121. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Minister for Justice if she will address the need for Government to tackle gender-based violence and harassment in Irish society. [51087/21]
Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Deputy Hildegarde Naughton): The government is committed to tackling domestic, sexual and gender based violence in all its forms, and to supporting victims of this heinous crime.
My Department provides funding to support the work of An Garda Síochána to combat such violence. It also provides funding to promote and assist the development of specific support services for victims of crime within the criminal justice system, which of course includes victims of domestic and sexual crime.
The commitment of this Government to combatting domestic, sexual and gender based violence and to supporting victims is reflected in the funding allocated under Budget 2022, with a total of €13m allocated to my Department for this. This represents an increased allocation of €5.35m and will enable us to roll out specific awareness raising and training programmes to combat domestic, sexual and gender based violence. It will also allow us to provide additional supports to NGOs and specific domestic violence intervention programmes and it will support a number of front line activities.
As part of this, an additional €1.1m will be used to put in place a legal advice and legal aid service in court for victims of sexual violence and €1 million is being provided to the Garda vote to refurbish and upgrade the Divisional Protective Service Units. This will allow us to better support and protect vulnerable victims.
The Deputy will be aware that my Department is leading the development across government of the third national strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence. This plan will outline how the government will radically improve services and supports for victims and will be the most ambitious plan to date. My Department is also currently implementing Supporting a Victim’s Journey, our plan to help victims and vulnerable witnesses in sexual violence cases, and which was published by Minister McEntee last year. It will reform the criminal justice system at every point a victim comes into contact with it, while a national public awareness campaign on consent will further strengthen work to prevent these crimes.
The additional funding secured under Budget 2022 will allow us to continue to build on the work undertaken this year. We will continue to improve the system for victims, to better support them and through various means to raise awareness of, and to combat, all forms of domestic, sexual and gender based violence.
As part of our work to combat sexual harassment, domestic and sexual violence we are running awareness raising campaigns to bring about a change in long-established societal behaviours and attitudes and to activate bystanders with a view to decreasing and preventing this type of behaviour and violence.
The final instalment of a three-year awareness campaign on sexual violence, entitled ‘No Excuses’ is currently being aired across radio, tv and various other social channels. Work is also underway to develop a national campaign around the meaning and importance of consent in sexual relationships. It is also expected that as part of the Third National Strategy’s focus on prevention and informing victims of supports available, there will be new and potentially multi-faceted campaigns required.
On the legislative side, a new law enacted earlier this year has introduced preliminary hearings for the first time. This will ensure greater protections for vulnerable victims and witnesses in sexual offences cases.
'Coco's Law', also referred to as the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act, entered into force on 10 February 2021. Among other provisions, it broadened the offence of harassment and increased the penalties for the more serious forms of harassment. It also created new offences of sending, or threatening to send, intimate images without the consent of the person whose image it is.
The Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill has completed drafting and it is intended this Bill will be brought to my Government colleagues for approval to publish in the coming weeks. The purpose of the Bill is to enhance current systems for the assessment and management of convicted sex offenders and to put those systems on a statutory footing.
Through the implementation of Supporting a Victim’s Journey, I am reforming as a priority our criminal justice system, to ensure that vulnerable victims are supported and empowered at every stage of their journey, confident in the knowledge that they will be supported, informed and treated with respect and dignity.
To date a number of key actions have been delivered including:
- Legislating for the introduction of preliminary trial hearings;
- The nationwide rollout of Divisional Protective Services Units (DPSU);
- The first cohort of staff at new sexual offences unit in the Director of Public Prosecutions office formally took up their roles in April;
- Work to advance the training for all personnel who come into contact with vulnerable victims is underway;
- Funding for NGOs providing court accompaniment and related information and support services has been increased;
- A review of grants for organisations supporting victims has been undertaken to identify gaps in service provision;
- The University of Limerick has been commissioned to develop the framework for the operation and training of intermediaries and they will soon be engaging with stakeholders to develop this.
My Department has also undertaken a review of the supports and funding of civil society organisations providing frontline services in order to identify where gaps may exist and how to bridge them. This piece of work will be completed shortly.
This work is in addition to the audit of how domestic, sexual and gender-based violence policy and services are organised which was published in July. The recommendations of this audit, as well as the Tusla Review of accommodation needs and outcome of the mapping exercise undertaken as part of implementing Supporting a Victim's Journey, will play an important role in the development across Government of the Third National Strategy on DSGBV. I intend to have a draft Strategy ready for a further round of public consultation in the coming weeks, and, as already indicated, this Strategy will have a preventative focus.