Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill: Final Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:45 pm on 24th March 2022.

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Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green 1:45 pm, 24th March 2022

I beg to move

That the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill [NIA 41/17-22] do now pass.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Today is a hugely significant day for victims and survivors of domestic abuse and for workers' rights in Northern Ireland. Today marks a step change in how we, as a society, respond to domestic abuse. From 1 January 2021 to 31 December 2021, the PSNI responded to 32,219 incidents of domestic abuse. That is a response roughly every 16 minutes, and that is only for the incidents that we know about. Last year, the number of domestic abuse crimes increased by 9% to 20,827. That is the highest since records began in 2004.

Since 2020, when the pandemic instigated mass social and economic shutdowns and the Government imposed "Stay at home" orders, 17 people in Northern Ireland have been killed by someone close to them. Nine were women murdered by intimate partners. Home, as we know, is not always a safe place.

We have a problem — a really serious problem — the scale of which is not fully captured in official statistics. As my Green Party colleague and Member of Parliament in New Zealand Jan Logie put it when speaking to her Bill in 2018:

"We will not solve this problem by continuing to focus all of our resources and efforts on what happens after the police have been called."

She spoke about a "stocktake" of government spending in New Zealand that showed that only 1·5% of its budgets go towards prevention and only 6·6% towards early intervention. As far as I am aware, we do not even have those figures for Northern Ireland. We have not taken stock of our spending or where it is directed. That needs to happen urgently.

Again, in Jan's words:

"We wait until things get really bad or someone is killed, and then we wring our hands, squeeze in another hospital bed, and build another prison."

No more. We cannot do that any longer. The Executive and our Departments must commit to prevention and early intervention. We must invest in our children and educate them about what a healthy relationship looks like. We have to dispel the stereotypes and myths that prop up the harmful culture of misogyny in our society and form the roots of gender-based violence. We all have our part to play.

Some businesses and employers are already leading the way in their response to domestic abuse. Those organisations recognise the significant costs of domestic abuse, social and economic, to their businesses and are doing something about it. Those businesses are saying, "Enough is enough. We have seen too many employees suffer through abuse, too many forced to take time off work, too many forced to leave or resign, too many promising talents stifled in their career progression and too many marginalised and isolated in the workplace".

Those employers are acknowledging that, if they support their workers and enable them to seek help and assistance, they are not just doing the good, decent, right thing on a basic human level but are going a considerable way to addressing the costs of covering employees' time off work, hiring temporary and agency workers, running recruitment exercises, losing talented and experienced staff and spending resources on workplace issues.

Domestic abuse is not confined to the home. It always finds its way into the workplace in some shape or form, because it is and always has been a workplace issue. Survivors have told us what they have endured. They have, for example, been forced not to go to work, deliberately made late for work, followed, stalked, in receipt of phone calls and emails at work, threatened and attacked inside or outside their workplace and, in the most extreme circumstances, some victims have even been killed at work.

Employers are now recognising that domestic abuse is no longer none of their business and that they have to make it their business to help and support their staff. I commend all those who have begun that journey. Since paid time off work to deal with issues related to domestic abuse became a statutory right in New Zealand in 2019, we have seen global companies such as Vodafone and, here, Danske Bank introduce policies and safe leave. Councils across England and Wales and in Scotland that have done so too include South Ayrshire and Neath Port Talbot. The Northern Ireland Civil Service has a special paid leave policy that would cover similar circumstances.

I take this opportunity at Final Stage to thank officials and members of the councils who took the time to discuss with me their policies, the background to them and how they are working in practice: thank you for everything that you are doing for your staff, and I hope that, should the Bill pass, your regional Parliaments and Assemblies will take it up a notch, just as we are doing in Northern Ireland.

When every employer stands up and says, "We will help you. We will protect you. We will do what it takes to keep you safe, just to make sure that you keep your job", we will begin to disrupt and transform the fundamental social dislocation that allows abuse to happen and continue. That is why we are here today: we are standing for a future free of domestic abuse.

Today is the day that we finally address the inequality between workers who have access to some form of safe leave and those who do not. Today is the day that the Assembly says to all victims and survivors of abuse, "We are with you, we support you, and we will do everything in our power to keep you safe". <BR/>Before I finish my opening remarks, I thank all those who helped to get us here. I thank all those who took the time to respond to our consultation, many of whom have been through the most difficult circumstances imaginable and suffered some of the most appalling abuse. Thank you for telling your stories. Your words and experiences have shaped this legislation and will help others in the future so that they do not have to go through what you did.

To Women's Aid and the Men's Advisory Project, thank you for all your work and lobbying. It was your efforts to push for some form of safe leave for victims and survivors that led to the first real discussions and debate in the Justice Committee. You made sure that it was on the agenda, and I am grateful for all your support through the Bill's journey, including the very important evidence that you gave to the Economy Committee.

