review into account as this Bill makes progress through the Houses. The consultative nature of that review and the expertise available will help to ensure the additional supports we provide for victims are those which will be of most benefit to them.
I expect the report to be available shortly.
The House's debate is adding to this important subject and we are interested in hearing what colleagues have to say on this issue.
I welcome the Bill, which will have my support and that of my party. The Bill seeks to provide greater support to the victims of sexual violence, something that is much needed and sought after. It will allow victims who have been subjected to a sexual assault, gender-based violence or violence in close relationships to be afforded free legal advice, giving them the opportunity to receive the best advice on how to proceed in a legal as well as a personal sense.
Sexual assault, or any crime of a sexual nature, is a serious crime that should carry one of the highest penalties. I need not go into the detail of the psychological and physical scars that assaults leave on victims. While not perfect, the law around sexual offences is ever changing and we can and should do much more in our efforts to protect victims of sexual offences, be that in their treatment by the courts or by increasing funding for services that deal with them. I include the services of sexual assault treatment units in that regard. I had the great honour to represent some of the forensic nurses working in such units. The service they provide is invaluable first and foremost to the victims, but also to gardaí.
More broadly, it is important that the Garda records data accurately, as it has a knock-on effect on the wider system and on how we as a society deal with offences, in particular sexual assaults. There are issues in the Garda about the culture around and understanding of the importance of accurate data, the current system it is using not being fit for purpose and its IT systems being in dire need of upgrading. These matters were touched on by the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland. The Minister must address them as a matter of priority.
Sexual offences are especially intrusive and inherently violent and leave long-lasting damage. Legal support for anyone who is taking a case is vital and it is welcome that, under the Bill, this would be at the expense of the Minister.
According to the Garda, we have seen an increase of 20% or so in the reporting of sexual assaults in 2017. The latest publication of CSO figures confirms this spike. I echo the questions asked by the Minister of State in this regard, as I am interested in knowing whether the spike is being driven by a media campaign or something else. More research is needed if we are to figure out what we are doing to encourage victims to come forward. I hope that the spike is not the result of an increase in sexual-based violence. If it is, then it is concerning, but it may also be up as a result of more people coming forward. We need to examine this situation. Neither is objectively very positive, since one sexual offence is one too many, but we wish to see more cases reported and it is welcome that people feel encouraged and safe to report, given the extent to which sexual offences generally go under-reported.
A better and more comprehensive approach to reform of sentencing where it relates to sexual offences has to do with sentencing guidelines. I understand that these will be brought forward in the Judicial Council Bill 2017. Where does that Bill stand and how quickly does the Minister of State expect it to be progressed, given the clear public appetite for such guidelines? It is important that the public has confidence that the courts will hand down sentences that are appropriate and proportionate to the crimes committed. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. There are wide disparities in a number of areas, including sexual offences. Some sentences have drawn considerable comment and, indeed, anger from some quarters.
The Bill before us would certainly go some way towards giving those affected the best advice available to them before proceeding with any trial, but they most also have the confidence that justice will be served when the case is done. The reform of how trials are conducted is something that the Department is exploring. My party is looking forward to working constructively with the Minister for Justice and Equality in this regard with a view to giving the best supports possible to any victim who is taking a case to court.
Time and again we have seen sentences handed down that are inadequate. There are undoubtedly issues relating to inconsistency and leniency. Research conducted on judicial sentencing habits has shown sentence lengths ranging from 14 days to five months in an assault case while sentences in theft cases range between 30 days and nine months and between two and 12 months in road traffic and burglary cases. As a result, the public does not trust the justice system to deliver punishments that fit the crime. As legislators, we have a duty to address what is a considerable issue in sentencing. It is my party's belief that collating, publishing and providing these parameters to judges is the best way to ensure consistency in sentencing.
Domestic violence is a crime that is repeated day after day and night after night, often for years or, in some cases, decades. We frequently express shock and outrage about one-off incidents when violence is inflicted on a victim, and rightly so, but we should never turn a blind eye to domestic violence. Why do we have an inherent tolerance for sustained attacks on human beings just because the violence occurs behind closed doors or is initiated and inflicted by a perpetrator who is known to the victim? What does that say about our society and us as legislators? The Domestic Violence Act 2018 was a welcome step in the right direction by the Government, but more must be done to protect those who find themselves in such a situation and to tackle the culture of silence that surrounds these crimes.
