The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. Order. I ask Members who are leaving to leave quietly. As two amendments have been selected and are published on the Marshalled List, 15 minutes has been added to the total time. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to wind. The proposer of each amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to wind. All others will have five minutes. Before we begin, the House should note that the amendments are mutually exclusive. If amendment No 1 is made, the question on amendment No 2 will not be put.
I beg to move
That this Assembly expresses deep concern at the levels of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime; encourages victims of these crimes to come forward; welcomes the increased reporting of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime but recognises that a high level of under-reporting still exists; further welcomes the commitment from the Minister of Health and the Minister of Justice to prioritise addressing this type of crime; and calls on the Executive to work together to support victims and survivors and to address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime.
I say at the outset that I am glad of the opportunity to bring this important debate to the Floor along with my party colleagues and that we welcome both amendments.
In a recent survey carried out by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, it was reported that, out of all the European regions, Ireland had the second highest number of women avoiding places or situations for fear of being assaulted. Recent statistics released by the PSNI have shown a rise of 61% in sexual offences over the past six years, with a year-on-year increase. I and other members of the Policing Board questioned the Chief Constable on the issue in public session. Alongside the rise in the number of people accessing violent sexual images of children, the incidence of child sexual exploitation cases and the fact that one in every four women has experienced some form of domestic abuse in her lifetime, that has to be of concern to us all. While some of the increase in those statistics can be attributed to more people reporting these crimes, it is a well-known fact that domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime are still very much under-reported and hidden.
There is a need for political direction to ensure that a clear and consistent message that encourages victims to report these types of assaults is provided, alongside a coordinated approach that provides access to the services and support that they need.
I welcome the recent statements by the Minister of Health and the Minister of Justice that they will make domestic abuse and sexual crime a priority for both Departments. In particular, I welcome the commitment to introduce legislation to deal with coercive and controlling forms of abuse, as well as physical abuse. The impact of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime on individuals and families is devastating. Victims and survivors can be left not only with physical scars but with long-term effects on their mental health and emotional well-being. It is important that mental, emotional and psychological abuse is recognised, as well as physical abuse. The impact is far-reaching, not only for individual victims and their families but for society in general. While it is those individuals who feel the worst effects on their physical and mental health, it has been estimated that domestic violence costs the Irish economy €2·2 billion a year in the South and £180 million here in the North.
Violence and abuse can take many forms. While victims can be male or female, it is mostly women and children who are affected, and 90% of perpetrators are men. Very often, children can be the forgotten victims of domestic violence. Many of them can witness violent attacks or be the victims of physical abuse in the home at a very young age. As we make greater advances in the use of the Internet, it presents more and more danger that our children and young people will be exploited and abused. There is a very real need to try to keep children safe on the Internet. Some of the large organisations with responsibility for the Internet and social networking have a role to play here as well.
Over the years, key areas of prevention have been identified as preventing it happening in the first place and changing public attitudes to it. Organisations such as Women's Aid have been involved in delivering programmes in schools to ensure that children do not believe that violence in the home is acceptable or normal behaviour. It is important that any public awareness campaign is coordinated in a way that provides support and access to services for all victims and survivors. Training programmes for organisations and agencies involved in tackling domestic violence will also ensure a more coordinated approach. There is no doubt that the sterling work carried out by Women's Aid and similar organisations, the availability of refuges and its 24-hour domestic and sexual violence helpline have saved and will continue to save lives. That partnership working and interagency support will help to ensure that this adequate provision of refuges and services to support those victims is maintained and developed.
It is a sad fact that violence against women and children has become almost endemic in our society. It is important for us to challenge the sexist attitudes that allow women to be treated as less than equal to their male counterparts. It is also important that we challenge the structural and societal inequalities that can result in women and girls in particular being discriminated against. As community and political representatives, we need to ensure that the policies and strategies of Departments are enforced with vigour and translated into action on the ground to combat these crimes.
Does the Member agree that a culture of silence often attends in the aftermath of these horrendous crimes? Indeed, is the Member a fit person to make this proposal since, in 2005, she was advised by Máiría Cahill of the allegation of rape against her and she did not report it to the police? Is that not the real test of sincerity and probity in these matters?
The PSNI and the criminal justice system have to make women and young girls feel safe and confident about coming forward to report these crimes. Survivors need to know that they will have access to justice and that the perpetrators will serve sentences that will reflect the devastating effects that their crimes have had on their victims.
I believe that we can send out a clear message from the Chamber today that domestic abuse, rape and sexual violence is wrong in all the forms that they take and that we will ensure, whether it is physical, psychological or emotional, that all victims and survivors have access to the support services if and when they need them.
Leave out all after "exists;" and insert "notes that an analysis of final prosecutorial decisions between 2010 and 2014 shows that in 83% of rape cases no prosecution was recommended; and calls on the Executive to work together to address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime and to support victims and survivors of such crimes; and further calls on the Public Prosecution Service to work to improve rape prosecution and conviction rates.".
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this vital debate and to move the amendment on behalf of the Green Party. I would like to thank the proposer of the motion for bringing further focus to this really important issue.
There are two amendments to the motion, and the second one, I feel, changes the intent of the motion by reducing any focused actions called for to deal solely within the realm of domestic violence over rape and sexual crimes. Given the Minister for Justice's recent commitments to bring forward legislation on coercive control, I feel that we should not lose sight of the great need to focus on, and include action on, the wider abuses of rape and sexual crime.
Before I was elected as an MLA in May, I worked for a charity, Nexus NI, and many of you will be familiar with it. The charity works to support the victims and survivors of sexual abuse and rape. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to that organisation and to others working in this field, such as Women's Aid, the Men's Advisory Project and a host of others. Many of those charities are under significant pressure in the current funding climate. They are operating significantly above their capacity and are delivering above and beyond what they are funded for. We have well-established evidence that the austerity programme continues to disproportionately impact on women and children. The impact is seen significantly in this sector.
Prior to the debate, Members were provided with a briefing pack. Contained in the pack is research completed by the RaISe team in 2015 at my request for a statistical analysis of rape cases in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland. A key point from the paper states:
"An analysis of final prosecutorial decisions between 2010 and 2014 show that in 83 per cent of cases there were recommendations for no prosecution."
That is a shocking figure.
I am also aware that some Members have questioned whether they can support this amendment due to concerns about the wording used. So there is a need to understand what constitutes an allegation and what constitutes a case. I welcome the opportunity to explain this. I have spoken to police officers today in the serious crime unit in Garnerville to make sure that I am on the right tracks. An allegation is a claim made by another person. This can be made to a friend, a family member, a councillor or, indeed, the police. The difference is that, once received, the PSNI will investigate the allegation and build a case. Each case is then forwarded to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) with or without a recommendation for prosecution. It is the PPS that will make the final decision to bring a case to court. In 2011, the PPS received 440 cases of rape from the PSNI, involving 465 suspects. Only 218 of the cases received were recommended for prosecution. Yet, the same year, we saw only 77 cases brought to court by the PPS.
To clarify, all allegations of rape, or any crime, made to the police will be investigated whether the person making the allegation wants or does not want to make a case, because the PSNI has a commitment to public safety. Therefore, all reported rapes in the criminal justice system are cases. Given that 83% of those cases between 2010 and 2014 were not recommended for prosecution, it is no wonder that we continue to have such low reporting of sexual offences. You will come forward and report an allegation of sexual or domestic crime in the knowledge that, if investigated by the police and brought to the prosecutors, you are overwhelmingly likely to have your case dismissed.