I thank the Women's Resource and Development Agency, the Women's Policy Group and Victim Support NI. Many voluntary and community sector organisations offered support. I am sorry if I forget to mention them by name, but I thank everybody who contributed.

I thank the trade unions that supported the Bill's journey. In particular, I thank those at NIPSA and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions — you know who you are — for all your engagement and work on this issue over many years prior to the Bill's coming to fruition. You spread awareness of domestic abuse as a workplace issue because you have always known that it was. You have looked after your members. You have represented your workers, raised issues on their behalf and fought for their jobs. Thank you.

I thank all those in the Bill Office and the private Members' Bills unit. I thank the legislative drafter for their guidance, advice and professionalism. I also thank the Committee for the Economy, its staff, departmental officials and the Minister for the Economy. Everyone spent considerable time examining the Bill in detail, scrutinising its provisions and developing the amendments made at Further Consideration Stage.

I look forward to hearing Member's contributions. I urge you all to pass this incredibly important Bill today.

Photo of Caoimhe Archibald Caoimhe Archibald Sinn Féin 2:00 pm, 24th March 2022

I am very pleased to speak at Final Stage of this important Bill. I am glad that it received cross-party support to get to this stage. I thank Rachel Woods, who introduced the Bill, and the Bill Office for its efforts to bring it to Final Stage. I also put on record my thanks to the Minister and to the Department officials who engaged positively with the Bill and helped to progress it to this stage today. Most importantly, I, too, thank those who campaigned for this legislation and the victims and survivors whose evidence helped to shape the Bill and helped us in our deliberations on it.

I mentioned previously that my party colleagues introduced similar legislation in the South. It will be great to see domestic abuse safe leave available across this island. As a result of the Bill, workers who are the victims of domestic abuse will be entitled to safe leave from work. Far too many people — the vast majority are women — experience domestic abuse. Rachel Woods said that 32 reported instances of domestic abuse were dealt with by the police last year. That is the tip of the iceberg. The abuse affects every aspect of people's lives, including their work life. For some victims, the abuse follows them to their workplace, and it can take many forms. For others, their workplace will be a sanctuary. Given the figures on domestic abuse, you can be assured that there are people in all our lives and workplaces who have experienced or are experiencing abuse. Therefore, domestic abuse is very much a work and employment issue.

I have spoken before about the direct cost of domestic abuse to employers through absence or the loss of valued staff who leave if they do not have the time and space to deal with the issues that arise from their abuse. Therefore, safe leave is very much needed. It will give workers who are the victims of abuse the ability to have up to 10 days off in a leave year, which could be to deal with the physical, mental or practical issues that arise from abuse, such as finding housing, childcare and legal or medical appointments. The legislation could be literally life-saving. We need to ensure that all victims have the space and time that they need to deal with their experience, and the very fact that safe leave exists will, I hope, be part of the process of destigmatising domestic abuse.

We all need to do much more to tackle the root causes of abuse. We need to tackle misogyny and toxic masculinity.

Far too often, those who experience the shame of abuse are the victims. That is part of the control exerted by perpetrators. We all have a role to play in taking away that control and ensuring that victims of abuse have the space to speak out and to seek help. No one but the perpetrator is responsible for abuse. They need to be held accountable for their actions, but the consequences of abuse are felt by many more people. The Bill can help to make things easier for victims.

This is the final day of a mandate that has been very productive in passing much-needed legislation, much of it progressive, that will improve and even save lives. The Bill that we are debating and that, I am sure, will pass into law, sits alongside several other pieces of legislation that tackle violence and abuse, in particular, violence against women. It also sits alongside other important workers' rights legislation, including the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill, which officially became law this week. I am proud of the part that we played in delivering those important pieces of law in the mandate. Many more important and progressive Bills have passed, and, far from patting ourselves on the back, we should see that that shows what good can be done in the Assembly when we work collectively and when progressive parties and representatives work together. I really hope that we will see much more of that in the next mandate.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I support the Bill's Final Stage, and I commend the Bill's sponsor for introducing it. I thank the Minister and the Department for the positive attitude that they have taken towards it. I commend all the hard work of Assembly officials, not least the Committee officials, in progressing the Bill and all those who gave evidence when we on the Committee were scrutinising it.

I give particular commendation and support to those who have been victims of domestic violence who were involved either directly in the passage of the Bill or outside it. They took the courageous step of sharing their experiences and raising their voices to make sure that what has happened to them should not happen to others.