The lack of alternative accommodation is one of the main barriers facing victims. It ranges from the shortage of refuge beds to the lack of transitional housing to spiralling rents. Women and children who are fleeing domestic violence must be exempt from the red tape and bureaucracy that surrounds housing applications. The woman may be the joint owner of the house, but if she is fleeing for her life, then she can hardly call it her home. To this end, all housing officers should have domestic violence training in order to truly understand the dangers and dynamics of the situation of the women who are sitting before them.
Gardaí must be allowed to apply for out-of-hours barring orders to an on-call judge. The return date would be the next sitting date in the nearest available court. This would enable those victims of domestic violence to be protected out of hours and strengthen the power of gardaí who often try to deal with domestic violence without having the legislation they need to do the job they want to do and ensure the safety of victims. I hope this legislation can go some way towards that. Gardaí must be empowered to deliver safety and barring orders as a matter of course. The practice of the person who is suffering the abuse having to deliver the order to the perpetrator is absurd. We know that the most dangerous time for a woman is when she is trying to leave.
The practice of the perpetrator, who could be barred from the house, having unsupervised access to the family's children is nothing short of terrifying. It is imperative that the risk posed by that person to the children and the impact of such abuse on them are assessed and that immediate interim measures be taken to protect the children.
I understand that, although we have barring or restraining orders, they do not cover contact being made by the abuser. While this is in a way harassment, no-contact orders could be a better way of legislating against such harassment. A particular example that was in the media recently showed how victims could be consistently contacted by their abusers without the abusers being in breach of any law despite it being a form of harassment and potentially quite intimidating to those on the receiving end. The Domestic Violence Act was probably the best place to deal with such a scenario, but stakeholders were keen to get it across the line at the time and this issue was not prioritised as a result.
The Women's Aid Impact Report 2017 highlights the barriers and dangers women face when trying to leave an abusive partner, including inconsistent decisions and responses from the legal system and the Garda. We must endeavour to ensure that all victims of domestic violence are protected adequately in future, and the establishment of such an order could only complement existing protections. Most importantly, this legislation must be underpinned by additional resources for front-line services and complement current services. Sinn Féin supports this legislation and we acknowledge the work of the Deputies who have introduced it.
With the few minutes remaining to me, I wish to make a point about the language we use. We are discussing victims. As in this debate, Deputies are at times capable of being very kind in the language we use, particularly towards women. In the blink of an eye, though, our language can become extremely judgmental and harsh towards them. We saw that during the course of the debate on the recent referendum, and the double standard it revealed did not reflect well on us. If we are going to have a conversation about supporting victims of crime, in particular women, who represent the majority in this context, we need to be mindful of our language.
We should not be judgmental of a woman who has been the victim of rape. We should give her all the support, services and care she needs. We should not judge her for the choice she will make about her own future.
I commend Deputy O'Callaghan on bringing forward the legislation. Sinn Féin looks forward to working constructively with him and with the Minister of State.
The Independents 4 Change group has the next speaking slot. I call Deputy Connolly.
I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for introducing the Bill. It is a short Bill and proposes only one amendment to the existing Act. I thank the Minister of State for acknowledging that he will not be opposing the Bill. That is a welcome development. He asked us to wait for the outcome of the review, which is sensible. However, there is no need to delay the measure. I am sure it will form a parallel process. I would like to know what led to the review being instigated. Was it Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill, which was published in June? When was the review commissioned and when will it be completed? More importantly, the Minister of State set out the make-up of the group. I thank him for his frankness. There was no mention of representation from a woman's group on it. The Minister of State highlighted that it comprises representatives from the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, the Courts Service, the Probation Service, the Garda Síochána, the criminal law reform division of the Department and so on. There was no mention of a representative from Women's Aid, Rape Crisis Network Ireland or the many other women's organisations. The Minister of State might examine that matter further.
