Ba mhaith liom an deis seo a thapú chun déileáil leis agus caint faoin gceist ríthábhachtach seo. Is maith an rud é go bhfuil seans againn an t-ábhar seo a phlé.
I thank the House for the opportunity to discuss this urgent and very important topic. Domestic abuse is an issue of concern across the Oireachtas, regardless of our political backgrounds. Every one of us will have had to deal with disturbing cases in our professional lives. I will give Deputies an update on what progress has been made in some of the relevant key policy areas and an honest appraisal of where we are and what needs to be prioritised.
First, I speak to those that have suffered domestic abuse in the past or who may be living in an abusive relationship at this moment. One of the key messages from Government to the public over the past 18 months or so has been to stay home and stay safe. However, for some people, that was not an option. Staying home meant you were not safe. Your home was not and is not the safe sanctuary it should be for everyone.
I commend those who have reached out and got the support they needed to exit an abusive relationship. It can be an extraordinarily difficult decision to make but they have done the right thing. Those still trapped with someone who is abusing them physically, mentally or emotionally should know and take heart from the fact the supports are in place to help. They deserve better than what is happening to them and there is a way out. Over the course of today's statements, we will correctly hear criticisms of some aspects of the services that are in place and valid calls for increased funding in some areas. However, it is critically important to state to anyone listening to this discussion who needs to exit an abusive relationship that help is out there.
Over the course of the pandemic, many countries have reported an increase in domestic abuse cases. That is one of the most depressing side effects of the widespread restrictions that were necessary. Unfortunately, this has been borne out in Ireland too. This was predicted by our experts and, from the outset of the pandemic, the Government put in place effective preventative and safeguarding measures. We prioritised help for victims of domestic abuse. We worked collaboratively with front-line service providers and community groups, including Women's Aid, on the Still Here campaign. This campaign worked to reassure anyone at risk of or experiencing domestic abuse that help is available, the Garda will respond in an emergency, and restrictions on movement do not apply if the safety of a person or family is in question.
We have increased the level of funding available to organisations which support victims, ensuring they can continue and build upon their critical work. We have worked with the Garda, the courts and the Legal Aid Board to ensure cases of domestic abuse and sexual violence are prioritised. Operation Faoiseamh, which is a proactive targeted approach adopted by An Garda Síochána to reach out to victims of domestic abuse and target offenders who have breached domestic abuse orders, is continuing and has resulted in a 24% increase in criminal charges brought against perpetrators of domestic violence in 2020 versus 2019.
Deputies will be aware from their work in their constituencies that, through Operation Faoiseamh, An Garda Síochána has helped many victims of domestic abuse throughout the pandemic. I commend and thank the Garda for that. However, I am deeply concerned, as I know all Deputies are, about victims who sought Garda help through 999 calls but may not have been responded to. The Garda Commissioner has assured the Minister for Justice that when someone calls 999 now, he or she can expect and trust that An Garda Síochána will help. Of course, that should always be the case. The Policing Authority is continuing its own investigation, as is An Garda Síochána. We will have to wait until those processes are concluded, but it is clear something went wrong. This should not have happened. The Commissioner has apologised for this and was right to do so. I understand the interests of victims are being prioritised by gardaí as they deal with this issue, which is the correct thing to do. An Garda Síochána fell short of the high standards the public expects of it, and this House will want to examine the recommendations arising from the investigations of both the Policing Authority and An Garda Síochána and will want reassurance of their full implementation.
The difficulties that have arisen with the 999 service have further highlighted the importance of the service provided by Women's Aid, which recently detailed an increase in calls and correspondence from people seeking help last year. Each year, the Women's Aid impact report plays a vital role in illustrating the stark reality facing thousands of women and children subjected to domestic violence in this country. The headline figures in the impact report for 2020 are harrowing. There were 29,717 contacts to Women's Aid, during which 30,841 disclosures of abuse against women and children were made. There were 24,893 disclosures of domestic violence, including coercive control, against women. Some 340 disclosures of rape were made to the Women's Aid helpline. This is appalling. It takes exceptional bravery to make that call, and making that call is often a last resort for a victim. Behind each call is a person or family devastated by what is happening to them in what should be a loving relationship. I acknowledge the hard work and unwavering dedication Women's Aid has shown in this area. I know each person who contacted it was met with warmth and compassion and supported in their time of need.
