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Domestic Violence

Private Members’ Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 31st March 2009.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 11:30 am, 31st March 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Jennifer McCann Jennifer McCann Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly deplores any instance of domestic violence and its implications for children, young people and vulnerable adults; calls on the Executive to bring forward proposals to ensure full access to refuge for persons affected and to address the issue of access to legal aid for vulnerable families; and further calls for adequate funding for the relevant support groups and community organisations in their campaigns and work in tackling domestic violence.

I ask the Assembly to support this important motion. I apologise on behalf of my colleague Sue Ramsey who cannot be here to move the motion because she is ill.

Domestic violence is a crime, and it is a violation of article 5 of the UN Universal Declarations of Human Rights. The impact of domestic violence on families is devastating. Statistics estimate that a quarter of all women experience some form of domestic abuse at some stage in their lives and that almost half the women who are murdered here are killed by their partners.

Anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. Victims can be any age, sex, race, culture and religion. They can be from any social background, be employed or unemployed, and they can have any marital status. The violence can include physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Although men and women can be abused, most victims are women and children. A significant number of elderly people also suffer abuse and neglect in their own homes at the hands of relatives.

Recent research indicates that almost 11,000 children in the North of Ireland live in homes in which violence occurs and that there is a strong link between domestic violence and the mistreatment of children. Children and young people can often be the forgotten victims of domestic violence, and the abuse can have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences for them.

In families in which there is domestic violence, children are also frequently abused by the violent parent. That can have damaging, long-term effects on their mental health, their sense of identity and their ability to form relationships. Domestic abuse can affect a child’s performance at school and can lead to severe behavioural problems, and, sometimes, suicidal feelings. Domestic violence can also increase the risk of a child self-harming, misusing drugs and alcohol, and running away from home.

In the longer term, domestic abuse can make children feel socially and emotionally excluded and lead to problems well into their adult lives. Essential support work with children and young people that Women’s Aid and other organisations carry out needs to be properly resourced and funded.

One of the key areas of prevention that has been identified is that of preventing domestic abuse from happening in the first place by changing public attitudes to it. It has also been recognised that such an awareness campaign must take place in schools. Preventative work in schools is carried out on an ad hoc basis, and, therefore, it is crucial that the Department of Education introduces preventative programmes as part of the school curriculum. Work in schools and within local communities sends out an essential message to children and young people that violence towards them or against a parent or relative is not acceptable behaviour, and, indeed, that it is unacceptable behaviour.

We need to ensure that there are services and support in place, especially refuges, so that anyone who is a victim of domestic violence can access them. Women’s Aid has identified a number of gaps in refuge provision, including support for women with complex mental- health needs, women who have issues with drug and alcohol misuse and women with teenage sons. There is also a problem for women and children who are victims of domestic violence and have limited or no access to public funds.

In the North, approximately 50% of the population are not eligible for legal aid, and a further 25% are entitled to only partial assistance. As I said, that includes women whose immigration status prevents them from accessing the support services that they need. Very often, the support organisations have to pick up the costs, which can have an impact on other areas of their work. Therefore, it is important that an emergency fund is set up to ensure that all victims of domestic violence can access the support and refuge services that they need.

Partnership working and inter-agency support will ensure that adequate provision of refuges and services to support victims of domestic violence is maintained and developed. Recent statistics show that there has been an increase in the incidence of domestic violence being reported to the PSNI. It is believed that a combination of factors, including a Government advertising campaign and a more proactive approach in recognising domestic abuse as a crime, are responsible for that.

Despite changes from the situation several years ago, there are still problems in the civil and criminal justice system in the North of Ireland with regard to domestic violence cases. Women still do not have full confidence in the criminal justice system due to their experiences when attempting to get their partners prosecuted. Evidence shows that there is leniency towards perpetrators of domestic violence, who receive sentences that are much shorter than if their crime had been committed against a stranger. So, further steps are needed to ensure that the issue of violence against women overall, and domestic violence specifically, are given an appropriate importance in the Government’s policy on crime reduction and community safety.

Further changes are earmarked in the ‘protection and justice’ section of the Tackling Violence at Home strategy action plan, including training for the Public Prosecution Service and other justice agencies. That is to be welcomed as it will result in women feeling more positive about seeking help. As I said earlier, the lack of access to legal aid and the £400 cost of a non-molestation order add an unnecessary financial burden on victims who are already suffering.

There is a real need for political direction to ensure that a clear and consistent message is provided alongside a co-ordinated approach to tackle the scourge of domestic violence and to provide the support and protection that victims and survivors need. The Tackling Violence at Home strategy has the potential to make a fundamental shift in how society responds to domestic violence. However, its full implementation will require innovative thinking by all Government Departments and by those working in the statutory, voluntary, community and business sectors.

One of the Tackling Violence at Home strategy’s successes was the high-profile publicity campaign that I mentioned, which resulted in an increase in the number of victims contacting the 24-hour helpline and other services. That has brought an improved focus and co-ordination in dealing with domestic violence on a cross-functional basis. We have also seen a range of associated policy developments that are designed to deal with awareness training, prevention, supporting victims and dealing with offenders.

There is also a need to shift the focus onto the abuser and to introduce new compulsory rehabilitation programmes, and develop existing ones, as part of a preventative campaign. That, alongside the training mechanisms for agencies involved in tackling domestic violence, which are set out in the strategy, will ensure a more co-ordinated approach.

All of us here need to give political leadership on the issue of domestic violence and ensure that the Tackling Violence at Home strategy is properly implemented and resourced. Debates such as this will raise awareness on the issue for women, children and anyone else suffering domestic violence in local communities and who is living every day with the fear and threat of such violence.

I ask all Members to support the motion, because all of us have a responsibility to ensure that all the sufferers and survivors of domestic violence have access to the support and the services that they need. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP 11:45 am, 31st March 2009

I thank the Members who tabled this important motion, which I have no difficulty in supporting. I also want to record my full support for groups such as Women’s Aid. They do an excellent job in helping those affected by domestic violence.

I want to mention, and pay gratitude to, the staff in the Cookstown Women’s Aid centre in my constituency. I know the staff and support their efforts. I know the difficulties that they have and the problems that they face in dealing with women who suffer domestic violence.

All too often, in a debate such as this, we speak of facts, figures and statistics. I have no doubt that we will hear those today, but I want to speak about a real matter — a woman of whom I am aware who has suffered domestic violence. I hope that it puts today’s debate into perspective.

Social services referred this woman and her three children to a refuge in November 2008. The woman had extensive injuries and had been taken to hospital for examination. An incident had taken place at her home. She had been severely beaten and abused by her husband: she sustained bruising to her face, chest, arms, and abdomen; her eyes were swollen and bloodshot; she had a fractured finger; and her lower arm was put in plaster.

A PSNI domestic violence officer attended the refuge to obtain a statement from the woman, and, together with social services, visited her on a number of occasions during her first week in the refuge. The refuge staff immediately began to work with the woman through a needs assessment and support plan, which incorporates the cycle of violence, healthy and unhealthy relationships, control and power, and the effects of domestic violence on children.