This Bill is limited in scope. I am delighted the Minister of State is not opposing it. The Bill seeks to ensure that information and legal advice will be provided to a very restricted number of people in a very restricted way. To understand the context of the proposed amendment to the Act and to put it in perspective, we must consider a number of matters. The SAVI report has been repeatedly mentioned and I will highlight what it involved. It was published in 2002, which is a long time ago now, and it contained eight recommendations. It would be great if the Minister of State could confirm that I am wrong about this and state that those eight recommendations have been implemented. Recommendation 7 states, "That a systematic programming of Irish research is needed to inform, support and evaluate developments in addressing sexual violence in the coming years." That did not happen. I and other Deputies have repeatedly asked for an update of the SAVI report. The estimate provided in respect of the cost impact of such abuse was €1 million. In last year's budget, €5 million was provided for a spin unit but the Government could not provide €1 million to update the SAVI report. I imagine the Government would get much better publicity from providing money to update that report in order to enable us to have updated statistics. The National Women's Council has made this point. It stated, "The collection of data and analysis around domestic and sexual violence in Ireland is at crisis point." Orla O'Connor, its director, stated that because official statistics do not detail the level and depth of violent crime against women, it is impossible to determine the extent of the problem. She also indicated that our current system is archaic and not fit for purpose. The fact that my time is limited prevents me from quoting the other organisations which have also highlighted the inadequacy of the research and the fact that the absence of research means that policies are being formulated in a vacuum.
Some 3,120 participants were involved in the study that informed the SAVI report. An interesting aspect of this is that it had a 71% participation rate. We found that 47% of those who disclosed experience of sexual violence - that includes men and women - had never previously disclosed such information. They did it as part of this research, which was somewhat unusual. That highlights the quality of the research and the manner in which it was undertaken. It was based on quality rather than quantity. The study showed that the prevalence of abuse among men and women was shocking. It examined the position from childhood through to adulthood. Four in ten, or 42%, of the women reported some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. Over one quarter of men reported some sort of sexual abuse. The details of that are provided in the report.
I draw the Minister of State's attention to what is even more interesting about the SAVI report - I have referred to this previously - namely, that it was revisited by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2005. The latter stated that the SAVI findings have provided an impetus for policymakers and service providers in this field since it was launched. Importantly for me, it went back to ascertain the long-term effects of disclosing to the SAVI researchers and it stated that the effect of reliving the experience of abuse could be particularly notable for those who said it was their first time disclosing. They said that the research was the prompt needed for doing so and that it was a positive experience.
In addition to the SAVI report, I want to point out that we have obligations under the Istanbul Convention, which we have signed but not ratified. Again, we cannot ratify it because to do that, we have to show we have a gold standard of data collection. We have signed the Istanbul Convention but we cannot ratify it and the major reason we cannot is that we do not have an adequate data collection system. At the very least, the SAVI report needs to be updated in order that we can formulate policy.
At the risk of boring people who are listening, I have repeatedly pointed out the cost of not treating domestic violence and gender violence. It is an matter to which I return with each budget. The figure given at a conservative estimate is €2.5 billion, which is the direct cost of not dealing with domestic and sexual violence. The consequences of not dealing with that include a lack of productivity, people not going to work, having to go to hospital and so on. On every level, therefore, it makes sense to empower women and men to ensure that they can deal with being abused and then continue to live their lives.
I welcome the Government's approach to this Bill. I hope the Minister of State's request that we wait for the outcome of the group that has been set up will not delay this process because we have no choice but to deal with this issue on a psychological, economic and human level. This Bill is simply scratching the surface in respect of giving support to a very limited group of people.
The Rural Independents have the next slot. I call Deputy Harty.
This Bill proposes a small but important amendment to the 2017 Act. I support the principles for which it proposes to provide. I hope the fact that the Bill will involve a charge on the State will not be used as a means of obstructing its passage.