In 2015-16, 3,128 sexual offences were recorded by the PSNI. That equates to almost nine sexual offences per day in Northern Ireland. That was only those that were recorded. It was an increase of 12·1% compared with the previous year. Over the same period, despite increased reporting and subsequent recording by the police, there was a drop in outcomes of 2·7%, with only 13·7% of recorded sexual offences leading to any outcome. Those outcomes included charges; summonses; cautions; community resolutions; penalty notices for disorder; offences taken into consideration; and indictable-only offences, where no action was taken against the offender.
The Member, I presume, recognises that the test for prosecution is exactly the same in a sexual offence as any other offence, namely, whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction. Is it not a reality that sexual abuse cases are mostly instances of one word against another, which presents great difficulties to any prosecutor in determining whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction? Is that not one of the underlying reasons why there is a disproportionate number of lesser prosecutions? It is not because of some systemic aversion to prosecuting but because the test, as it must be, has to be applied across the board, whatever the offence.
I thank the Member for his comments. That is probably an issue to take up with the Public Prosecution Service to see how it can better work with the police to get a stronger case. The levels of prosecution in Northern Ireland are not comparable with those in jurisdictions in either the UK or Europe. Given the current context, Northern Ireland also sees a problem in the number of women in public life, and I am in no doubt that that is one of the main factors.
What about those women who become pregnant as a result of rape? In Northern Ireland, we are not human rights compliant with our laws on termination. Instead, we choose to further traumatise women by giving them no choice when they are choosing whether they want to continue with that pregnancy. I could easily read the statistics to show that a woman in Northern Ireland is actually more likely to become pregnant as a result of rape than she is of ever facing her abuser in a court of law.
What actions can the PPS take? In England and Wales, the Ending Violence against Women and Girls strategy has led to the Crown Prosecution Service recognising violence against women and girls as a key priority. The CPS publishes detailed breakdowns of data on sexual offences, which is something we do not yet do here in Northern Ireland.
I would like to make my first ask of the Executive. It is to ensure that the PPS provides a further breakdown of this data, which might go some way to addressing the Member's concerns. The PPS is a non-ministerial governmental department and should be accountable on this issue. The Criminal Justice Inspection conducted a thematic review in 2010 and followed it up in 2013. In the 2013 follow-up, it found that, of its 12 recommendations, seven were achieved, three were partially achieved and two were not achieved. They also committed to a full thematic inspection in 2015.
One of the recommendations not achieved was that the PSNI should take steps to improve communications and intelligence sharing between teams within the public prosecutions units. The other was that the police should fully adopt the principles and recommendations of the national crime investigators development programme and appoint appropriately experienced and trained tutor detectives to better support and supervise trainee investigators appropriately whilst they are undergoing training. Of the three that were partially achieved, one was on support staff for those investigating in this area, and the other two related to the PPS.
This was in relation to ensuring videotaped interviews as a primary tool; the second was where counsel was instructed to hold conferences between prosecutor, counsel and police to explore ways of overcoming any difficulties. The full 2015 review has still not happened, and it is within the gift of the Minister of Justice to instruct a review at any time. I urge her to instruct the Criminal Justice Inspection as a matter of priority. The impact on the life choices for many victims should not be ignored.
The Probation Board does much ongoing work, and other agencies help in dealing with the aftermath, but as a society, we need to hang our heads in shame at the disgraceful figure. When we acknowledge it and do nothing about it, we are complicit in it. I urge the House —
Leave out all after "type of crime;" and insert "notes that the criminal justice system currently treats each reported occurrence of domestic violence as an individual, isolated act and not as a pattern of behaviour or an extended course of conduct; calls on the Executive to work together to support victims and survivors and address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime; further calls for the immediate extension of the justice support worker scheme to all policing districts so patterns can be identified from victims making multiple reports; and calls on the Minister of Justice to introduce urgently legislation to criminalise such patterns of abuse and coercive control that victims are subjected to by their abusers.".
This welcome motion should concentrate all of our minds and efforts on alleviating the suffering of the victims and survivors of these heinous crimes, and on reducing the number of people — women and men — subjected to this physical and mental torture in the first place. Our amendment adds to the motion, calling for immediate, practical and legislative steps that can be taken in a relatively small time frame that will have a really big impact in protecting victims from further sustained abuse. We also welcome the Green Party's amendment. I do not think anybody could oppose it; however, I regret that we do not have a motion or amendment combining the two before the House today.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)
The appallingly low rates for rape prosecution and conviction highlighted by the previous Member to speak are really shocking, in fact, they are worse than shocking — they are really saddening. While the motion quite rightly encourages victims to come forward, what confidence can any victim have that justice will be done; that it will be in any way worth reliving that anguish and pain? Some may find it even harder to bring themselves to report a rape, following the fallout of the Ched Evans case over the weekend. I am commenting not on the verdict but on the hysteria around it and the ill-informed opinions emanating from barroom barristers and cyberspace solicitors, not to mention the online and offline identification and abuse of the victim, which is sure to scare some people off actually reporting a rape. We cannot afford to let this happen. We need the PPS to work to improve prosecution and conviction rates to give victims and survivors faith in the system, and we all need to work together — not just the Executive — to support victims and survivors, and give them back faith in humanity.
I will move on now to our amendment. There has been a very positive public response to Minister Sugden's statement early in her ministry that domestic violence and abuse would be a key priority during her tenure. Her announcement on 'The View' last Thursday night that it is her intention to capture coercive and controlling behaviour will also have been well received by any right-minded person — even one who had just drafted an amendment calling on her to do just that. However, far from being rendered obsolete as a result of this announcement, our amendment has become all the more relevant. The amendment asks the Minister to extend the justice support worker scheme to ensure that patterns of abuse can be identified, meaning that when she does bring the legislation forward to capture controlling and coercive behaviour, she will be able to criminalise patterns of abuse and coercive control. Coercive control is a calculated pattern of psychologically abusive and controlling behaviour, designed to isolate, manipulate and terrorise a victim into complete fearful submission.
If he were in the Chamber, this would all sound familiar to Mr McCann, who, and I do not think that this is any secret, is a huge fan of 'The Archers', after that show's gripping Rob and Helen storyline that did so much to highlight this very sensitive and important issue.
Sadly, domestic abuse is not confined to our airwaves, nor is it manifested only through physical violence. Often, physical attacks occur only after a victim has been cut off from support networks, emotionally abused and manipulated to the point that they are more likely just to accept physical violence or are too afraid to leave. Many of us will know people who have been through this. More worryingly, many of us will know people who are going through this, and we do not even realise it.
Studies have proven similarities between coercive control and political terrorism. We must salute the courage of victims who have managed to break free of the shackles of such relationships, and we must do everything in our power to give more power to more victims to do the same. We must also acknowledge, as previous Members have, the fantastic work of the many individuals and organisations that support victims: Victim Support, Men's Action Network, Men's Advisory Project, Nexus and more. Recently, a new organisation in my constituency that was set up to help victims of such abuse, La Dolce Vita, was awarded official charitable status.
I also make particular mention of Foyle Women's Aid for which this year marks its 40th anniversary. That is 40 years of helping women and families in distress, and, every year, it has to help more women and families in distress. I take this, and every opportunity, to re-emphasise to the Minister, and to the Executive, the need for Foyle Women's Aid's One Safe Place in Pump Street in my city and the need to support that much needed project.
Our amendment focuses upon extending the provision of the justice support worker scheme to all policing districts. We have consulted Women's Aid on this amendment and based the wording on its calls and on the calls of other groups. Those groups want to see the introduction of the scheme to all policing districts across the North and effective legislation to criminalise coercive control and the pattern of abuse to which victims are subjected by their abusers. What are these justice support workers? They are specialist, domestic violence support workers for victims, and they engage with police and the criminal justice system. There are justice support workers in only three policing areas here; two in Belfast and one in Derry supported through inconsistent part funding. It is a shame that not all victims of domestic abuse have access to that vital support.