The victim was enrolled on the Journey to Freedom and My Life, My Choices programmes, both of which are self-esteem courses that help to bring women through domestic violence and to begin to move on. She also took part in the You and Me, Mum course, which considers the effects of domestic violence on children, and she attended a personal safety seminar organised by Women’s Aid and facilitated by the PSNI community safety officer. She also attended a Delta parenting programme and a pharmacy programme that examined topics such as over-the-counter medication, healthy eating, smoking cessation and anti-depressant usage.

Unfortunately, the woman was unable to leave the refuge until after 6.00 pm because she was afraid that her partner might be in the vicinity. She went to her solicitor, and her children were appointed a guardian ad litem. The woman attended court on a number of occasions and was again supported by the refuge staff during the hearings.

As a result of the domestic violence perpetrated on this woman, she could not return to her home and had to terminate her tenancy agreement. Her furniture and belongings had to be placed in storage. She then applied for housing in another area and has been on the social housing waiting list since November 2008. There are no suitable houses available to rehouse her and her children.

Her perpetrator was released from prison in February 2009 and immediately made it known that he was going to get his wife and children back as a family. Consequently, the three children were removed from the refuge and placed in foster care for their own safety and protection.

The sad reality is that the children are still in a foster placement, although they regularly attend the refuge to visit their mother. The perpetrator continues to try to contact the woman and has called at the refuge on two occasions so far. The children are the forgotten victims in this case; they have been removed from their mother for their own safety.

There is no doubt that there is a real need for support groups such as Women’s Aid, but they cannot provide that service without adequate funding. Domestic violence continues to destroy the lives of hundreds of vulnerable adults and children throughout Northern Ireland. As elected representatives, we need to do everything within our power to ensure that support is available for victims, whether through full access to refuges, legal aid to vulnerable families or funding for support groups. I support the motion.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Domestic abuse is a blight on our society. It is, unfortunately, much more common and widespread than society at large cares to recognise.

In Northern Ireland, police respond to reports of domestic abuse every 23 minutes. The police receive more than 60 such reports every day. However, those figures mask the countless untold cases of abuse and the misery that abuse brings to individuals and their families. Indeed, Ian McCrea, a Member for Mid Ulster, has just given us one such example.

By its very nature, domestic abuse happens behind closed doors and between intricately connected people; therefore, there is often a tendency for others to ignore it and for those who suffer to excuse it. It is crucial that we send out a clear and concise message that domestic violence is categorically wrong, that those who suffer from it are not to blame, and that they will gain the full support that they need from the police, the courts and health and social services providers in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Without making domestic violence in any way a political issue, last October, my colleague Lord Morrow asked the Health Minister — who I am glad is here for today’s very important debate — to detail the number of hospital or GP treatments, broken down by male and female, that were the result of domestic violence or abuse. The answer was that that information was not available.

Will the Member join us today in asking the Minister to consider that issue, which was referred to by my colleague the Member from Mid Ulster? It is vital that victims who go to hospital are identified and treated in accordance with the very serious issues that are raised.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

Will the Member join me in welcoming the development — led by the Policing Board — that all reported incidents of domestic violence are now split by gender and by the relationship between the attacker and the victim? That policy has evolved over a year’s work, during which people have had to look at the statistics. Indeed, good statistics lead to good politics.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

I thank both my colleague Basil McCrea and Mervyn Storey, a Member for North Antrim, for their useful interventions. The key message is that there must be a co-ordinated approach, and as Basil McCrea said, the figures are needed in order to ensure that the right responses and proper policies on how to tackle this scourge are adopted.

We must not forget that domestic abuse, although commonly physical, can also be sexual, psychological or financial. It affects women and children and sometimes men. About 20% of domestic abuse begins during pregnancy and is often associated with alcohol and drug abuse. We must reduce domestic abuse, and to do so requires a co-ordinated and joined-up approach across all the relevant Departments that links charities and community groups into a joint strategy.

I strongly welcome the establishment of an inter-ministerial group on domestic and sexual violence, which is chaired by the Minister of Health and by the NIO. That group provides leadership and ensures that we undertake joint work across the relevant Departments. The group’s regional, Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse strategy, is also extremely welcome and is intended to guide policy and service responses from the healthcare, education and criminal justice systems.

The regional strategy focuses on three main areas that I believe are critical if we are to make progress. Those areas are: prevention; protection; and justice and support. The strategy also has an overarching leadership and direction strand that will guide and help to co-ordinate policy.

I draw Members’ attention to the jointly funded 24-hour domestic violence helpline, which provides information, advice and support to all victims of domestic violence. I bring that helpline to the attention of all those people who may be suffering, and I urge them to utilise it. I also note the annual media campaign, which has resulted in more people contacting the helpline.

We are moving in the right direction, and the Executive can do much more to help people who need refuge and access to legal aid. However, there is a framework in place with which we can work. I thank the Minister, who will respond to today’s debate, for facilitating that co-ordinating role. Along with the Northern Ireland Office, his Department is playing a key role in addressing the issue of domestic violence.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion and thank the Members who brought it to the Floor.

Domestic violence is recognised as a major social problem throughout the world. The real extent of the problem is unknown, because many cases go unreported. I agree that the Executive must prioritise making access to appropriate services and protection available to anyone who is a victim of domestic violence.

Over the past 30 years, some distance has been travelled in accepting that domestic violence exists. I pay tribute to everyone, such as Women’s Aid and others in the voluntary sector, who petitioned tirelessly for that recognition, and for the funding to establish refuges.

In the past 10 years, inter-agency co-operation has increased considerably, and an interdepartmental working group has been established. In 2004, a regional steering group was set up with subgroups focusing on children and young people, domestic violence, violence and the law, and information. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 offers some protection through non-molestation and occupation orders, particularly the exclusion order that forbids entrance to the home or surrounding areas. The role of domestic violence officers in the PSNI has developed, and local domestic violence partnerships have been established.

Despite all that progress, domestic violence remains a problem. According to a report by the NIO and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, ‘Tackling Violence at Home’, domestic violence:

“occurs right across our society and it has devastating consequences for the victims”.

The report emphasises the particularly devastating effect on children, estimating:

“at least 11,000 children … are living with domestic violence.”

The report also contains the following statistics on domestic violence:

“It accounts for one in five cases of violent crime here … on average every year 5 people are killed … and about 700 families have to be re-housed.”

It continues:

“On average every day in Northern Ireland, 12 women and 4 men are victims of domestic-related assaults … it is estimated that one in five women and one in nine men will experience domestic violence in the course of their lifetime.”

That violence will, most likely, be at the hands of a partner.

As someone who has worked in the community and with victims of domestic violence, I am aware that I am speaking too academically. As mentioned, there are many facts, figures and statistics on domestic violence, but every fact, figure and statistic represents someone who is crying out for help. I wonder why some people use gratuitous violence: is it due to inadequacy, a desire for control or simply badness, sometimes fuelled by alcohol? A good Health Service here helps and heals, but gratuitous violence is extremely challenging to address. It is extremely difficult always to keep the people who are hurting and crying at the forefront of our minds, but domestic violence affects people.

The domestic violence freephone helpline receives approximately 20,000 calls a year, and many incidents, as Members know, are not reported. ‘Tackling Violence at Home’, the paper published in October 2005, and signed off by direct rule Ministers as current strategy, defines domestic violence as:

“threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, verbal, sexual, financial or emotional) inflicted on one person by another where they are or have been intimate partners or family members, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.”