The Bill deals with sexual crime. Such crime is abhorrent and women who are the victims of it are extremely sensitive. Sexual assault does not just involve a physical assault, it also involves a deep psychological assault. The latter has life-changing consequences for the women involved and can deeply affect her future relationships, particularly if the crime has been carried out by somebody she knows or who is close to her. It is very important that women be encouraged to bring closure in respect of assaults they have endured in order that they can carry on with their lives. Sexual crime has a deep psychological effect on women and can affect their lives far into the future. It is very difficult to quantify the psychological effects of rape. As a result, it is very important that women be allowed to achieve closure.
The fact that assaults are often carried out by friends or partners of the women makes such events even more traumatic. However, many assaults are opportunistic and violent, thus women need the maximum support possible. The Bill endeavours to provide legal information and advice to victims of sexual crime.
I hope the Bill will give more victims the confidence to come forward and report sexual crime. There is a difficulty in that regard. In light of the sensitivity of this issue, many women will not come forward because they are afraid of both the consequences and of judgment being passed upon them unfairly. Victims often feel isolated and unsure of their rights, including the lack of support in reporting and initiating legal proceedings. This Bill would offer additional official State support.
In its pre-budget submission the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre called on the Department of Justice and Equality to provide adequate legal aid and advice for victims of sexual violence in their dealings with the criminal justice system and this Bill obviously addresses that. Victims of sexual assault feel very vulnerable regarding the level of scrutiny of their private lives to which they will be subjected when reporting sexual crime and carrying through to legal proceedings. They should be assured that their rights will be protected in any court proceedings and they should be informed at every step of the legal process.
This Bill, though short, is very important. If we are going to offer terminations to women who become pregnant as a result of rape, then we should also offer them every legal support in taking proceedings against the perpetrator.
I am happy to speak briefly on this Bill and salute Deputy O'Callaghan and his office for highlighting this matter. Deputy O’Callaghan informs us that the purpose of this legislation is to give greater support and protection to victims of sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in a close relationship in circumstances where they make a complaint to An Garda Síochána. It will also seek to amend section 17 of the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017 in order that where victims of sexual violence make a complaint, they will be provided with relevant information and legal advice by a solicitor funded by the Minister. I am sure this is a proposal we can all support once the mechanics of how it is implemented are strictly defined. If it is to be State-funded we certainly do not want to see a repeat of the scenario where it amounts to the sums provided by Government to cover the costs associated with civil and criminal legal aid. Our intentions may be honourable with this Bill but things have a habit of developing a life of their own where legal costs and solicitors' fees are involved. I am not having a go at Deputy O'Callaghan when I make that point.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, confirmed to me in a parliamentary reply that over €605 million has been allocated for legal aid since 2011. This was in a time when Garda stations were being closed left, right and centre, Garda overtime was cut and some areas did not even have proper patrol cars. During this period, supports for women’s refuges like the excellent Cuan Saor refuge in my home town of Clonmel were being drastically reduced. I have been highlighting this issue since at least 2013 when the scale of the crisis among such groups and refuges trying to offer shelter first emerged. Lack of funding is putting the welfare of women and children at serious risk. Cuan Saor’s core funding has decreased by €110,000 since 2010 despite the increase in referrals to the service. In some years Cuan Saor has been unable to accommodate up to 212 women and 256 children, which is staggering. In light of these figures how can the Government’s response, which has been to further slash funding, be seen as anything but reprehensible hypocrisy? These refuges do extraordinary work and I salute the staff members who regularly go beyond the call of duty in providing care and shelter when they can. Unfortunately, thanks to the absurd lack of funding, all of that is in direct danger of collapse. There was a huge fundraiser recently - Music Day Under the Arches, which is held every year - which raised approximately €17,000. The people at Cuan Saor have enough to do in looking after the most vulnerable women and children and should not have to get involved in fundraising too. The Minister must pony up and provide the funding required rather than making hypocritical statements.
A lack of places in refuges is not the only problem to be faced, however. Under the 2011 housing regulations, women who are joint owners of a home are not deemed to have a housing need unless they are divorced or formally separated even if they have fled the home because of violence. This means they cannot be added to housing lists and are unable to get rent supplement. This causes huge levels of difficulty for women and their families who are trying to break the link with an abusive partner. This is also an issue that needs to be urgently addressed, on top of the issues raised by Deputy O’Callaghan's Bill, which I am happy to support.