The extension of the scheme would have a hugely beneficial impact on victims; it would enable better access to justice, facilitate early engagement with specialist support, reduce the re-traumatisation of victims and, ultimately, perhaps, save lives. The workers' role includes accepting referrals directly from the PSNI; acting as a liaison between victims and officers to ensure a coordinated and timely response to requests for information from victims; providing support to engage with the criminal justice system by acclimatising victims to the courts and meetings with solicitors; and encouraging engagement with police. Furthermore, these workers ensure that all possible additional avenues for support are communicated to victims and accessed if and when required. In connection with that, I have raised with the Health Minister the completely unacceptable waiting time for counselling services across our trusts.
There has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the impact of justice support workers from the police and, most importantly, from victims. Expanding their role, as our amendment proposes, has the support of Nexus, Men's Action Network, Victim Support, Men's Advisory Project, Women's Aid and others. It would be a shame if it did not now get the support of the Assembly.
I support the motion moved by the Member for West Belfast and I support the amendments. I see merit in both. I agree with the comments of the Member that, if they could be conjoined in some way, that would bring a better and more complete amendment, but we are where we are. I think that the message has to leave the Chamber today that the House is in agreement that something more needs done.
I put on record early on that I support the Minister 100% in her statements that this is her number one priority. It is, indeed, one of five priorities that the Justice Committee has laid down for this mandate; to try to resolve this issue and to protect victims and survivors better when they are involved in this horrendous crime. Domestic abuse now accounts for two and a half times as many crimes as those linked to drugs. We have to sit up and take notice, and I believe that we have seen a trend, even since we came back from recess. First, in the very first week that we were back, there was the motion from my colleague Brenda Hale on stalking, and we now have this. The pressure on the Minister has been immense in this regard. I support the Minister in her assertions that she will tackle this and treat this as her number one priority.
I believe that the community and society out there demands of us that we bring forward new legislation, support it, certainly scrutinise it and make sure that, at the other end, we have good legislation that will keep people safer and ensure that people are brought to justice. At the minute, we are sitting with laws that were brought in during the 1990s. The Family Homes and Domestic Violence (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 is the legislative framework that allows victims of domestic abuse to apply for protective civil orders and non-molestation orders in a civil setting, and the Protection from Harassment (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 is the legislation where victims of stalking have to look to.
That is my point. We need direct legislation to deal with this crime. This crime is complex. It is not just domestic violence. If we try to tackle domestic violence on its own, we will fail, and we will fail our victims and survivors. It is as much to do with coercive behaviour and controlling behaviour as it is domestic violence, because, if you have the fear of the violence, you will do pretty much what you are told to do, especially if there are young people in the house. It is essential that we tackle coercive control, and, if we tackle that, it will mean that there will be more convictions on the domestic violence front. We have no laws on stalking yet. We have to go and look towards harassment. That is not capable legislation to cover stalking. That needs to change, and I plead with the Minister that, when she is looking at this, she puts this together and tries to deal with the issue in one raft of legislation. We have no laws yet on coercive behaviour. That needs to change. We have been talking about this for so many years. The Minister has been in post for only a couple of months, but we have been talking about this for many years. Justice officials know that we have been talking about this for many years.
I will turn my attention to the Department. Where are our violent offences prevention orders (VOPOs)? The people who work in this field, protecting people on a day-to-day basis, are crying out for VOPOs. We have been promised them; we have not yet received them. Even when I brought amendments on coercive behaviour on Wednesday 10 February 2016 on the Justice (No. 2) Bill, I was given commitments by the then Minister that these would be going in very soon. I withdrew that amendment because I want good law, not bad law. I want to see action and movement. Cogs turn far too slowly, and people are becoming victimised as we speak. Although we do have SOPOs — sexual offences prevention orders — and can see how well they work, we need VOPOs in as quickly as possible. They can be issued even without the consent of the victim. A VOPO is a tool that is the essential piece in the kit in the toolbox and which our officials need to use.
I find this an incredibly difficult debate; I find it disturbing. As a father and a grandfather, I look at my daughter and grandchildren and imagine them being abused, and it really makes my blood boil and my stomach churn.
I welcome the motion. What is there not to support? Everything in it must be supported. Nobody will thank me for saying this — I already see the eyes rolling and the heads shaking, and I hear the sucking of teeth — but Sinn Féin's words do not match its actions. If Sinn Féin had started the debate by saying, "Do you know what? We got this wrong in the past. We're sorry, but let's move forward", I would understand it. The treatment of Máiría Cahill and Paudie McGahon was truly disgraceful, and they have to acknowledge that. I am haunted by the comment that abusers can be so manipulative that some victims enjoy the abuse. It is terrible; it turns me. I do not want to dwell on it, but it is the elephant in the room, and it has to be addressed. Please address it.
I will very briefly dissect the motion, which states:
"this Assembly expresses deep concern at the levels of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime."
Absolutely, and we should all be standing up in unison and saying, "This has got to stop". Sex crimes have soared by 60% in the last six years. You can look at different reasons for that, such as the ability to get online or online pornography, but whatever the reasons, we must address them.
Domestic crime accounts for 13% of all crime in Northern Ireland — 13%. The PSNI had to deal with 13,500 domestic crimes in the last 12 months. Remember, of course, that domestic crime normally happens about 30 to 35 times before it is even reported, so that is the tip of the iceberg. The motion continues:
"encourages victims of these crimes to come forward; welcomes the increased reporting of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime but recognises that a high level of underreporting still exists;"
I say yes to all three.
It is important that we look at them. We look at them as statistics, but every one is a story. I recently listened to Terri-Louise Graham's testimony, which I found incredibly harrowing. We all need to look at that to see what domestic abuse is really about and what coercive behaviour is really about. Recently, I met Alicia Perry from Women's Aid NI — she is one of their new ambassadors — and I listened to her story. That is another story that we all need to know.
We need a strategy for this. I do not want anybody to have to report rape or domestic abuse, so we need a form of education, and I call on the Education Minister to instigate a programme to educate young boys at the age of 15 or 16 about what domestic abuse is all about and what rape is about — and tell girls that they have the power to say no.
I look to the Justice Minister and ask her to fast-track legislation on domestic abuse, because it makes absolutely no sense that somebody suffering from domestic abuse can be assaulted five times by the same person but have five different cases and have to go to court on five occasions. It does not make sense.
I look to the Communities Minister to commission public information adverts and leaflets, and to set aside housing so that when we have a case of domestic abuse, we can get the woman out with her children and put her in housing away from the problem.
"calls on the Executive to work together to support victims and survivors and address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime."
Come on, let us get on with it. There are only two parties in the Executive, so let us get on with it. I welcome the Justice Minister's recent comments about domestic abuse, just as I welcome the strong stance on coercive control taken by my friend Mr Frew, Chair of the Justice Committee, and his Deputy Chair.
I thank Ms McCann, Ms Bailey and Mr Durkan for bringing the motion and amendments on behalf of their parties. We have no problem in supporting any of them, in whatever order they come up. I think that amendment No 1 will probably be called first; perhaps it will go through. That means no disrespect to amendment No 2, which is very thoughtful.
The crimes we are talking about are disgusting. They are serious, cowardly and mostly involve the strong on the weak. This is, of course, the element of control. I acknowledge that some men suffer in this way, but, let us face it, most of it is against women and children. That is the cowardly aspect of it.