We have reached a stage where we must examine how we deal with domestic violence. We must think particularly about the children who have, perhaps, witnessed domestic violence and been rushed to a refuge by their mother. Notwithstanding the violence, those children leave behind everything that is familiar, including their friends, and they may have to change school when they are vulnerable.

Other children may not have witnessed the violence. When they are removed to a refuge, they do not understand why and become bewildered and resentful.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is very important that there is access to the fathers. Furthermore, refuges have no facilities for older teenagers; therefore, we must consider how they can be looked after. There are so many issues, and I do not have time to go into all of them, on which we need to do much more work to deal with this issue.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance 12:00 pm, 31st March 2009

I thank the proposers of the motion for bringing what is a very important issue back to the House. Domestic violence is an important issue, for not just the Assembly, but for society and for those who are its victims. Underpinning the debate around the issue must be a basic acceptance by everyone that the use, or threat, of violence is unacceptable in any context. The fact that it takes place behind closed doors does not excuse it in any way, nor does it lessen the impact that it has on society. The Assembly must be united in sending out that message today.

Domestic violence is also a complex and multifaceted issue. It damages not only the target of the abuse, but it affects children, the wider family, their community, their neighbours and their friends. We need to try to tap into those wider networks in order to give people support, so that they feel comfortable and safe in coming forward to report domestic violence.

Many Members have mentioned the statistics, and I apologise for not having been able to be in the Chamber for all those speeches. I think that the statistics show the tip of the iceberg, because many people do not report domestic violence. Indeed, many people do not recognise the treatment that they receive in their home as domestic violence. It is worth noting that the formal definition of domestic violence is threatening behaviour, violence or abuse on one person by another, where they are, or have been, intimate partners or family members, irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.

The use of, for example, threatening and controlling behaviour is often underestimated, but it can be a way in which people condition a victim to accept the abuse that is meted out to them. It is important that people who are subjected to that kind of controlling and abusive behaviour feel confident and secure in bringing it to the attention of the appropriate authorities at an early stage.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

Does the Member agree that the recent high-profile case in which the judiciary was seen to be lacking in sentencing for that very crime would not encourage people to come forward voluntarily?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I agree with the Member that when sentencing seems to be light or inappropriate, or when issues are not taken seriously enough, it is a major disincentive to many people who are living with this problem in silence. It is also true when people feel that their complaint is not taken seriously when they report it, when there is not an adequate response, or when they feel that, having done everything that they have been advised to do, they are often left high and dry with very little support.

It is important that people are not put in that position, because we need to build confidence with those who are abused, so that, when they come forward, their position will be taken seriously and action will be taken to protect them, because, very often, when people present it is because they are in fear of their lives. It does not send out a strong message to people if they are back in the same situation a few months later, having received little practical support. Therefore, I totally agree with the Member on that point.

The Northern Ireland Office crime survey indicated that 11% of respondents aged 16 to 59 identified themselves as being victims of domestic violence. Of those respondents, 15% were females and 9% were males.

The issue of domestic violence against men is often overlooked, and it is significantly under-reported. We must be acutely aware of that when we look at how we handle domestic violence and the construction of, and arrangements for, support services. Men who are subjected to domestic abuse often find it difficult to talk about, and they feel emasculated by what is happening to them. Therefore, it is important that adequate time and effort is put into ensuring that any mechanisms that are put in place to support victims of domestic violence can cope with all victims of domestic violence. It is also important that we send out the message to both men and women who have been subjected to domestic abuse that it is not their fault.

One of the very disturbing statistics that was highlighted in the NIO’s ‘Experience of Domestic Violence: Findings from the 2007/2008 Northern Ireland Crime Survey’ was that 23% of female respondents reported being the victim of threats and violence during pregnancy. The proposers of the motion indicated their desire to assist vulnerable groups, and there can be no more of a vulnerable group than that of unborn children; yet, they are being subjected to stress and abuse while still in the womb. Indeed, it is horrific to consider that someone would feel that they were in a position to abuse a pregnant woman when most people feel that it should be a time to be protective of a person. That is clearly very disturbing.

I visited a number of women’s refuges, and I talked to a number of women who have been subjected to violent and life-threatening abuse from their spouses. As a result, I am conscious of the difficulty that those women often have in being able to proceed through the civil courts because of the cost involved.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member please draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

It is often the case that part of the abuse is in the control of finances. Therefore, the need to pay for orders to keep the partner away from a victim can be prohibitive. That must be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

As my colleague Ian McCrea intimated, the DUP supports the motion. However, as one carefully reads it, it becomes clear that certain aspects could and should have been added to it. For example, there should have been some reference that acknowledged and further encouraged the role of the police. Indeed, I was interested to hear what Basil McCrea had to say about the Policing Board taking an interest in the issue of domestic violence. That does not in any way imply that they were ever uninterested, but I know that it has an input.

The use of violence, either on or off the streets, is an issue of importance to everyone. However it seems from reading the documents that were placed at Members’ disposal that violence off the street, or domestic violence, is treated differently from violence on the street. A judge recently commented that he felt frustrated by the fact that legislation, in effect, differentiated between domestic violence and an assault that takes place on the street. He was also concerned by the continued insistence of the Public Prosecution Service in sending summonses to perpetrators of domestic violence by post rather than them being personally delivered and served, which therefore does not command the immediate presence of the accused in court.

Thus, there is a differentiation between what happens in the home and what happens on the street. However, I cannot understand why the law should be different. I hope that as a result of today’s debate, some of the issues that have been articulated around the Chamber will be examined and that some positive and decisive action will be taken.

I draw the attention of Members to some of the statistics that have been placed before us. In preparation for today’s debate, I reflected on whether domestic violence was applicable across the entire spectrum in Northern Ireland, and one very interesting statistic from the NIO’s crime survey shows that:

“Respondents with a Protestant community background (13%) were more likely to report having experienced domestic violence than those with a Roman Catholic community background (9%).”

Right away one asks why that is the case, and that is where I see a fundamental weakness in the motion. Does that say that there is hesitancy from those from a Roman Catholic background to report domestic violence to the police, whereas the same hesitancy does not persist in the Protestant community?

If that is the case — and I will leave it to others to decide whether it is — the motion should have acknowledged that there is a PSNI dimension to the issue and that those who suffer from domestic violence should not be reluctant in any way to call in the police to deal with the matter.

I think that it was Carmel Hanna who said that 11,000 children are affected by situations of domestic violence, and I am sure that that statistic is somewhere in the notes that I have been given. It was good that that point was brought out, because the children have to be protected as much as the person who is being battered and at the receiving end of the domestic violence. Therefore, the Assembly has to send out the strong message that the elected representatives in the House will not differentiate and that they want full co-operation on the issue with our policing authority, namely, the PSNI. It is vital that that message goes out.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I support Lord Morrow’s comments that the excellent work of the PSNI, which has been recognised by Women’s Aid and other bodies, should be recognised by all Members. He raised the issue of statistics, but he may not know that there has been a dramatic rise in reports of domestic abuse and domestic violence in areas west of the Bann. Although one does not welcome the fact that such abuse happens, one welcomes that it is reported. The community must report those things to the police.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

I thank the Member for making those valuable points. He has drawn attention to something that I turned up as he was speaking. The PSNI’s statistical report number 2, ‘Domestic Incidents and Crimes, 1 April 2007 — 31 March 2008’ states that:

“During 2007/08 more than two thirds of all crimes with domestic motivation fell within the category of violent crime…There were 6,389 such offences, representing 68·8% of the total. Of the remaining offences, criminal damage accounted for 14·9%”.