I very much support Deputy O'Callaghan's Bill and appreciate the opportunity to acknowledge the great work that is being done. Over the years as a politician, I have unfortunately dealt with people who have been living in abusive relationships and who have had terrible ordeals and tough times. I acknowledge the great work that is being done in my own county by those involved with the Kerry rape crisis intervention centre and in the women's refuge. Great services are provided by both at a critical time in people's lives. We are talking about women in very bad relationships whose lives and those of their children are in danger. I also want to acknowledge the work that is done by the housing agencies, the local authorities and homeless agencies when dealing with people who are extremely vulnerable and in many cases terrified. That is why this Bill is so important, as making sure we have the necessary funds in place to deal with whatever situations arise is important. The last thing we want is for people to need help and safety and to need the agencies of the State to be there to support them, only for funding to be an issue. Funding should not be an issue in those circumstances. As Oireachtas Members, we must make sure the tools are in place to take care of people at vulnerable and dangerous times in their lives. That is so important.
The people who work in this area and who take care of people and assist them are the unsung heroes. Their job is extremely stressful. The minute the phone rings or the knock comes to the door, they know they may be dealing with people fleeing from terribly bad situations. The more experienced Members of this House who have been involved in politics for a lot longer than me have seen all types of sad things happening. That is why Deputy O'Callaghan and his very worthwhile Bill deserve to be supported by everyone in this House. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
Like my colleagues, I thank Deputy O'Callaghan for his work in this area. This is a most welcome Bill and I have no doubt it will enhance the respect and protection given to victims of sexual violence in the criminal justice process. I also welcome the statement from the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, that the Government will not oppose this Bill. This, coupled with the support from all sides of the House for this Bill, demonstrates the seriousness with which all Deputies take this issue.
We must try to stem the increased incidence of rape and other sexual offences. The latest CSO figures are a cause for grave concern. In the period from 2008 to 2017, there was an increase of more than 100% in reported incidents of sexual assault. There may have been under-reporting for many years. That could be a factor or perhaps we have a major crisis on our hands. In one way, I hope the increase can be explained by under-reporting. Attacks of this nature are vile and appalling and it is up to us as legislators to deal with this situation. It is so important that we encourage people to report such incidents.
I wish to bring rural Ireland into this discussion. We must consider people who are living in isolated areas. Where do they go if an attack takes place, particularly at night? In many cases they do not have a local Garda station any more and can be many miles away from any Garda unit. This issue must be considered and reforms introduced in that regard. There are six sexual assault treatment units in Ireland that can provide specialist care to victims of sexual assault.
That is not enough. I want to reflect back to the issue of isolation for people in rural areas. There are many issues to address and the matter needs to be taken seriously. I am confident that what Deputy O'Callaghan is doing here, and the support the House is showing for it, is the right way to go. I welcome that and hope we all work together to deal with the issue as a matter of urgency.
I also welcome the opportunity to speak on the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) (Amendment) Bill 2018 and compliment Deputy O'Callaghan on identifying the anomaly in the 2017 legislation. It is only a one-line amendment, but it has a huge, empowering impact on victims coming forward. Victims need to know their rights and what is ahead of them. They need to know the State is there to support them and that is the real thrust of this amendment, hence the support from the Minister, our colleagues across the House and all Members here this evening.
As spokesperson for children, I conducted research as to how this might impact children. The Children's Rights Alliance launch a score card every year and it gave a grade of C-plus to the Government when the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act was announced last year. The Children's Rights Alliance also pointed out there were certain provisions of the Bill that it would like to see amended to do with the voice of the child. Those amendments are probably no different from what Deputy O'Callaghan is looking at doing this evening, to ensure the voice of the child is reflected and represented and victims who are minors have similar rights because the consequences for a child are no different from those for an adult. It is as traumatising for them.
Those observations are on pages 84 to 88 of the Children's Rights Alliance report card for 2018 in the section on child victims of crime and I would ask the Minister of State to look at the Children's Rights Alliance recommendations.