Amendment No 1 refers to the 83% of rape cases that do not achieve recommendation for prosecution. I am not the first today to say that that is absolutely appalling. Frankly, I must ask what is going on in the Public Prosecution Service. If a woman is prepared to come forward — there are various reasons why women might not want to come forward — and take the very bold step of making this sort of complaint, I honestly believe that the success rate, at least of bringing cases to trial and making the charge, should be better than 17 out of 100. It is disgraceful. The amendment:
"calls on the Public Prosecution Service to work to improve rape prosecution and conviction rates", and is very valid. In the rest of the UK, certainly in England and Wales, there has been an attempt to do this. The PPS has acknowledged that there is a problem. It has acted on various recommendations and has gone into a more thematic examination of the reasons why they do not make this recommendation, but it has not produced an increase in the number of cases brought to trial.
I have that many statistics that my head is spinning. However, there were 470 cases of rape in one year here. I think that Clare Bailey mentioned that only 77 actually produced a charge and only a very small number produced a conviction.
I wonder why, in this more enlightened age, women who have been violated in this way and parents, on behalf of their children who have been abused, do not report in greater numbers. It could be just the fear of publicity; they do not want to have their names brought out in court. They do not want to have to appear in court. It could be a fear of the process or disenchantment, frankly, with the process because it is so plainly letting victims down. It could be the residual culture that exists in this country, that there is an element of shame or guilt. A wife who is perhaps abused in this way may still cling to the belief that this happened to her because she was not a good wife. I am not going to try to use the phrase "deserved it", because that would be absolutely improper; but I think there is still in this country a wee bit of a feeling that a wife is secondary to the husband, and some husbands will take advantage of that.
The Minister, Claire, has promised that she will bring forward legislation on coercive control and domestic abuse. I hope that she can do it inside the timescale and before next June, because she said that she would not bring any primary legislation through before then. When she brings it forward, it is only fair to point out that a considerable body of work has already been done by the Department. David Ford — I give him a plug — did a lot of work on this, so there is groundwork that she can build on.
Somebody mentioned the difficulty of getting a definition. There are very good definitions already on the record within the Department.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion today. Since 2007, I have been involved locally with Women's Aid in Antrim, Ballymena, Carrickfergus, Larne and Newtownabbey (ABCL&N), primarily in an attempt to raise awareness of domestic violence. I cannot praise the work of the staff and the volunteers highly enough in providing support to women and children in crisis situations. I take this opportunity to commend the CEO, Rosemary Magill MBE, who, despite dealing with personal adversity, continues to be the driving force behind the organisation in her single-minded approach to stamping out domestic violence.
The wording of the motion, of course, includes rape and sexual crime, which can be equally insidious, sinister and cloaked in fear. Indeed, only a few weeks ago, my colleague Brenda Hale brought a motion to the House on stalking. Those heinous acts are all founded on inflicting fright and terror on victims and are often perpetrated by those seeking to exert control over others.
When I first began my work with Women's Aid, I was told a story about an elderly couple in their eighties living together in a care home to accommodate the wife's dementia needs. The staff in the home became concerned about unexplained bruises that kept appearing on the elderly lady. They spoke to the couple's GP, who disclosed that there was a 60-year history— I repeat this: a 60-year history — of domestic abuse in the marriage and that the family was aware of it. What transpired was that the husband was repeatedly beating and raping his wife in the privacy of their room at night-time. I trust that everyone here today is as shocked as I was to hear that story. Although that is an individual case, I am quite confident in saying that there must be many, many such cases where that type of abuse is allowed to continue over a lifetime, with no one being prepared to act in defence of the victim.
It demonstrates the all-encompassing way in which domestic violence can manifest itself and become such an intrinsic part of someone's life that they cannot even see how awful the reality has become. Whether it is through physical violence, sexual violence or mental, emotional or financial abuse, domestic violence knows no boundaries and affects every age group, race, religion and class. It must also be said that, although the majority of victims are women, men should not be forgotten in the discussion on domestic abuse. Although we recognise that, we heard from the proposer that the majority of victims are, indeed, female and that, in turn, their children are often used as a method to coerce the woman, which, of course, has lasting and damaging effects on the children.
Alongside Women's Aid ABCL&N, I recently formed an all-party group on domestic violence by way of engaging with the Departments on the implementation of the stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland strategy to ensure that those issues are kept on the agenda. At our last meeting, on 27 September, we heard from the Department of Health and the Department of Justice, and I was incredibly encouraged to hear that the joint strategy has had a great deal of momentum and that both Departments are committed to the outworking of the strategy. I was particularly heartened to hear of the reconstitution of the inter-ministerial group, which had previously been formed but, in my opinion, had made little progress. I look forward to seeing the Departments of Health and Justice in their co-leadership roles to ensure the effective delivery of the five strands of the strategy.
I am also pleased to hear that the Department of Justice is reviewing arrangements for multi-agency risk assessment conferences for victims — or MARACs, as we call them — who are at a very high risk of domestic violence and that funding has been committed to those. I have had numerous discussions with the Minister of Justice, and I commend her on her public commitment and pledge to tackle domestic and sexual violence. I am aware she has instructed her officials to look at best practice on the issue across other jurisdictions to ensure our justice system is properly equipped and is capable of responding in an effective and efficient manner. That news can only be welcomed, and I look forward to scrutinising their findings and proposals as they work through the Justice Committee.
In closing, I am aware that the focus of my remarks has centred on domestic abuse, and I have only touched on rape and sexual crime. However, the message is the same: whether it is physical violence against a partner, unwanted sexual conduct, controlling or coercive behaviour or stalking, it must not be tolerated. We need additional legislation to tackle this subject, and we need to drive home the message that domestic violence, in whatever form, is not socially acceptable.
We must do all we can to deliver this message and, in doing so, provide the necessary support to allow victims to come forward and report the offender to the authorities. In turn, we need to ensure that those who carry out these crimes —
I am proud to speak on this motion and to send out my support and that of my party to victims of domestic violence, not only here in Ireland but throughout the world. I am also saddened to hear that some Members here would demean this highly emotive motion to score political points.
Domestic violence, in all its forms, is a crime, and, as legislators, we all have to work harder to tackle it. Domestic abuse may be psychological, physical, sexual, emotional, verbal or a combination of these. I also acknowledge that men can be victims of domestic abuse. Domestic violence is one of the only crimes where it can feel like the victim is being punished, rather than the perpetrator. Instead of receiving support, victims of domestic violence are often criticised. How often have we heard it? "It is her own fault", or "She should have left him the first time." That is easy for someone to say, but we must remember that, apart from the physical difficulty of escaping from a controlling, violent partner, women who have been abused, beaten and degraded have little confidence and their self-esteem is at rock bottom.
Women's refuges play a crucial role, and they are so much more than a roof over a head. Lives are transformed as specialist refuge workers support women to stay safe and provide them with any advice that they may need. Without adequate refuge provision, women who experience domestic violence will be faced with a stark choice: flee to live rough on the streets if they have no family support or remain with their abuser and risk further violence, or even worse, in some cases, death.
Escaping domestic violence is a traumatic and emotional process. My heart goes out to anyone who has to live with it. I, too, recently met Foyle Women's Aid to discuss its work in tackling all forms of domestic violence against women. Women's Aid provides support and refuge services for women and their children suffering from mental, physical or sexual abuse. As an MLA in a rural constituency, I am always very concerned about the plight of rural victims of domestic violence. Many rural women in this situation can feel particularly isolated and distressed, in the belief that they have no one to turn to. Women's Aid provides a critical lifeline to these women, and I am hugely appreciative of their outreach efforts into the rural areas. Many topics were discussed at the meeting, including cross-border initiatives, early intervention, the One Safe Place plan and the importance of domestic homicide reviews. Indeed, the PPS needs to review its test for prosecution.