That brings me to my earlier point.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Lord Maurice Morrow Lord Maurice Morrow DUP

If those crimes of domestic violence are deemed as criminal, why are the associated summonses delivered in a different way than those for street crime, for instance? That should be looked at.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I agree with a great deal of what Lord Morrow said. In particular, I do not understand sentencing policy. Everybody was shocked at the recent football hooliganism and the effects of violence on our street. However, when such violence takes place in the home, it seems that it is viewed on a different scale. In such cases, we seem to be satisfied with suspended sentences or plea bargaining, for instance, and I find that unacceptable.

I want to talk about the role of the Public Prosecution Service, the victims and the reason that people do not feel able to come forward and report crimes of domestic violence.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Lord Morrow’s comment was valid, but I think that the reporting of cases of domestic violence requires that there is a trust and confidence in the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) more so than in the PSNI. The issues that Basil McCrea alluded to, such as the stigma that is felt by victims and the equality of horror and how that is reflected in sentencing, are massive issues that need to be tackled.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I am grateful to the Member for her intervention; I agree with her. I should declare an interest as the chairperson of the human rights and professional standards committee. Along with Women’s Aid, the Rainbow Project and the Men’s Advisory Service, that committee spent a year looking at the issue of how the police have got to grips with encouraging victims of domestic violence to come forward. That has been one of the successes. All parties were represented, and they did excellent work.

That is the key issue. People ask why victims do not come forward. People are afraid that if they come forward, worse will happen to them. We have to reassure people of whatever sex, religion, or background that if they come forward and explain that there is a problem, society will protect them.

The figures are shocking. It is said that one in four women will be subject to some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime, but one in nine men will also suffer such abuse, and that issue must be highlighted. Problems are experienced also by people in same-sex relationships and by people from the Travelling community. Those issues are under-reported because society will not take them on.

Carál Ní Chuilín mentioned the PPS, and I challenge the PPS to find a way of looking after victims properly. It is demeaning to victims to go through a year-long court case only to be considered an adjunct or someone who is almost simply a witness, to be unsure whether they will be called to give evidence, and to be, in effect, subject to people plea-bargaining — we have to change that. That is a challenge to the PPS and to the judiciary.

When the time is right, the House should consider establishing specialist courts with specialist lawyers and judges. We ask why people do not resist violence or stay in a violent relationship for so long; however, once we understand the complex psychological reasons, the issue will become clearer. We must send an unequivocal message that we will not tolerate violence against the most vulnerable members of our society.

Lord Morrow talked about equivalence and asked why it seems that violence outside the home is regarded as more of a crime than violence inside it. That argument could be taken a step further and it could be said that there is a fundamental breakdown in trust when someone is used and abused over many years in their home, which should be their sanctuary. That is what makes domestic abuse all the more heinous.

Photo of Anna Lo Anna Lo Alliance 12:15 pm, 31st March 2009

I support what the Member is saying, but an important point that may not yet have been touched upon is the importance of preventative work. Education, school programmes and informal education in a youth group can be used to teach young people about relationships, violence and respect for one’s partner.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I agree with Ms Lo: the perpetrators of domestic abuse do not think that they have done anything wrong. They do not see the moral argument; they think that their behaviour is OK, but it is not OK. There must be a huge sentence for those people — we must get the sentencing right and send a clear message in the only language that they understand.

We must also look at non-molestation orders. Do people realise that it costs between £500 and £600 to obtain such an order? One of the advances that the Policing Board has made is that it will now report separately on those issues so that breaking a non-molestation order will be regarded as a crime. In conclusion, this an area in which we can work collectively to do some good. I want the Assembly collectively to send a clear and unequivocal message that domestic violence against anyone is totally unacceptable.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I support the motion. The issues detailed in the motion have been addressed very well by previous Members, so, conscious of time and the complexity of the issue, I will focus primarily on the perpetrators of violence and the impact of violence on families.

Possibly the most tragic aspect of domestic violence, which was highlighted by Mrs Hanna, is that more than 11,000 children in Northern Ireland will witness or be subject to domestic violence. Despite the existence of the inter-departmental group and strategy, every day the police receive about 60 reports of domestic abuse. To date, attention has been primarily on adult victims, but there is a need to focus also on tackling the perpetrators of domestic abuse, both in relation to the rigor of the law and possible treatment. Priority must be given to instances when the perpetrators of domestic violence are parents, given the potential risk that they can pose to the children who are in their homes.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Anna Lo referred to the importance of education. Does the Member accept that often those who abuse and who are abused are conditioned by their experiences of watching other relationships around them? That allows them to accept such a relationship as normal for much longer than for many of those who have not had those experiences, and, therefore, the support and counselling to which the Member refers are absolutely critical?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I agree with the Member. It is a huge issue for those who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence in their homes.

The issues of power and control are at the root of domestic abuse and violence, and those are most unlikely to begin and end with a partner. Research shows that children who live in a domestic violence setting are also likely to suffer physical abuse or are at a much higher risk of sexual abuse. Recent tragedies such as the McElhill fire tragedy in Omagh highlight the need for all the appropriate agencies to listen to children’s concerns about domestic violence.

Although I do not want to detract from the excellent work being done by the PSNI, an issue that has been raised, and is of concern, is the fact that reporting of domestic abuse has been removed as a specific performance indicator from the Policing Plan 2009-2012. In a report published earlier this month, the human rights and professional standards committee of the Northern Ireland Policing Board expressed concerns about the reporting of domestic abuse and about how statistics were gathered, and it indicated that any report of a domestic abuse incident should flag up whether a child or children might be at risk.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

The Member points out various issues. However, I want to reassure her that domestic abuse is referred to on page 13 of the Policing Plan: it is a high priority. The specific issue of reporting to which the Member refers will be discussed at next week’s Policing Board meeting, when there will be a full report from the deputy chief constable as part of a six-month campaign. It will provide all the statistics that the Member needs, and I am sure that she will join me in welcoming the report.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for that additional information. I welcome the report, its outcomes and any impact that it may have.

Even if perpetrators of domestic abuse are convicted and are parents, serious concerns remain about the contact that they will have with their children. Perpetrators could be convicted of grievous bodily harm and receive a suspended sentence, yet no assessment will be made in relation to their parenting or the contact that they have with their children.

Barnardo’s provides services to children who have experienced domestic violence, and there are serious concerns that children are often placed in unsafe situations. It is essential that the courts recognise the impact of a perpetrator’s domestic violence on children and assess a perpetrator’s future contact on the basis of that risk.

Although a non-abusive parent in a domestic violence setting will often have had his or her parenting assessed by social services, a perpetrator will often not have. Unfortunately, there is no process or service in Northern Ireland where that can take place. That undermines the safety of children and reduces the impact of convictions. Indeed, women are often expected to manage child contact with a former violent partner themselves. There is an urgent need for perpetrators to have their parenting assessed.

Furthermore, courts must take account of the impact of domestic violence on contact situations and develop a model for assessing the perpetrator’s parenting and risk factors. There is only one course available in Northern Ireland for perpetrators of domestic violence that is aimed at addressing their behaviour, and it is available only to those who have been convicted. It is not available to those who have not been convicted but want to change their behaviour voluntarily. The course has a 30% completion rate. There is no current assessment of the extent to which the abusive behaviour is likely to change or its impact on their parenting.