Abuse does not always involve physical violence. Mental and emotional abuse is also often devastating. Thankfully, there has been extensive legal reform around domestic abuse and sexual violence in recent years, including introducing an offence of coercive control under the Domestic Violence Act 2018. I welcome recent convictions for coercive control and I again commend the resilience and bravery of victims who have come forward.
It is important to note the nationwide roll-out of divisional protective services units is complete. These units deliver a consistent, professional and sensitive approach to the investigation of specialised crime types, including domestic abuse. The recent enactment of the Criminal Procedure Act introduces preliminary trial hearings for the first time in Irish law. The purpose of preliminary hearings is to reduce delays and increase efficiency in the running of our criminal trials. They will remove some of the uncertainties victims face about potential issues arising after a trial has started, which will help them run more smoothly.
These are positive developments. While a lot of progress has been made, there are areas we must continue working hard to improve. A key priority of this Government is to continue improving services and policies to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. We have discussed it on a number of occasions in the Dáil in recent months and have outlined as a Government what we are doing and planning to do. We have not just been talking about this important work; we are progressing the reforms needed to make our system work better for victims. We have some way to go before we have a justice system that, from end to end, places victims at its centre, but I reassure Deputies that this work is of huge importance and is being advanced.
The programme for Government commits to conducting an audit of how responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is segmented across different Government agencies. This important commitment is reiterated in the justice plan for 2021.
The audit was undertaken by external consultants, Mary Higgins and Ellen O'Malley-Dunlop, in consultation with relevant NGOs and service providers, while also taking input from Departments and agencies. The consultants, as part of their work, were also required to take account of the views of those working at the front line. The audit is an important part of the process that is under way to make sure we have the right structures in place in order that Government can respond to all of the issues related to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The audit report has been finalised and is expected to be brought to Government very soon.
The Department of Justice is also working to ensure the development of an effective third national strategy to address domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. This strategy will have a significant focus on service delivery, cohesive governance and oversight arrangements, and placing a priority on prevention and reduction. It will include a national preventative strategy. The audit outcome, along with the ongoing work of implementing Supporting a Victim's Journey, the current review of accommodation needs undertaken by Tusla, and the development of the third national strategy will provide us with valuable guidance for designing our systems to best meet the needs of victims of domestic abuse and improve how we do so in the longer term.
As noted, Tusla is currently undertaking a review of the provision of accommodation for victims of domestic violence, which will take into consideration both the needs of victims and the types of accommodation that are required. I understand that review is also close to completion. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and other Ministers across Government are absolutely committed to addressing this issue and getting it right. The Department of Justice is also committed to delivering the full and timely implementation of the recommendations contained in the O'Malley review. As Deputies are aware, this plan when implemented will protect and support vulnerable witnesses during the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences. The implementation of Supporting a Victim's Journey is critical to ensuring we have a criminal justice system that works for vulnerable victims at every stage of their journey. It will ensure we can support vulnerable victims and empower them to report offences, knowing they will be supported, informed and treated respectfully throughout the criminal justice process.
I mentioned the roll-out of divisional protective service units and the introduction of preliminary hearings for the first time in Irish law. These are important actions under Supporting a Victim's Journey. Other actions, including the exercise to map the victim's journey and identifying gaps in service provision, are close to completion. We are also taking significant steps to challenge societal attitudes. The Department of Justice has been running a six-year, two-part national awareness campaign to tackle domestic and sexual violence. It is designed to help identify instances or signs of domestic and sexual violence and make us question our acceptance of certain unacceptable behaviours and attitudes. It highlights that, at an individual level and as a society, we must change our attitudes if we want a country that does not accept any form of domestic or sexual violence. As political representatives and leaders in our communities, we in this House also have an important role to play by rejecting any sort of taboo and speaking openly about the issue, making it clear that any sort of abuse within a relationship is simply unacceptable and highlighting the supports that are in place.
I reassure Deputies that the Government understands and is tackling, in a proactive way, the challenge of preventing and responding to domestic abuse. Ambitious targets have been set and we are on course to deliver them. We are committed to building our systems around the needs of victims and we are working with front-line service providers to ensure our response in this area is victim-informed and effective. We have made significant progress but are under no illusions about the amount of work we must continue to do to ensure we provide the best possible range of supports, services and policies for victims of this heinous and often hidden crime.