Like others, I also recently met Alicia Perry, a strong, independent woman who has survived domestic violence, abuse and coercive control. Alicia met us to raise awareness of her campaign around Donna's Law. Donna was a friend of hers who, unfortunately, was a victim of domestic violence and died a few years ago. Donna's Law seeks to make domestic violence and abuse and, more importantly, coercive control a criminal offence here in the North of Ireland.
Domestic violence and abuse is happening at an alarming rate and, unfortunately, it is happening among many young people, including teenagers. Not all victims, unfortunately, are speaking out, because everything that has happened is trivialised and minimised by their controlling partners. Coercive control goes way beyond just controlling what their partners do. It is more about how they think about their family, friends, colleagues and, more importantly, themselves. I was also shocked to learn from Alicia that experts believe that domestic violence occurs in the LGBT community with the same frequency and severity as in the heterosexual community.
Society's long history of entrenched racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia prevents LGBT victims of domestic violence from seeking help from the police and the legal and court systems.
I rise as a member of the Justice Committee to support the motion and the two amendments.
Growing up on my street, I witnessed situations that were never called domestic abuse but which were a form of abuse, particularly violence against women. You would have had women going about with extra makeup on because their partner or husband had physically attacked them. For me, it was a culture of domination and control. Sadly, today we are talking about some of those issues. I think that it was the Minister who spoke of a psychology of domestic abuse. When I was growing up, there was that psychology of domestic abuse: the husband or partner would not allow his spouse or partner to go to the pictures, for example, or it was about controlling what friends they had, or the spending or non-spending of money. There was a whole range of such issues.
Looking back, that was domestic abuse, but I had never heard of the term until this last number of years. Sadly, we are still dealing with those issues, but the good thing is that we are debating them today, and it is more upfront. There may be difficulties for vulnerable people being able to go to the PSNI or to Women's Aid, but these things are now being challenged.
I was on the Internet today, and a BBC news bulletin of last week showed images of a young woman, Terri-Louise Graham, who was unrecognisable after the beating that she had taken in 2011. She was calling for us to do more. I welcome the Justice Minister being here. I also welcome her recent comments that tackling domestic abuse was her number one priority and that she was committed to changing the law. The Chairman of our Committee said that he was 100% behind our Justice Minister. I would say that I am 150% behind the Justice Minister; she will certainly have our support. I think that she has support throughout the House.
I looked up some facts and figures provided by Women's Aid — an excellent organisation, as my colleague Pam Cameron said — and the PSNI, and I was shocked at some of the statistics. I had heard some of them before, but to see them in writing was an absolute shock: in 2011, the PSNI reported that they responded to a case of domestic violence every 23 minutes. It is endemic throughout society, and, thank God, we are doing something about it. The police attend an average of 60 domestic abuse cases per day in Northern Ireland. I think that one of my colleagues spoke about the cost of domestic violence, and recent figures show that it is something like £180 million a year, so there is a cost to this. There is also a cost reduction if we can address and combat it.
Of course, domestic violence occurs most commonly against women, but there is also a growing number of men; the latest statistics showed a 49% increase in domestic violence against men. It is against children as well because they are in the house when they see the abuse. They are in the house when that partner is controlling and abusing their spouse.
One of the most harrowing statistics that we have come across is that 30% of all domestic violence starts —
Before I start my contribution, I ask Members to keep the two young girls who were knocked down in Banbridge this afternoon in their thoughts and prayers.
It is a tragedy that domestic violence and sexual crime is one of the most common yet least reported crimes in Northern Ireland. Of course, we are not unique in that respect, but, nonetheless, the fact that there are women and men today suffering violence at such endemic rates is absolutely heart-rending. I know from talking to PSNI officers how the initial bravery of the all too rare reporting of an incident can often dissolve, with many reports withdrawn soon after, compounding the misery and pain.
Domestic violence can manifest itself in many ways, but, most often, it is in the form of verbal or emotional abuse, with direct or implied threat of violence. The nature of the abuse means that it often recurs, sometimes for many years. So, it has a particularly cruel effect on victims.
I remember chairing a session of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians on domestic violence. An older lady presented to us with her personal domestic abuse experience, and she told us in graphic detail how her induction to married life was at the end of her husband's fist and how it took her 20 years to escape his grasp. The sad message of her presentation was that, from either gender, this is an all too common experience.
I am sure that there are people, particularly those with no experience of abuse, who ask the question, "Why would anyone stay?". It is a question that, I know, Members in this House have pondered, but I believe that it is too simplistic a question for what is often an incredibly complicated situation. We need to remember that tackling this form of abuse, whether it is physical or mental, is incredibly difficult because the aggressor is in or has been in a long-term relationship or marriage with their victim.
I take her point. People ask the question, "How can you stay in that abusive relationship?". It is very complex, and, sometimes, with youngsters involved, it is a threat to them as much as anything else, but does the Member agree with me that if the Department were to bring in the domestic violence disclosure scheme to work alongside the child protection disclosure scheme, some of those people may not end up in an abusive relationship if they have the right to ask before they endeavour into a relationship?
I thank the Member for his intervention. Having spoken to constituents, I know that keeping their children safe is key and is a priority. Even in spite of the violence, as we know, many may still be bound to their partners by strong feelings of loyalty and even love. So, even more challenging are the circumstances where the abuser is the parent of their children.
Victims are torn as to what to do about the abuse or, understandably, may be keen to maintain the family unit and may see that as a more important consideration than their own welfare or even their own safety. The effects of growing up in the midst of domestic violence can be devastating for children. The feeling of fear and confusion that those poor children experience when they see abuse must be awful, never mind when the abuse comes from their parents. So, I ask the Minister if she is satisfied that all the required support mechanisms are in place to support these young people.
Domestic violence is not some sort of faceless crime where someone unknown can come and go. It is often a warped battle between feelings of love and absolute betrayal, but that does not mean that the justice system should not respond; it must, and it must plan a response for each individual case.
Unfortunately, however, as we have heard time and time again in this debate, the current rudimentary response is not working, and too many cases simply end up without punishment. One of the first places to begin to try to lessen the chances that a report could be withdrawn the next day is the immediate response after that report. I doubt that many things are more gut-wrenching than a victim leaving a violent partner, often breaking up the family unit, only to see the accused get off scot-free. It must be absolutely terrifying for them.
Minister, I really hope that you listen to today's debate. You have said that domestic violence is your key priority. I hope that you will detail the exact steps that you will take to deliver improvements for the victims of this appalling crime.
I must say that I have listened to some very interesting comments from right around the House today. I was particularly struck by Doug Beattie, not so much by what he said as by the man who said it. Doug Beattie was a professional soldier, so he has come through a hard school and been in a war zone. It takes a lot of courage to do that. I listened very intently to him today, and he proved not only that he was a professional soldier but that he has a heart. He hit all the right buttons, and I commend him on that.
I had thought that my constituency was perhaps the worst for this type of violence but having listened to others from different constituencies, I recognise that that is not the case. I have made representations to the previous Minister, the existing Minister and the Chief Constable, and I am sure that others have made similar representations. It is very difficult to pick up your local newspaper without reading about domestic abuse. Folks, the Assembly must not just talk the talk; it has to walk the walk. It is all fine everybody here saying in harmony that something needs to be done, and it does need to be done, but actions always speak massively louder than words.