It is vital to recognise that domestic violence is a crime and deserves a tough response from the criminal justice system. There is also the need for a service that can provide access to treatment that will seek to ensure long-term changes in behaviour, and it must be available to those who are convicted and those who wish to engage voluntarily.

We must ensure that the victims of domestic violence are not made to suffer further and that the non-abusive parent and children are not made to leave the family home, if that can be prevented. Therefore, I support the extension of the provision of safe rooms, not only to those in public housing but to owner-occupiers. It is time to focus on the needs of children — not only while the perpetrator is in the family home but after he or she has left — and to address the real and serious risks to children of a parent who is a perpetrator of domestic violence.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

Between April 2007 and March 2008, 34 incidents of domestic violence were reported every week in my constituency of Foyle; the police told us that that is only the tip of the iceberg. Domestic violence can range from minor assaults through to murder. In order to encompass the wide aspects of the crime, the terminology was changed to “domestic abuse”.

Domestic abuse is not just a single action — it is the beginning of, or another episode in, a living hell for the victim that gives them a horrible life that nobody deserves. Women whom I would have perceived as strong individuals have been reduced to nervous wrecks who only exist excuse by excuse to cover the hideous pain and suffering that is inflicted upon them by an abusive partner.

Domestic abuse is not always a physical attack; sometimes, the mind games and psychological torture are more damaging. In half of the cases, the children of the victims are also ill-treated. It is a crime that is not restricted by class or creed, and it is a crime that is often silent and hidden by the victim themselves.

This Assembly has an objective to make things better for the people of Northern Ireland. For one in four women in Northern Ireland that means providing effective support mechanisms to allow them to have the confidence to get out of that hell. That act requires tremendous courage and enormous strength that sometimes cannot be summoned by the victim alone. If they go it alone, the realisation of what they have done can often prove too much, and they are desperate for help and support at that stage. If the Assembly cannot help the lead organisations to provide the proper support mechanisms for those victims, it will have failed in one of its most basic objectives.

Women’s Aid — which is the lead voluntary organisation in Northern Ireland — is desperate to help to eradicate all forms of domestic abuse. It tries to achieve that by using educational programmes that are aimed at preventative measures by teaching equality and respect in all relationships.

The 7% increase in statistics from 2006 to 2007 is chilling to say the least. From 2007 to 2008, the fact that the PSNI responded to a domestic incident every 23 minutes can scarcely be comprehended. It is not only about supporting families who are in crisis; it could be a case of life or death. We require a cross-departmental strategy that, in the first instance, can identify the signs of abuse and then act upon them — whether through its departmental sections or by providing support to properly constituted and experienced organisations.

To listen, as I have done, to a woman who is or has been a victim of domestic abuse is a sobering and frightening experience. The threat of financial ruin or the worry of how they will be able to care and provide for their children are all mental flash cards that scare them away from making the decision to leave. The initial loss of confidence, which is common to all the victims, is really only a heartbeat away from loss of life. That was a heartbreaking reality for the families of 44% of murder victims in Northern Ireland in 2007-08.

Some victims, even if they are employed, cannot afford to protect themselves with a non-molestation order as it is too expensive. The combined cost of both stages of such an order can be up to £800.

A victim is changed forever: their lives are scarred beyond the understanding of those of us who are lucky enough to have healthy relationships. They are certainly changed emotionally, and sometimes they are changed physically, depending on the type of abuse that was meted out to them. Abuse or a suspicion of abuse can now be reported by any concerned person. Since the legislation was changed last year, the report does not have to come from the victim. I urge anyone who has a suspicion to report it.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

The Member may be interested to know that part of the police direction is now that any suspicion of domestic abuse must be followed through. If there is any suggestion that people could be let off with a caution, it must be noted why a charge was not progressed. The maximum charge possible must be pressed rather than one that would secure an easy conviction.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for that welcome information.

As I said, I urge anyone who has suspicions that domestic violence is taking place to report it. That action could save a life. It may be that that one phone call or that one approach is enough for victims to break their silence finally and admit that they are, indeed, victims. When, and if, they do that, we must ensure that the correct strategies and support systems are in place to help and encourage victims, whether male or female, to build a new and better life for themselves and their children. I support the motion.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Business Committee has arranged to meet immediately upon the lunchtime suspension. I therefore propose, by leave of the Assembly, to suspend the sitting until 2.00 pm.

The sitting was suspended at 12.30 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair) —

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 2:00 pm, 31st March 2009

I am pleased to be called to speak on the motion. This is an important issue, and the fact that the Chamber is not full and bursting with people does not take away from that.

There is an epidemic of domestic violence in Northern Ireland, and as elected representatives, every one of us can express that clearly. It is estimated that one in four women in the Province have been physically abused by a partner. In the majority of cases, it is found that alcohol misuse is the key factor. These are not isolated events.

Domestic violence is often hidden behind closed doors, as many women feel too ashamed to talk about it and are made to feel responsible for the abuse. The only way to break the taboo is to ensure that the subject is discussed properly and that the appropriate blame is laid on the correct shoulders. I am glad that the motion has been brought before the Assembly today; we need to show both victims and perpetrators that this awful crime is not a secret, that people are aware that it happens and that it is unacceptable in Northern Ireland. The shame lies on the shoulders of those who inflict their anger towards other people, which is the message that domestic violence charities strive to send out.

Here bes the crux o’ the matther – domestic violence bes a vicious cycle at happens agin an’ agin. An owre affen, quhan thaim at ir abused heid tae a shelter – they ir apt tae gae beck tae the abuser. Hit’s mae notion at yin o’ the reasons fer thon bes at es mich es the charities ettle aa gien a netwaark o’ hefts – the ring-fenced catter maun bae thaire tae mak’ siccar at charities laike Weemin’s Aid hae eneuch prugh tae gie systems an’ netwaarks at waark fu’ time wi’ trained volunteers an’ ir ap tae date an’ knaw bes’ hoo tae get the message through tae the victim. Thon’s where A wud agin urge Depairtments tae mak’ siccar at unnerspend bes announced sae catter can gae tae projects laike the fecht agin domestic violence.

The crux of the matter is that domestic violence is a vicious and repetitive circle. All too often, people who have been abused go to a shelter but then return to their abuser. Charities try to provide a support network, but there must be ring-fenced funding to ensure that charities such as Women’s Aid have the money to provide systems and networks that operate full time with trained and up-to-date volunteers who know how best to get the message through to the victim. I again urge Departments to ensure that underspends are announced so that money can be allocated to projects such as the fight against domestic violence.

A new public protection unit has recently been set up in my constituency of Strangford to deal with domestic violence and child abuse. There are very sensitive issues involving child abuse and protection, domestic violence and abuse, vulnerable and missing people and the need for violent and sexual offenders to be managed in the community. There is clear evidence of links between domestic abuse and child abuse, and my colleague Michelle McIlveen, among others, referred to that this morning.

There are examples of children running away to avoid physical and sexual abuse and, in many cases, the abuser’s power over his or her victim leads to crimes not being reported to the police and evidence being hard to obtain. The creators of public protection units seek to identify links between cases and provide specialist support to victims and witnesses. We need funding in order to provide that support, which is needed across the Province.