I attended the joint policing committee, JPC, meeting in Galway yesterday, an organisation of which the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, was a member before his elevation to office. The chief superintendent announced the protected services unit, which I welcome. We will have two detective sergeants and ten detective gardaí in new Garda buildings in Galway, which is welcome. It is a recognition of the increase in the numbers reporting incidents of rape and sexual assaults and will give the gardaí on the ground the ability to support the student body, where there have been 50 such reports in the past six months. When setting up such a unit, we should row in behind the gardaí in that unit and keep the same numbers on the beat on the ground.
I am very supportive of what has been recommended here this evening.
I compliment Deputy O'Callaghan on bringing forward this amending legislation. I listened to the debate in my office and it was heartening to hear support from the entirety of the House for the amendment.
This legislation is designed to support and protect the victims of sexual violence through the criminal justice process. The crime statistics published at the beginning of October by the Central Statistics Office reveal the trend of increased incidents of rape and other sexual offences is continuing. Reported incidents of sexual offences were up more than 10% for the second quarter of 2018 when compared with the same period the previous year.
There were reports in the national media at the beginning of the academic year concerning the numbers of students presenting to rape crisis centres and reporting rapes or sexually assaults.
The Irish Examiner, on 25 September, ran a front page story stating that, since the commencement of the academic year, three college students in Cork had reported rapes to the rape crisis centre. Two of those three young women have reportedly dropped out of college. Similar reports appeared in the media about students in Galway, where almost 50 students reported incidents of rape and sexual assault to the rape crisis centre in the past six months alone.
There are many worrying features of these stories and it is high time something was done to address the issues. Despite these statistics, the fact remains that sexual offences are grossly under-reported. Many victims do not make a complaint to An Garda Síochána. Survivors need to be empowered, informed and fairly treated throughout the criminal justice process. This legislation hopes to do something to achieve this. The main provisions of the Bill are that, during an investigation into offences involving sexual violence, gender-based violence or violence in a close relationship, the victim should be provided with relevant information and legal advice. This information will be provided by a solicitor funded by the Minister for Justice and Equality through support networks that already exist. It would help the victim identify the necessary steps and actions he or she would have to take should a complaint proceed to a prosecution on indictment.
The purpose of section 2 is to provide relevant information and legal advice to the victim at an early stage of the investigation and inform him or her of the nature, extent and likely timeline of the investigation and that the victim and others with relevant evidence will have to provide statements to An Garda Síochána. Victims will also be informed that the accused is entitled to disclosure of all relevant documents and evidence in advance of a trial and that victims will be required to give evidence and face cross-examination in respect of alleged offences and the likely timeline for the hearing and determination of any criminal proceedings.
We need to send a clear message that anyone who is a victim of a sexual crime will be listened to and supported throughout the criminal justice process. It is vital that society is clear in its attitude to sexual crime and perhaps then any fear a victim may have about the criminal justice process will be dispelled. This amendment will go a long way towards achieving that.
The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and I have listened to the points raised by Deputies this evening and the Government is committed to providing greater supports and protections for victims of crime and ensuring victims are provided with all the information and assistance they need when interacting with the criminal justice system. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, has spoken this evening of the considerable recent legislative reforms in this area. The Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017, the Domestic Violence Act 2018 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 have all significantly improved the supports and protections offered to victims, including measures to better protect victims during the trial process. All these Acts were widely supported, and indeed improved, in this House, which demonstrates the common purpose in our approach to vulnerable victims generally.
In addition to legislative changes, there has been a welcome increase in funding available through the Department of Justice and Equality and Tusla to support services for victims of crime and victims of domestic and sexual violence in particular. Further practical supports have been put in place in the Prison Service, the probation service, the Office of the Director Public Prosecutions and An Garda Síochána.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, has acknowledged that more still needs to be done, which is why he has established the review of protections for vulnerable witnesses in the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. That review will examine many of the issues raised in this Bill and in the House today.
Deputy Connolly raised specific queries and I can confirm that the review arose because of concerns raised at the time of the Belfast rape trial and the review was established following consultation with victim support and women's rights groups, all of whom will have the opportunity to make submissions to the review. In addition, those carrying out the review will engage directly with the aforementioned groups. I understand there may be some degree of duplication between the proposals in the Bill and the existing information and legal advice schemes already available. For this reason, the Minister would like to see these proposals considered not in isolation but within the wider context of the review. This review, as the House has already heard, is currently ongoing under the expert chairmanship of Tom O'Malley and is due to report to the Minister by the end of the year.