We are very fortunate that, in Dungannon Court, we have a foremost district judge by the name of John Meehan. He has taken a particularly determined stance on tackling domestic violence and dealing with the perpetrators by coming at cases from the perspective of the victim. That is the way that he always comes across, and that is to be welcomed. He tries to encapsulate the trauma that they have endured. He is also very stoic in ensuring the safeguarding of victims through stringent bail conditions as cases progress through the system. I am not sure what it is like in other areas, but I want to commend that judge for the stand that he has taken and the determination that he has brought to the bench in dealing with these cases.
The sad and startling statistic is that, on average, victims will endure 30 attacks before they take action, if they take any action at all. That is a very alarming figure. It tells you something about society as a whole if victims have to be traumatised on an average of 30 occasions before they do anything. There must be a lack of confidence in the system if they do not feel that they can come forward and complain. I have worked very closely with a number of persons involved in the prevention of domestic —
I heard recently about a case in which a female stabbed her husband or partner, and he broke her jaw in return. What happens when that goes to court? I suspect that that is a 50:50 and will not travel anywhere. I do not believe that domestic violence always comes from one side, the male. It also comes from females, no disrespect to them, but maybe the prevalent side is the male side.
I want to say another thing. I believe that, at the heart and root of much of this violence, there is one word: alcohol. It is alcohol abuse. That seems to be one of the drivers of this domestic violence. It is not entirely that, but I believe that it is very prevalent. I learned that very much when I was taking a private Member's Bill through the House on human trafficking and exploitation. I got a real insight into incidents of violence. It was maybe of a different nature but very much akin. I was taught many things as a result of that. Is it any wonder that I was so enthusiastic about trying to get that Bill onto the statute books so that, in future, this type of behaviour would stop?
Let us show the world and our country that we are not just here to talk fine words but are here to do something about it. The Minister needs to show that determination. She has said that it is her number one priority, and I welcome that. We are all looking to her today to tell us in a very direct way what measures she intends to bring forward and how she will tackle this issue, because it is like a cancer in our society and has to be tackled. That cannot happen soon enough.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Home is a place where you should feel safe, a place where you can go after a hard and trying day and close the door and feel relaxed and protected. Yet, for many women and men, the reality is very different. It is the place that they fear the most and the place wherein lies the greatest danger. The proliferation of this abuse in our society is shocking. Incidents of domestic abuse have reached a 10-year high. According to the very latest statistics, police respond to 78 reports of abuse in the home every day. That equates to one report every 18 minutes. While it is positive news that the reporting of these incidences has increased, the truth is that domestic abuse and sexual crime is still significantly under-reported because of the nature of the physical and mental abuse and often the intimacy of the relationship with the abuser, especially when children are involved. It can also be because of the abuse of power and authority and the fear of not being believed or being vilified when it is a large institution, a perceived celebrity or an organisation against an individual.
As many Members have pointed out, domestic abuse includes violence but is not just violence. Psychological abuse and the exercise of fear and control can be as bad as, and often worse than, physical abuse, and it is shocking that, under our current legislation, an abuser can break the spirit and will of their victim and can ruin their lives via psychological torment without breaking the law. The SDLP therefore welcomes and commends the fact that the Minister has given a commitment to tackling this injustice by outlawing coercive control in the North within the ambitious time frame of one year. Tackling domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime is not the task of one body, but it requires one approach, and that is one of zero tolerance based on three strands: prevention, protection and prosecution.
My colleague Mark H Durkan outlined why we have included a specific reference to justice support workers in our amendment and why access to those workers for all victims is crucial. We ask the Minister to share with us her views on that proposal, which I can assure her has the support of Women's Aid, the Men's Advisory Project, Men's Action Network, Nexus and Victim Support NI. As I draw my comments to a close in the reduced time frame, I want to put on record that I pay tribute to all the organisations, staff and volunteers who work with victims, but, most of all, I want to pay tribute to the courage of the victims who have spoken out.
I thank the Members who proposed the motion and those who tabled amendments. I will say from the outset that I am happy to support both amendments, albeit that they are mutually exclusive. Domestic and sexual violence and abuse are issues that concern all of us, and I welcome the opportunity to debate this in the Chamber and the interest that has been shown from all corners of the House. I have already stated publicly that tackling domestic and sexual violence is one of my priorities as Justice Minister not just because of the harm it causes to victims but because of the wider societal impacts that domestic abuse has across Northern Ireland.
Domestic violence takes many forms. It can be mental and emotional abuse; controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour designed to isolate, manipulate or terrorise a victim into complete fearful obedience; physical and sexual violence and rape; or a combination of all those. It can result in death. None of those behaviours is acceptable. None should be tolerated. Domestic violence and abuse is not a one-off incident in an otherwise healthy relationship. It is an ongoing pattern of behaviour that can continue for weeks, months, years or even decades, and I think it is important to emphasise that physical violence does not have to be involved for it to be domestic abuse.
Slap me, punch me, kick me, but don't put me through one more hour of mental torture. Victims have told me they are almost numb towards the physical abuse. However, the psychological abuse that is imposed on victims is what tends to break them. Abuse, whatever form it takes, has a devastating impact on victims, and it is well-evidenced that the negative impact of psychological abuse and coercive control can be just as traumatic as the experience of being physically attacked. I know from speaking to survivors of domestic abuse that the compound effect of sustained physical, emotional, financial and sexual abuse can be totally life shattering.
Domestic and sexual violence and abuse can affect anyone, no matter where they live or how much money they have. Equally, perpetrators of domestic abuse are as likely to be lawyers, doctors, accountants, politicians and those who are unemployed. Domestic violence knows no boundaries. It does not discriminate with regard to age, marital status, race, ethnicity or religious group, sexual orientation, social class, disability or geography. It affects women, men and those from the LGBT community. Some Members speculated why people commit domestic abuse. It is not something I understand. Perhaps alcohol is to blame, as suggested by Lord Morrow. It could also be addiction, mental health issues or trauma. Perhaps the perpetrators were victims themselves.
Whether we realise it or not, every one of us in the Chamber will know someone who is suffering at the hands of a violent and controlling abuser. It may be a family member, a work colleague, a friend or even an acquaintance. Let us not forget the hidden victims: our children. I am glad other Members mentioned them. Statistics provided to me by Women’s Aid indicate that, in 2006, approximately 32,000 children were living with domestic violence in Northern Ireland and, in 2014-15, 13 babies were born to mothers living in refuges. Clearly, that is evidence that we need to do more.
Many victims are unaware that what they are experiencing is domestic abuse. Some may argue that the abusive man or woman has just lost control. The truth is that that person is very much in control and their actions are designed to intimidate and frighten their victim over a sustained period with a view to denying their personhood. I often hear the comment, "If it was that bad, why not just leave?" Other Members mentioned that. It can be extremely difficult to leave an abusive partner, and the woman may, for example, fear what her partner will do if she leaves, particularly if she has children. Evidence has shown that the point of separation is the time when a victim is most likely to be killed or seriously injured. She may not have access to money or anywhere to go or may not know where to turn to for help.
When the victim is elderly or lives in an isolated rural community, seeking help can become even more challenging, for a variety of reasons. Often a woman’s self-esteem and confidence have been totally eroded by her experiences. Her abuser may have convinced her that the abuse was her fault, that no one will believe her or that she is useless and will not manage on her own. One woman told me, "I covered it up for so long because I was embarrassed and ashamed. I am an educated woman, and I was ashamed that I had allowed it to happen." Another said, "Every time it happened, he made me feel like it was my fault, that I deserved it." One woman talked about how her partner had systematically isolated her from her family and friends, cut off access to her finances and prevented her from using a car. She said, "Even if I could have got away, where would I have gone? I had no one." Consequently, many victims, both men and women, suffer in silence, with no hope of an escape from their situation.