I am happy to join with all other Members of the Assembly in saying that we are aware of domestic violence. We will do everything in our power as an Assembly, and as elected representatives, to eradicate the horrible statistic of one in four women in the Province having been abused. We are sending the message that it is never OK for someone to use their fists against a vulnerable person, whether that vulnerable person is a child, a woman or a man. I support the motion and the fight against all forms of domestic abuse in all homes.

Photo of Alasdair McDonnell Alasdair McDonnell Shadow SDLP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow Minister (Europe), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Northern Ireland)

I, too, support the very valuable motion. My party and I believe that there is no excuse, explanation or justification for domestic violence in any of its forms, whether it is actual violence, threatened physical violence, sexual assault, damage to property or the much more sinister non-physical intimidation, such as persistent verbal abuse, emotional blackmail and enforced social and financial deprivation.

Domestic violence can take all those forms and many more. According to figures released by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, every day in Northern Ireland, 12 women and four men experience domestic violence. Alarmingly, one in five women and one in nine men will experience domestic violence at some stage in their lives.

It is deeply disturbing that at least 11,000 children in Northern Ireland live in proximity and close association with daily domestic violence; no child deserves or should have to put up with that.

As a GP in a previous existence, I have seen the serious long-term damage that domestic violence does to the victim — male or female, adult or child. I have witnessed the physical and mental suffering that they are forced to go through; the humiliation and the degradation; the low self-esteem, the depression, the mental misery and the sense of being totally trapped — all of which leave serious mental scars, and perhaps physical scars as well. I have also seen how domestic violence can completely destroy young lives and young dreams.

Many children who live with violence in their homes end up suffering severe mental-health problems and other illnesses. They also suffer educational underachievement and a sense of marginalisation, and they often wander down the dangerous road of crime, antisocial behaviour and drug abuse. They often have an inability to form positive, healthy, constructive personal relationships.

A considerable amount of good work is done by support groups and community organisations, such as Women’s Aid, in tackling domestic violence; however, more support could be provided if funding streams were more consistent and secure. The reporting of domestic violence to the PSNI has increased, but there is still significant under-reporting. Far too many people continue to suffer in silence. Women suffer for the sake of their children, and children suffer trying to keep the family together and often blame themselves for the anger, conflict and violence between their parents.

If we are serious about doing what we can to end this scourge on our society, we must develop a robust cross-departmental approach to supporting people in such circumstances. I welcome the Minister’s plans, but I remain to be convinced that they will produce the necessary results and I urge the Executive — not just the Minister — to consult all the essential support organisations and victims to develop what we need: a robust system, adequately funded, pro-active and cross-departmental in outlook. This is not exclusively an issue for the Department of Health. Its Minister may lead on the issue, but it spills over into the responsibility of other agencies and Departments.

We could learn much from Scotland where a framework is in the advanced stages of development. A key part of our strategy must involve putting in place adequate support structures for victims, providing refuge accommodation and legal aid to empower victims to end abuse in their relationships. It should also be about changing attitudes and educating adults and children to know that domestic violence — wherever it occurs — is wrong, unacceptable and that there is help available to put a stop to it.

To suffer domestic violence and live in continual fear from a partner, parent or child is unimaginable to many of us, but it is reality for many people. An end must be put to that reality, the victim could be your relative or mine, your neighbour or mine. We cannot and must not stand back and ignore what goes on behind closed doors. Helping to end the despicable domestic violence that goes on might cost a small amount of money but, in the end, it will be worth it to improve the quality of many lives.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member please bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

We, of course, support the motion. Its subject is very important, and I congratulate the proposer and her colleagues for bringing it back to the Assembly.

I do not want to repeat statistics, although it is very difficult not to repeat things when you are around seventeenth in the pecking order. However, one statistic that did jump out at me is that 23% of pregnant women are being abused by their husbands. I find that absolutely astonishing. That statistic is probably not even correct given that so many of those crimes go unreported. It is absolutely unbelievable. It makes me wonder what sort of society we have bred that allows such a statistic to be upheld.

It makes me wonder, too, about the rest of the statistics that have been mentioned. Surely, they are all under-representative given the failure and reluctance of women — I should say men as well, and perhaps particularly men — to report that type of crime. Basil McCrea said that good statistics mean good politics. I was not quite sure what he meant by that. However, if he meant that good statistics are a basis for formulating good law and good practices, I would agree with him.

Over the years, I have known, factually and anecdotally, of cases of domestic violence. I have never had anybody come into my constituency office to make that sort of complaint, and I would not expect that. However, of the cases that I have known about — of which there are quite a number — not one has been reported to the police. One case involved a lady who had a broken cheekbone and was badly bruised. She left her husband for six months but then went back to him. That says something about relationships. In a lot of cases, it is not the fear of retribution or of a repeat offence that prevents people from reporting domestic violence to the police, but the fear of social stigma. That is perhaps especially true in the upper echelons of society where domestic violence is every bit as prevalent as is it among the working class. There is a loyalty factor as well.

There are differences in the punishments for domestic violence and incidences of violence outside the home. Violence is violence and an assault is an assault. Both are crimes that have to be punished. However, it is hardly a surprise to me that, on some occasions, judges are more lenient in cases of domestic violence. If there was clear evidence of a wish for reconciliation, if a wife who had been violently assaulted spoke for her husband, if she made it clear that it was the first time, and he made it clear that it would be the last time, frankly, if I were a judge, I would take note of that. Although the crime may be the same, perhaps there are occasions when the punishment is different.

It was, I think, Basil McCrea who said that there should perhaps be a slightly different legal process for those types of case. I do not have the answer; however, I wonder whether a different system — something a bit less formal and a bit less expensive — could be brought into play. Perhaps somebody has an idea about that. In all those cases, I wonder whether the full rigour of the law — in open court and in public — is really the way to go.

There is no statistic that I can find to indicate how many of the 23,000 cases reported each year led to a breakdown of the relationship. I suspect that the number of total relationship breakdowns is a small percentage of that figure. That makes me think that, in a lot of cases, the couple wants to maintain the relationship. I doubt whether we will ever see statistics for that. Perhaps a more conciliatory and arbitration-based approach might have some effect.

Photo of Basil McCrea Basil McCrea UUP

I apologise for coming into the House towards the end of the Member’s contribution.

He asked a specific question. There are 30,000 cases; 10,000 are criminal in the sense that they are proceeded with. Of those 10,000 cases, 7,000 are violent crimes. Although domestic violence is totally underreported, it still represents 25% of all violent crime. Those are huge figures. I agree with the Member that a different way of dealing with that must be found, but the figures are quite shocking.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance 2:15 pm, 31st March 2009

We still do not know how many of those cases lead to a total marriage or relationship breakdown.

The Alliance Party agrees with the motion, and the way in which it deplores violence. We totally agree that full access to refuge facilities is essential and that correct funding be provided for support groups and for any legal action. It is absolutely deplorable that a woman — I refer to women for simplicity — who is under such a threat of violence that she has to take her husband or partner to court does not receive legal aid for the prosecution yet he does for his defence. That is outrageous, and perhaps it is a case for a ministry of policing and justice to be devolved to Northern Ireland so that we can do something about it.

