I can confirm that I have received the correspondence referred to and can assure the Deputy that tackling these heinous crimes is a priority for me, my Department and this Government.
As the Deputy will be aware, I am leading on the preparation of a new national strategy to combat domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. The strategy has been developed in partnership with the sector to ensure it is targeted, comprehensive and effective in achieving all of the goals set out. In February, I briefed those working in the sector on the progress of the strategy as part of that ongoing consultation, and a wider public consultation run by my Department concluded in March.
The strategy will set out the government's plan for a zero tolerance approach to domestic, sexual and gender based violence. I am also working on finalising an accompanying action plan for the rest of this year and next year which will set out how each of these aims will be achieved, which Departments and agencies are responsible for them, and the timeframe for delivery, so that our work is targeted, ambitious and deliverable.
It is intended that both the finalised strategy and the action plan will be brought to Government in the coming weeks.
I also intend, for the first time, to establish in law a national agency tasked with responsibility for Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence.
The agency will be responsible for overseeing all of the actions set out in the Third National Strategy and for delivering domestic violence services.
It will bring together the expertise that already exists within TUSLA and in the Department of Justice and will report to me, as Minister for Justice.
The agency will work closely with those departments and agencies and with the sector to ensure the services it provides are meeting the needs of victims of DSGBV and of the sector that support them.
The implementation plan I will bring to Government along with the Third National Strategy in the coming weeks will also set out what the proposals are in relation to the establishment of this new agency. It will also set out the interim relationship between my Department and Tusla until that agency is established.
It is anticipated that the new Agency will be up-and-running within 18 months.
In addition to this work, my Department is also continuing to drive forward the implementation of Supporting a Victim’s Journey. We are determined to implement this plan in full so that when a victim of a crime comes forward, they will be safe in the knowledge that they will be supported, informed and treated with respect and dignity at every stage of their journey through the criminal justice system.
As part of delivering the actions in this plan, I recently signed an order to bring into operation the Criminal Procedure Act 2021. This Act provides for the use of preliminary trial hearings which will significantly improve the trial process for victims of sexual offences, including by reducing delay and disruption that might re-traumatise victims.
In relation to education and awareness raising in our fight against sexual and gender-based violence, I agree this is an important part of our work and that we must ensure we implement the programmes we have that work - not just at primary level but also at secondary level and in higher and further education and college as well.
We must also ensure that education takes place in our homes and that parents have conversations with children. Partners, work colleagues and friends should have these difficult conversations.
Over the past number of years, my Department been working to raise awareness generally about how we, as a society, need to stop excusing unacceptable behaviour.
The No Excuses campaign, for example, highlights this determination to challenge people and the culture, prejudice and values that allow any form of sexual harassment or sexual violence. As a society we all have a role to play in preventing sexual harassment and sexual violence and the No Excuses campaign underpins the message that sexual violence and harassment will not be tolerated and reminds people to take action when it is safe to do so.
Under the Third National Strategy, the Government will continue to work with our partners on raising awareness of DSGBV and on changing attitudes to it. As part of this we are developing an awareness campaign on the meaning and importance of consent in healthy relationships.
I am also focused on strengthening legislation to combat all forms of DSGBV and I recently secured Government approval to draft legislation to make stalking and non-fatal strangulation standalone offences.
While both stalking and non-fatal strangulation are already crimes, I am proposing a number of changes to make the law in this area clearer and stronger.
These new provisions, which will be included in the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, will:
- Amend section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 to introduce a standalone stalking offence, and amend the existing harassment offence
- Empower the courts to issue orders restraining stalking behaviours without a criminal prosecution
- Strengthen procedural protections for alleged victims of stalking during the court process
- Introduce a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation
The evidence is that when a specific stalking offence is introduced, it leads to a greater awareness of the crime and an increase in the number of crimes reported and ultimately prosecuted.
In the summer, I will publish a new Hate Crime Bill which will introduce new, specific aggravated offences with enhanced penalties for crimes motivated by prejudice against certain characteristics, including gender. This will mean that certain types of crimes can be prosecuted as hate crimes where they are motivated by misogyny.
For other crimes, where there isn’t a dedicated hate-aggravated offence, the new legislation will require the court to take misogyny into account where there is evidence that this was the motivation, to reflect that fact in the sentence, and to reflect the fact that the crime was aggravated by this form of prejudice in the formal record.
Before the end of September, I will publish a new Sexual Offences Bill which will introduce important changes including:
- Extending victim anonymity to further categories of victims
- Repealing provisions for sentences to be delivered in public
- Legal representation for victims
Separately, I will seek to enact the Sex Offenders Bill within months which will strengthen the management and monitoring of sex offenders in the community.