We have seen such tragedies in our own community in the recent past. Since 2010, 22 women and 10 men have lost their lives to domestic violence in Northern Ireland. In my view, the death of one person is one too many, and we must act now to stop this. PSNI statistics note that approximately 28,000 domestic abuse incidents were recorded in 2015-16 — the highest level recorded since the data series began in 2004-5. Around 3,000 sexual offences were recorded in 2015-16 — an increase of 11·3% compared to the previous year. In 2015-16 the number of rape incidents recorded increased by 5·8% to 780 and other sexual offences increased by 13·3% to 2,257.
I believe that this upturn in reporting illustrates an increase in victims’ confidence in the support services available to them as they seek protection and justice through initiatives now in place, such as the multi-agency risk assessment conferences and the Rowan centre. This is to be welcomed. However, it is widely accepted that domestic and sexual violence continue to be under-reported. From talking to representatives from the voluntary and community sector, such as Women’s Aid, who provide front-line services to victims of domestic and sexual abuse, and to the victims of violence themselves, I have learned that there are a number of reasons for this. Often, women fear the repercussions of coming forward. One woman told me that she did not press charges against her abuser for fear that he would "come back and finish her off" as punishment for reporting his actions. Another said she had endured so much already that she could not bear the thought of reliving her drama in court. She wanted her ordeal to be over so that she and her child could get on with the rest of their lives in peace.
That is why I am committed to enhancing the current justice system to encourage victims to come forward, safe in the knowledge that they will be protected not just from their abuser but from the trauma of re-victimisation. I take on board the comments made by the SDLP about the support services available. That is definitely something that we should consider because, as many Members noted, this is not for me alone, or for the Health, Communities or Education Ministers or even for the entire Executive. It is for this House and wider society in Northern Ireland to shine a light on this dark shadow.
Domestic violence is a unique crime that requires a unique response, and, as an Executive, we have already made efforts to address domestic and sexual violence and abuse through the previous tackling violence at home and tackling sexual violence and abuse strategies, which were published in 2005 and 2008 respectively. But we must to do more. In March 2016, following Executive endorsement, the Departments of Health and Justice published the stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy, a new strategy to address both issues. The vision of the strategy is to have a society in Northern Ireland in which domestic and sexual violence are not tolerated in any form; where effective, tailored preventative and responsive services are provided; where all victims are supported; and where all perpetrators are held to account. It is a challenging vision but one that I believe is achievable if we work together as an Executive and an Assembly to effect positive change and improve the lives of thousands of women, men and children in Northern Ireland.
In producing the strategy, there was extensive consultation and engagement with a wide range of interested groups, including statutory, voluntary and community sectors and, indeed, the victims themselves. The consultation sought views on whether a specific offence should be created to capture patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships, in line with the proposed new definition of domestic abuse contained within the draft stopping domestic and sexual violence and abuse strategy. Having considered the responses to the consultation, I have now committed to bringing a domestic abuse offence and a domestic violence disclosure scheme to Northern Ireland. In the light of the previous debate, I am also considering how we can incorporate stalking into the legislation.
This domestic abuse offence will recognise the repetitive nature, behaviour, and cumulative effect of domestic violence and abuse on victims and the devastating impact that it can have on mental health. The disclosure scheme will provide potential victims with the right to ask for the disclosure of relevant information that will enable them to make informed decisions about continuing their relationship. My officials will brief the Committee for Justice on these subjects later this month, and I welcome its views and opinions on how we can take this forward.
I am aware that significant work will be required to embed this new offence and that that will of course require the provision of training and guidance for all relevant criminal justice practitioners against the backdrop of a challenging financial environment and limited resources. Nevertheless, I assure you that I am committed to ensuring that the offence is implemented effectively in Northern Ireland, and my officials will work with practitioners to identify the training and resources needed as soon as possible.
In addition to the introduction of a domestic violence offence, I am committed to raising awareness and to achieving the changes in attitudes that are necessary to end violence against women, children and men. Ultimately, I want to improve the experience of victims so that they are treated as we would all want to be treated if we were in their shoes. I take Mr Beattie's point that this needs to be an education; it needs to be a change of mindset. We need to educate young boys that it is not OK to treat women in a particular way, and we need to educate girls that it is OK to say no.
The victim charter, placed on a statutory footing in November 2015, advises victims of crime about their entitlements as well as the standards of service that they can expect when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. It builds on the good work that has been done to date, including the setting up of a victim and witness care unit that provides a single point of contact for victims to receive information about their case and have their needs assessed for additional support.
We will shortly pilot the prerecorded cross-examination of vulnerable and intimidated victims and witnesses, which could include victims of domestic and sexual abuse and violence. That will enable victims to give evidence ahead of their trial away from the main courtroom and their abuser in a place where they feel supported.
The inter-ministerial group on domestic and sexual violence and abuse oversees the delivery of the new strategy. I am pleased to co-chair that group along with Minister O'Neill. As I co-chair that group, I will be fully engaged in the development of all future action plans. I anticipate that members of the inter-ministerial group can, by working together over the lifetime of the strategy, provide the direction needed to make a significant difference to these issues. A cooperative approach is essential if the awareness raising, early intervention and preventative action that are necessary to address these issues are to be effective.
I note the concerns raised regarding prosecutorial decisions and advise that that is a matter for the Public Prosecution Service to consider. I meet the DPP regularly and am quite happy to share the views of the House on this area. It is important that I say that moving this forward is not just a job for the Executive or the Assembly but for the wider criminal justice family.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On that very point, there have been cases, for example, where someone who has been convicted of sexual abuse has got a lesser sentence by a number of years, been let out on probation and then been able to get themselves off the sex offenders' list because they did not complete their full term in prison. That could ripple down with regard to any statutory disclosure scheme. Will the Minister look out for and investigate such cases?
Yes. I appreciate the comments of the Chair of the Committee for Justice. Indeed, when we bring these issues to the Committee, I would be keen to delve further into the areas that he raises because there are difficulties in the system, and it is important that we acknowledge that if we are to be effective in trying to tackle domestic abuse.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight a facility for those who have experienced sexual violence. The Rowan Sexual Assault Referral Centre was established in May 2013, jointly funded by the Department of Health and the PSNI. It offers a range of services and support to victims of sexual violence. Since going live in May 2013, over 2,500 individuals have been referred to the Rowan, and I have no doubt that the excellent work of the centre has contributed to an increase in reported sexual crimes.
We have an opportunity to commit clearly to working together to address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime. As elected representatives, we have the opportunity to raise these issues in our constituencies through, for example, ensuring that our offices are safe places for victims of domestic and sexual violence to approach and seek support. <BR/>In my East Londonderry constituency, my office has been designated as a safe place. The Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council is taking forward initiatives such as the ONUS Safe Village initiative and the ONUS Gold Award status including the development of a workplace charter on domestic abuse —
— with associated training for staff.
We all have a role to play in this, because we are all affected by domestic abuse, and we have a responsibility to speak out against it: only then, will it end.
If you think about it, today should tell the narrative of this mandate. At lunchtime, victims and survivors of institutional and clerical abuse produced further proposals on financial redress, given the horrors that they experienced many years ago and continue to do so to this day. Here, at the end of the day, we have a debate on the abuse of men and women, and particularly women, in Northern Ireland society. So, a defining feature of this mandate should be what we are doing to support victims and survivors, whether they suffered historical or current abuse.
In that regard, I want to press the Minister on a number of points made during the debate. The first was referred to by my colleague Mark H Durkan, and it is the roll out of the justice support worker scheme across Northern Ireland. This is something that has been endorsed by charities and organisations working in support of women. I think that it is something that the Minister should endorse and encourage the PSNI to roll out.