Photo of Michael McGimpsey Michael McGimpsey UUP

Domestic violence and abuse is a serious problem and has a devastating impact on the lives of victims and their families. In Northern Ireland, it has reached disturbing levels. Statistics show that 11,000 children here live with domestic violence on a daily basis. Every year, six people, mostly women, are killed, and more than 700 families have to be re-housed as a result of violence in the home. Every week, the police attend over 400 domestic violence incidents and deal with more than 100 domestic assaults on women and men. Recent statistics show that in 2007-08, 23,000 such incidents were reported to the police.

Victims are often reluctant to pursue a case through the courts because of concerns about the consequences of a prosecution and the impact that it might have on the family. Family members are reluctant to see a relative being sent to jail or to see the break-up of a family.

Such violent abuse affects people across society from all walks of life. Trevor Lunn spoke of working-class families, but the problem goes right across society. The vast majority of victims are women, but a number are men.

Violence in the home also has a particular impact on the development of children, who are very much the silent victims. The long-term effects on children who suffer or witness domestic violence can lead to significant problems. Juvenile crime, poor educational achievement, substance misuse, mental-health problems and homelessness are just some of the consequences for child victims of violence in the home.

The economic impact is quite staggering. About £180 million each year is the cost of domestic violence in Northern Ireland when the cost of services such as police, courts, health and social services and the loss of economic output is counted.

The cross-departmental strategy for addressing domestic violence in Northern Ireland, Tackling Violence at Home, was launched in 2005. The strategy aims to tackle domestic violence under the three key strands of prevention, protection, and justice and support. It is helping all the voluntary and statutory agencies to develop a consistent and long-term approach to the prevention of domestic violence and to produce an effective response where it is needed.

Action plans have been produced, and a regional steering group has been established to ensure that the plans are implemented rapidly and effectively. Five local domestic violence partnerships support people at a community level and bring together local groups and Government to help to tackle this scourge. The police and justice agencies, along with the Social Security Agency and housing agencies, have a responsibility to ensure that victims and their families get the necessary protection, financial help and accommodation.

The motion:

“calls on the Executive to bring forward proposals to ensure full access to refuge for persons affected”.

It is certainly my intention that appropriate support services and refuges are available for victims of domestic violence. The Department for Social Development’s (DSD) Supporting People initiative, through the Housing Executive, has played a crucial part in the provision of emergency refuge and temporary accommodation for those who suffer domestic violence. It also helps the voluntary sector to provide a range of other services to victims.

Ensuring that victims have a safe place to go when they are affected by violence is crucial. There are currently 17 women’s refuges and move-on schemes that provide 148 family and single accommodation units for victims and children who have fled domestic violence. They are supported by DSD with funding of just over £3 million each year. In addition, £1 million is allocated through Supporting People to floating support services — an important support mechanism for women and their families who do not live in refuges.

There is absolutely no doubt that refuges are needed for victims of violence who are forced to flee violent homes. They are safe havens that are free from harm and abuse, where families can rebuild their lives and make decisions about their future. Why, though, should families and children who have endured domestic violence face even greater distress by being forced to leave their home? It is the violent abuser who should leave. Children must be given every opportunity to remain in the familiar surroundings of their home and to stay in their local school with their friends.

Greater protection and support is now available for families who wish to stay at home. Changes have been made to the law and to improve enforcement of non-molestation, occupation and restraining orders. Those are aimed at helping families to remain and feel safe in their own homes. Last year, the Housing Executive piloted a sanctuary scheme, which provides a room where a victim and her children can be safe in their own home. The scheme is now being extended across Northern Ireland.

The Housing Executive and registered social landlords can now repossess properties from tenants whose co-habitants have been driven out by domestic violence or threats of violence. That could help victims to return to their family home. I want that protection to be strengthened, so that more and more families are able to remain safely in their homes.

To achieve that would be a major challenge for Government. We must face up to that challenge if we are to tackle the problem of domestic violence in our society. With funding from my Department, the Northern Ireland Office and the Housing Executive, the Women’s Aid Federation operates a 24-hour free-phone service, which is open to anyone who is affected by domestic violence. That helpline provides vital support and advice for victims of violence. In 2007-08, more than 24,000 calls were received.

Under the protection and justice strand of the strategy, there have been a number of developments in support of victims. Police have greater powers of arrest for domestic violence. In addition, there are increased penalties for breach of protection orders. Work is being undertaken by the Legal Services Commission as part of its reform programme to examine how access to justice for victims of domestic violence can be improved.

On the prevention front, we must get the message across to everyone that domestic violence is never acceptable. Public-information campaigns, using television, radio and poster advertisements, have focused on encouraging those who are suffering violence and abuse to end their silence. The current campaign focuses on perpetrators of domestic violence, making it clear that they are committing a crime and that they can be prosecuted, even if the victim is too scared to testify or give evidence.

When I addressed the House in May 2007, I undertook to raise the profile of domestic violence and to secure the commitment of ministerial colleagues to give the issue the priority that it deserves. I have done that by setting up an inter-ministerial group on domestic and sexual violence, which held its first meeting last year. Its next meeting is planned for 6 May 2009. The group aims to provide local leadership and to ensure joint working across Government to tackle domestic violence.

I also gave a commitment to secure extra money to support victims, and was successful in getting an extra £200,000 per annum. That funding is being used to deliver educational programmes for children and young people, and counselling for victims. Research shows that 30% of domestic violence starts during pregnancy. Abused women have higher rates of miscarriage, stillbirths, premature labours and injuries to the foetus.

In 2006, my Department introduced a policy to ensure that expectant mothers are asked about domestic violence when they attend routine antenatal clinics. Work is ongoing to extend that provision to victims through A&E units and doctors’ surgeries.

The strategy and its associated plans are facilitating many other initiatives. Barnardo’s delivers awareness training and mentoring for Health Service staff, and the Men’s Advisory Project provides counselling and anger-management services. By the end of March, approx­imately 1,200 sessions will have been delivered. Moreover, the NSPCC delivers support services for children who suffer domestic violence, and approx­imately 1,600 support sessions will have been delivered to mothers and their children by the end of March.

Furthermore, Women’s Aid offers education programmes to schoolchildren to teach them about healthy, non-violent relationships. In 2007-08, more than 7,200 children took part in those programmes. Guidance was distributed to MLAs and MPs to help them to better identify victims of domestic violence and provide information on the available support services. Staff from the Court Service and the Public Prosecution Service have received special training in order to make that process less intimidating for victims of domestic violence.

I have provided funding for the roll-out of the multi-agency risk assessment conference in Northern Ireland. That proven process will help to identify victims of domestic violence who are at greatest risk of harm and will establish a plan to ensure their safety. Nine staff will be involved in that process at a cost of £300,000 a year. That is jointly funded by the Department and the Northern Ireland Office. Those staff will be located in police public-protection units and will work with social workers, probation officers and others in order to identify and support high-risk victims.

I have included two targets that relate to domestic violence in the Department’s priorities for action for 2010 and have ensured that domestic violence targets are included in the Northern Ireland policing plan. I wrote to Paul Goggins some time ago and he responded by assuring me that he would include those targets in the policing plan. Although Michelle McIlveen said earlier that such targets are not in the plan, Basil McCrea confirmed that they are included in the policing plan for 2009-2012, which will be published soon.

