Thursday, 22 October 2020

Ceisteanna (4)

Catherine Connolly


4. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Justice the criteria for groups and or organisations to access funding made available by her Department to community and voluntary groups to support their response to Covid-19; the way in which decisions to allocate funding to such groups were made; the reason an organisation (details supplied) was denied such funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [32009/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Justice)

My question is brief. It is about the welcome funding that the Minister's Department has provided to voluntary and community groups, which has been refused to a specific group. It seems to me that it was done on the basis of morality. I hope not. I am trying to determine what the policies and criteria were, and if they are publicly available.

I thank the Deputy for raising the question.

My Department provides funding to a range of organisations, allocated subject to a number of conditions appropriate for public funds. This is applicable to most Departments when they give out funding. These conditions include confirmation of charitable status, tax clearance, audited accounts and so on. In 2020, my Department committed almost €1.9 million to support services for victims of crime, including sexual and gender-based violence. These services provide important information and support to victims of crime, including emotional support, court accompaniment and accompaniment to Garda interviews and sexual assault treatment units. They also provide counselling and referral to other services. I am pleased that I am in a position to increase this funding to €2 million in budget 2021.

Following the outbreak of Covid-19 earlier this year, my Department provided an additional €327,590 to organisations working in the sector to support, adapt and increase their services during the pandemic. While this funding is not necessarily specific to the delivery of their services, it allows them to highlight the services that they provide, to make sure that people know they are there and that this support is available to them. As this was unprecedented and the need was urgent, my Department made funding available to organisations supporting victims, as an exceptional emergency measure. The vast majority, if not all, of the organisations that received additional funding are organisations that had received funding through the Department. They were known to the Department and had gone through the necessary channels already. I am pleased that I have secured an additional €400,000 in budget 2021 to allow for this Covid-specific support to be continued next year.

Organisations working in areas within the remit of my Department are always free to apply for funding and I understand that my officials have offered to meet the specific organisation the Deputy referred to. While each application is considered on its own merits, it should be noted that funding will only be available for projects that support Ireland's values and objectives and are aligned with wider Government policies in that regard.

With regard to prostitution, which the group the Deputy referred to addresses, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 criminalised the purchasing of sex. This position was taken on the basis that prostitution is inherently exploitative of vulnerable persons, mainly women and girls. My Department's approach to prostitution in Ireland is also informed by advice from An Garda Síochána, which is that it is inextricably linked with human trafficking. My Department and I have offered to meet this group. I understand that the offer has not been taken up. The decision is on the basis that, with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, we have criminalised the purchasing of sex. This is contrary to the views of those who are in the group that the Deputy has mentioned in her question.

I take hope from the Minister's reply and also despair a little. I welcome that there is a report regarding the 2017 Act. Will the Minister give a date for when it will be completed? I am a little confused. I welcome all the funding she has outlined, which is very positive. This particular organisation has written to the Department and the Department has written back, asking it for a declaration of what it supports and values. What are the values and criteria? Where are they available? This is not about trafficking. I am a woman who deplores trafficking and I made strong statements in the Dáil when this legislation was being passed. I did not agree with it for many reasons. The main reasons were that I listened to what people told us. They said that the people working in the trade, the women, would be made more vulnerable and that their lives would be endangered. That is the group that is writing to the Minister for help during Covid.

I thank the Deputy. The Department has offered to meet the group and that has not been taken up, but I am happy to meet the group. The legislation that was passed criminalises the buying of sex, the buying of sex from persons who are trafficked and also criminalises those who manage, organise or own brothels. I accept what the Deputy is saying, that this group might have a different view, but from engaging with various representative groups that support these women, many people are trafficked, though I accept it is not all, and that is why this legislation was passed. There is an inherent contradiction in this particular group's view, compared with the legislation that has been passed and the position that the Government has taken regarding prostitution. I am happy to meet this group. There is no issue with that.

Regarding the review, we have tasked Maura Butler with reviewing the legislation after three years. There has been a slight delay with Covid, the formation of the Government and the fact that Ms Butler is undertaking another review on familicide. That review is continuing. I spoke to her this week. I will meet her again in the next few weeks to see if she will need any additional support or measures. In that review, she is undertaking to determine whether this legislation has caused any harm to these vulnerable women. As the Deputy outlined, there are some suggestions that this makes women more vulnerable. With this legislation, we are trying to protect them, not cause them more harm. This review will examine whether it has created any challenges for women in this situation. If this group wishes to meet me, I have no problem doing so.

I thank the Minister. I welcome that she is prepared to meet with them. That is positive. This is a group of women represented by the Sex Workers Alliance Ireland who have come forward to point out the vulnerability of women who find themselves in this position during the Covid pandemic. They are asking for assistance in helping vulnerable women. It has nothing to do with child trafficking or the elements that the Minister mentioned and it has nothing to do with my morality. We have not criminalised the women; we have criminalised the purchase of sex. We are going to review that to see if it achieved the objectives that it set out to achieve. I welcome that, but the Minister has not given a date for the publication of that report. Will it be public? Going back to the matter in question, we are talking about a small sum and bringing transparency to the Department's policy regarding how money is allocated, the criteria for it and where it can be accessed.

The challenge here is that we have legislation that criminalises the buying of sex and those who run brothels. I have spoken with officials at great length and inquired myself. This particular organisation does not agree with the idea that it should be criminalised and that this is something that potentially exploits women and girls. A significant number of women who find themselves in this position are trafficked. We have to acknowledge that. There would be a contradiction if the Department gave funding to an organisation that does not believe in the approach that we are taking and the legislation that has been passed.

That is what I mean when I say it is not in line with the ethics or values of the Department, which clearly were agreed by the House when it passed the legislation. Of course, we want to support any person who is in a vulnerable position. We have seen over the past few months that when it comes to domestic violence and sexual violence persons who are in vulnerable positions have become more vulnerable. We are trying to reach out to those through the many organisations that have been funded. However, there is an inherent contradiction here in that this group does not believe it should be criminalised, and that is where the challenge lies. Again, I can give a commitment that I am happy to meet and talk to the group.