The Minister referred to her commitment to legislation on coercive control. All of us endorse that. There is now a commitment for that legislation to be on the statute books in the course of next year. That is a challenging timetable and, therefore, I say to the Minister that there is a need to accelerate the processes around this to ensure that that legislation will be on the statute book when we stand in this place in autumn 2017 and that that which we all endorse will have happened.
The Minister read into the record chilling comments in respect of the number of children who are affected by, and are living in the environment of, abuse of a parent by a parent. That suggests to me that there is still more work that is required arising from Steven Agnew's Children's Services Co-operation Act to ensure that every remedy and intervention is pursued regarding those who are the most vulnerable in those abusive circumstances, the very young in particular.
I thought that Clare Bailey's comment on the PPS publishing figures was very worthwhile. If the PSNI is reporting the highest number of cases of alleged abuse and real abuse since records began, the PPS needs to publish its records of what is coming on the far side of that reporting.
I ask the Minister to ensure, when she takes forward the panel report on the enduring legacy and influence of paramilitary organisations, that she looks at whether there is control of communities and individuals that is subject to paramilitary or other organisations when it comes to this issue in the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. There continues to be a narrative about the influence that is being brought to bear, including by people who claim to be associated, or are involved, with paramilitary organisations. They have a role when it comes to the abuse of individuals in our society. I ask the Minister, when she is taking that work forward, to look at that issue.
Mr Douglas referred to the bravery last week of Terri-Louise Graham, and he was right to name it. We are also right to name all those who have shown the same bravery, including, not least, Máiría Cahill whose voice is still loud, whose dignity is still clear and whose experience still endures as a warning to people in our society about the influence of those self-appointed people who think that it is their job to deal with these issues.
We do not play politics with this issue. We do not play politics with Máiría Cahill. We do not play politics with any person who is subject to abuse from any organisation or society.
It is very heartening to hear such support and understanding from the House today, as well as the Justice Minister's commitment to the work programme ahead. As a member of the Justice Committee, I know that the Committee is absolutely committed to working on this issue and looks forward to scrutinising and helping where it can to introduce legislation.
A lot has been said today about men and women, and about the impact of domestic abuse on long-term relationships. Suffice it to say that Nexus NI put out a report that states than one in four of us should expect to be abused at some stage in our life. Much of that abuse occurs in childhood. Nexus believes that a large number of our prisoners have suffered sexual abuse or exploitation. The links between poor mental health and childhood sexual abuse are well known. Clients present with suicide risks, addiction problems, low self-worth, depression, anxiety and a plethora of other ailments. Our current rehabilitation system addresses some of the symptoms of trauma, such as anger, alcoholism and drug addiction. However, the underlying cause of the problem is often left unaddressed. Maybe we could start looking at what is causing this abuse. Maybe it is not alcohol but learned behaviour in our society, given that it is so endemic.
I want to mention the Probation Board for Northern Ireland because it does really good ongoing work with convicted perpetrators. However, this work can be done only when perpetrators have been convicted, and, as the figures given today show, the majority are not convicted, their problems unaddressed. Our judicial system should be capable of doing much more, and it should do better as a matter of urgency because, as every day passes, new victims are created.
Domestic violence is intentional and persistent abusive behaviour. As many have said today, it is an ongoing pattern of abusive, coercive and controlling behaviour that can include physical, psychological, economic, sexual and emotional abuse. Domestic abuse is, by its nature, not a single incident of violence in an otherwise healthy relationship. Domestic abuse is characterised by coercive control. Mark Durkan defined coercive control as a deliberate and calculated pattern of behaviour and psychological abuse designed to isolate, manipulate and terrorise the victim into complete, fearful submission. Unfortunately, coercive control is not currently a crime here in the North, and I welcome the Minister's commitment to introducing legislation within the next year to make it so. Many victims of domestic abuse say that the coercive control element of their abuse is much more difficult to endure and recover from than physical violence. This has been corroborated by victims and survivors of domestic abuse in other jurisdictions and across the globe. Indeed, numerous studies have shown similarities between coercive control and tactics used to control hostages, prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates.
The presence of coercive control in a relationship can be an effective indicator of the likelihood of serious violence, resulting in the death of victims. Some victims of domestic homicide do not have a history of previous physical abuse, but they were victims of extreme forms of coercive control. Let us remember that this is a serious issue: in 2014-15, there were six murders with a domestic motivation here in the North; in fact, 37·5% of all murders in the North were domestic-related. As has been pointed out, the PSNI responded to over 28,000 domestic incidents; 13% of all crime in this jurisdiction. These statistics are just the tip of the iceberg. Lord Morrow pointed out that it takes an average of 30 instances of abuse before a victim will report it. All of this shows that women are still more at risk of crime in the home than anywhere else.
The crux of the matter is that domestic violence is not, in itself, a criminal offence. Instead, perpetrators are charged with regular offences such as assault, criminal damage, harassment or false imprisonment, and the PSNI records that the crime had a domestic motivation for statistical purposes. The PSNI and the criminal justice system treat each occurrence of domestic violence as an individual incident. However, this is at odds with the nature of domestic violence, which is a pattern of abusive behaviour. The upshot of this is that most incidents of domestic violence are treated as minor crimes and misdemeanors, resulting in short or suspended sentences. The sentencing does not take account of the weeks, months or even years of psychological torture that the victim has been subjected to.
Pam Cameron gave us a horrendous example of a woman who had been abused for over 60 years — almost all of her lifetime being tortured and abused by her husband within her own home. Of course, we have recently heard the testimony of Terri-Louise Graham, who was subjected to absolutely diabolical abuse in her relationship. Making domestic abuse an offence will send a strong message to perpetrators that they cannot act with impunity, and it will also send a message to victims that the abuse they have suffered will be taken seriously by the Executive and legislators here.
Innovative evidence collection approaches should be considered to secure convictions. These could include the use of a register, showing the number of times police have been called to a house, in order to build a picture of the frequency and nature of the abuse. There is also evidence that use of body-worn cameras by police has led to a rise in convictions. There is also a need for a domestic violence disclosure scheme, and, again, I welcome the Minister's commitment to introduce that into the legislation. The fact is that most perpetrators of domestic violence are serial offenders, and if someone in a relationship becomes suspicious, she or he would be able to go to the police and find out whether the person that they are now in a relationship with has a history of domestic abuse.
Statutory agencies also have a role to play in helping victims of domestic abuse. As an example, if someone is intimidated by paramilitaries and seeks to be rehoused, their case is designated as high priority by the Housing Executive. The same does not apply to victims of domestic abuse. Alicia Perry's name has been mentioned on a number of occasions today. She has been waiting years to be rehoused without success; there needs to be changes there. We must send out a clear message from the Assembly that there will be zero tolerance of domestic abuse and coercive control.
I commend the motion to the House. I support the two amendments. In fact, I think they both add to the motion. I welcome the Minister's commitment to look at justice support workers. The victims and survivors of abuse have spoken to me in glowing terms about the work they do and how much easier it is to navigate the criminal justice system with the help of those workers.
I will leave it there.
Question, That amendment No 1 be made, put and agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly expresses deep concern at the levels of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime; encourages victims of these crimes to come forward; welcomes the increased reporting of domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime but recognises that a high level of under-reporting still exists; notes that an analysis of final prosecutorial decisions between 2010 and 2014 shows that in 83% of rape cases no prosecution was recommended; and calls on the Executive to work together to address domestic abuse, rape and sexual crime and to support victims and survivors of such crimes; and further calls on the Public Prosecution Service to work to improve rape prosecution and conviction rates.
Adjourned at 6.26 pm.