Jennifer McCann mentioned legal aid. That is matter for the Northern Ireland Office and the Court Service. However, the Legal Services Commission is revisiting that matter. Mervyn Storey asked whether GP practices keep a record of the gender of victims who visit them with complaints of domestic violence. GPs do not keep specific statistics on domestic violence disclosures, because victims do not tend to go to GPs about incidents of domestic violence.

I have previously discussed the pilot integrated family court scheme. Under the current domestic violence action plan, the Northern Ireland Court Service is taking the lead on that matter and will introduce proposals for a pilot integrated family court. Such schemes work successfully in England and ensure that victims do not have to continually return to court for court orders or for applications for custody or exclusions. That is an important issue that goes to the heart of where we need to be.

Although it is difficult for the authorities to protect families inside their own homes, we need to strive to do so. As Members have said repeatedly, violent attacks in the home must be treated in the same way as those that happen outside the home. The success of that idea will depend on good policing and equipping the police and the Court Service to support victims. Family courts offer a real opportunity for progress and could ensure that perpetrators receive the punishment that they deserve. That is an important way forward.

We have made progress on domestic violence. Nowadays, no one suggests that domestic violence should be kept within the home and that the authorities should not become involved in domestic disputes between husbands and wives. About 10 or 20 years ago, such garden wisdom was common. Everyone in society now understands that it is totally unacceptable and that the authorities will continue to reinforce the existing remedies.

Working together, we must make domestic violence absolutely unacceptable and ensure that appropriate resources are in place to provide support for victims.

Those who suffer domestic violence must be encouraged to seek the help that they need and end the silence. We all have a part to play in achieving that.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin 2:30 pm, 31st March 2009

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members who contributed to this important debate. I have just carried out a rough count, and I think that 19 Members made a contribution to the debate, either through making a speech or by interventions.

I thank the Minister for being here and welcome what he said about how to address the issue and about raising its profile. I will first make a few points of my own, and then I will refer to other Members’ contributions; each and every contribution from Members today was exceptionally valuable.

Members referred to the key findings of the Northern Ireland crime survey for 2007-08, but they are worth repeating: one in 10 respondents was a victim of domestic violence; respondents from a Protestant background were more likely to report than respondents from a Catholic background; some 27% of victims believed that their worst incident had been seen and/or heard by children; and 42% of respondents perceived that the Government and their agencies, such as the police and the courts, were doing too little to address the problem of domestic violence.

I have selected those particular key findings because, having listened to the debate, I think that they underpin the contributions of Members — not entirely, but they encompass the thrust of the contributions that were made.

Photo of Ian McCrea Ian McCrea DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

I am reluctant to take interventions, because I am going to comment on what each Member said. If there is time after I have made all my own points, I will give way.

My colleague Jennifer McCann, who opened the debate, provided a stark statistic on which a number of Members commented. One quarter of all women experience domestic violence in their lives; that is a frightening statistic. A second statistic referred to by Jennifer McCann is that 11,000 children have experienced domestic violence; most Members referred to that statistic. That is important, and I will repeat it: 11,000 children have experienced domestic abuse.

It is difficult to comprehend the implications of that, which include problems at school. Research shows that experiencing violence at home has damaging and devastating effects on children at school and in later life. We heard from Members that that is a problem; if someone experiences domestic violence in early life, it tends to be repeated in adult life.

Ian McCrea commended Women’s Aid, as did other Members. He gave a graphic account of a case in his constituency, and referred to the good work that was done by Women’s Aid in Cookstown. He said that the woman involved in that case had no house for herself and her children and that the children ended up in care. That is a serious situation, but the Minister spoke about how the housing situation might be resolved.

John McCallister used the phrase “blight on our society”, with which I agree. He spoke about the PSNI having to respond to incidents of domestic violence every 23 minutes, and he also made reference to the Northern Ireland Office and the Health Department working together.

He also talked about the difficulties that pregnant women in these situations face. We do not need to go into details, but it is horrifying to think about pregnant women and their unborn children being abused.

Carmel Hanna has worked with victims of domestic abuse and has first-hand knowledge of the problem. She talked about the children, and she asked why abusers do what they do. She said that this was a challenge, and I concur with that. I do not believe that we understand fully the reason that domestic violence happens.

Naomi Long began her contribution by saying that this was a very important issue. We all agree with that, and as I have said repeatedly, the contributions from Members underline that. She highlighted the fact that domestic abuse takes place behind closed doors, and she drew attention to the silence that surrounds it. That paints a particular picture that must be addressed.

Several Members, including Mrs Long, talked about sentencing and said that it was in no way encouraging. It is not encouraging; the evidence and the experience to show that are there. Who is actually being sentenced? We must recognise that, very often, the initial victim, and not the perpetrator, is sentenced. The Minister said that attempts were being made to address that situation. Members of the Policing Board also addressed that issue.

Lord Morrow made particular reference to one key finding in statistics when he talked about the difference in numbers between Catholics and Protestants reporting domestic violence to the PSNI. He said that the statistics pointed in a particular direction. I selected that key finding myself, and there are many reasons that the statistics show that there is a higher rate of reporting of domestic violence from the Protestant community. I reassure Lord Morrow that we are all trying to build confidence. We are trying to build confidence in my side of the community so that people can feel that they can go to the PSNI. As elected Members, we encourage them to do that.

Lord Morrow used the word “battered” when he talked about victims of domestic violence. Again, that was very graphic and very telling. He wondered why, if the violence happens in the home, it is treated one way by the judiciary and sentenced accordingly, but if it happens in the street, it is dealt with differently. The Member for Lagan Valley Basil McCrea also talked about building confidence, and he supported Lord Morrow’s comments. As a member of the Policing Board, Basil McCrea is able to raise the issues in the place where they should be dealt with properly.

Michelle McIlveen talked about the problem from a different angle, and she focused her contribution on what must be done about perpetrators. She made a valuable point, and she mentioned a case in my constituency and what flowed from it. She said that perpetrators often remain in the situation where they can continue to harm. I am not sure that that is being addressed fully. I know that some measures have been put in place as a result of that case in my constituency, and we must ensure that such work continues.

Mary Bradley talked about the figures in Foyle and about the price of a non-molestation order. She has experience of that in her constituency, and we can all relate to that. Jim Shannon talked about the one in four women who have been the victims of domestic abuse, and he related many of those cases to problems with alcohol. He supported the funding for Women’s Aid and its work. Dr McDonnell described the motion as valuable. He emphasised the work of Women’s Aid and reiterated the fact that 11,000 children are affected by domestic abuse.

Trevor Lunn also mentioned the statistics on reporting instances of domestic abuse to the police. That issue is being addressed slowly. He wondered about legal aid, and the Minister referred to that.

Minister McGimpsey spoke about how devastating domestic abuse is for communities and families. Certainly, this issue is a challenge for all of the bodies. My party tabled this motion, and we very much welcome, and are pleased with, today’s contributions. We all are saying the same kinds of things —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member bring her remarks to a close?

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

The challenge in dealing with the issue remains. Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly deplores any instance of domestic violence and its implications for children, young people and vulnerable adults; calls on the Executive to bring forward proposals to ensure full access to refuge for persons affected and to address the issue of access to legal aid for vulnerable families; and further calls for adequate funding for the relevant support groups and community organisations in their campaigns and work in tackling domestic violence.