I reiterate what my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, said earlier in the debate, that Government sees merit in the proposals and will not be opposing the Bill. I encourage Deputy O'Callaghan, as he takes this Bill forward, to consider his proposals in light of any recommendations made by the review group.
I thank all the Members who contributed to the debate. It is apparent from listening to all of them that every Member in the House recognises that we, as legislators, need to try to do more for the victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse. As the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, said, legislative changes have been brought in by the Government which have improved the position.
He referred to the Domestic Violence Act and the other legislation introduced, including the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, which have recently been introduced. We need to recognise that we still face a considerable problem in this country, which is that victims of sexual violence are still hesitant about coming forward to report crimes. That is a problem which we would not tolerate with any other offences and which we would not have with any other offences. As legislators, we need to be guided by the knowledge we have and the best research available to us. It is important that further research is done in this area so that we can be fully aware of the extent of sexual violence that exists in this country. Without that level of knowledge, in many respects, we as legislators are acting a bit in the dark.
One thing we can all be very clear on is that people who are the victims of rape, sexual assault or sexual abuse experience a very traumatic and long-term impact. We need to recognise that part of the problem and reason there is under-reporting of these offences is probably because of the fact many of the victims know their assailants. It is not like a situation exists where the majority of rapes in Ireland are by people jumping out on individuals who they do not know. Most people who are victims of rape or sexual assault know their attackers. That may be part of the reason people are so hesitant about coming forward.
The Minister of State made a number of points in his speech to which I wish to reply. He noted that at present, under the Criminal Justice (Victims of Crime) Act 2017, An Garda Síochána is required to provide victims of crime with information on the criminal justice process. That is correct but I think what we know from the current situation is that people are still hesitant about coming forward to members of An Garda Síochána. They know that they have to go to the gardaí. We need to encourage more people to do so. I believe that if we had a statutory entitlement of an individual to get independent legal advice from a solicitor, it would provide greater support to those persons. The Minister of State referred to how the Legal Aid Board provides service for victims where there is a prosecution for rape or aggravated sexual assault. It is important that we put support systems in place before a decision is made as to whether there should be a prosecution. When an individual makes a complaint, there should be support available from an independent solicitor. There was also a reference to the crucial role played by the rape crisis centres. If this legislation was enacted, support by way of advice from a solicitor would be provided through the structures of the rape crisis centres. I do not believe it would involve a very large cost for the Exchequer. It could be done by increasing the level of financial support that is paid to the rape crisis centres, which play an invaluable role. The Minister of State also referred to the work being done by Mr. O'Malley in NUI Galway. I respect what the Minister of State has said about that. It would be beneficial to await the outcome of his report and I am happy to do so.
Deputy Catherine Connolly said that the Bill is limited. It is limited and there is no one solution which we will be able to come up with that will encourage people to come forward in significant numbers to make complaints about sexual abuse or sexual assault but we need to start identifying small steps that will have an impact.
I conclude by thanking all Members for their support. We need to recognise that although there has been an increase in the reporting of sexual offences, many of us think that is due to the fact that people, particularly women, are becoming more self-confident about reporting these offences. We have to be careful because there is another potential explanation which is far more worrying. My colleague, Deputy Eugene Murphy, referred to it a few moments ago. We have never seen young people grow up in a society where they have been exposed to the levels of pornography on the Internet that young people are exposed to now. We have always had pornography in societies but we have never had the level of exposure that young people have to it. We have never had young people having their attitudes about sexuality developed by an Internet presentation which is really separate from reality. It presents women in a very submissive and malleable role and gives young people a very distorted view of their own sexuality and how sexuality should operate. We have to be very conscious of this. Hopefully, it is not the case but it could be the case that sexual offences are increasing because young people are developing a distorted and warped view of sexuality from what they learn on the Internet.
I thank Members and will take on board what they said in their contributions.