The Bill has two levels of significance. There is the detail that is in the Bill, and there is the message that the passage of the Bill sends. I hope that Members will take it in the right spirit if I say that, somewhat ironically, I wish that this was a Bill that we did not have to have. I wish that, even when it receives Royal Assent, it never has to be used, and I am sure that the Bill sponsor will concur with me. Domestic abuse is evil. If we could reach the point in our society where there was no domestic abuse at all, it would be a miraculous and beneficial day for all of us. Sadly, however, that is not the society that we live in.

There has been much debate about the restrictions that were put in place during the pandemic. One of the great fears — I saw it particularly, as Education Minister, from the point of view of children and the domestic setting between partners — was what was going to happen in families when the doors closed and the locks went on. What was happening behind closed doors? Sometimes, one of the biggest problems with domestic abuse is the lack of transparency and knowledge of it. We are sometimes aware of families and relationships where clear problems have been brought to the police, but in how many cases have we simply no idea of what is happening behind closed doors? It is critical, in looking at this, that we offer the maximum support to those who suffer domestic abuse. As the sponsor indicated, we should look at where, in education and prevention, we can take action to combat domestic abuse.

I commend the many employers who take the issue seriously and who have been proactive in making provision for it. The advantage of the Bill is that it takes that good practice and ensures that, whoever suffers domestic abuse, there is equality of provision and they have a statutory right. Overwhelmingly, as has been indicated, the victims are female, but we should remember that there are victims of domestic abuse who are male. Irrespective of gender, it is important that that protection and those rights are put in place as well.

There is another significant element of the Bill. I have spoken about it in the Chamber on a couple of occasions. There is always a slight danger that we, as legislators, see legislation as being the end of a process and think that we can pack it away, put it on the shelf and forget about the problem because it has been solved. That should never be our attitude to legislation. I have used this phrase before: legislation should be a comma rather than a full stop. In trying to ensure that the Bill gets on the statute books, I think that the Bill sponsor has largely acknowledged that, when it comes to the examination of the guidance that will be needed, a level of detail is required that simply could not be provided in primary legislation. There are direct requirements in the Bill for regulations. That means that the focus will remain on the issue, and further information will have to be brought back as we refine the detail. That will be critical in ensuring that what we have in place for those who suffer domestic abuse is fit for purpose and can protect them.

Finally, as well as the specific contents of the Bill, this is about the message and the signal that the Bill sends. The Committee was certainly unified on the issue, and I think that the House is unified on the issue. As a society, as an Assembly and as legislators, we want to send out a clear, single and unambiguous message that domestic abuse is wrong and evil, that it is never justified; and that it must stop. Today, we can add our voices to that message in a tangible way by passing the legislation and saying not simply that domestic abuse has to stop but that, where it happens, we will be there to support the victims and meet their needs. I commend the Bill to the House and believe that it will receive support across the Chamber.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party 2:15 pm, 24th March 2022

I am delighted to again speak at the Final Stage of a progressive piece of legislation that will make people's lives better. It is worth saying, of course, that the people who need to make use of the legislation that we are passing today are in difficult circumstances. As the previous Member said, this is, in a sense, legislation that you never want to be used. The truth is, however, that this is why most legislation in relation to protection for workers and individuals has to be passed: for the eventuality that people find themselves in difficult circumstances. That was also the case with the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act that passed earlier this year.

I commend the Bill sponsor, Rachel Woods, in the strongest possible terms for introducing the Bill. As politicians and people in society here, we all live with the pernicious sense that this society cannot get better, that things cannot be improved and that progress cannot be achieved. However, with the previous Bill, this Bill and other legislation that will come later, including the Bill from Rachel Woods's party colleague, we are today proving that people in this place can have the courage, the will and the intelligence to pass progressive legislation that will make things better for people here.

The Bill is not only progressive and ethical but timely. It is timely because we know that, tragically, there has been an increase in domestic abuse over the past two years in the context of the pandemic. We know that, at times and in a certain context, there is an epidemic of domestic abuse. People in those extremely difficult circumstances need to understand that they will not be relying just on the goodwill of their employer — I certainly hope that most employers in Northern Ireland are decent and ethical; the vast majority, of course, are and would be understanding and supportive, should their employee find themselves in such a situation — and that, today, we are putting that right in statute and guaranteeing that someone who finds themselves in that appalling situation will be guaranteed at least 10 days of paid leave.

To go back to my earlier remarks, it is also true to say that we are offering an antidote to the idea that this place cannot change. As we all put ourselves forward for election, given how bad the reputation of this institution has been at times, not just for party political reasons but because of people's lack of trust that we can make laws and deliver things that make their lives better, legislation like this will be part of being able to prove to people on the doorsteps that we can. Of course, I do not want Miss Woods to think that I will steal her thunder. I will happily give her credit for the legislation, but we all need to cast our vote in favour of it.

The Assembly will be a world leader when the Bill is passed, because not too many jurisdictions — Australia is one example — have passed such legislation. The truth is that one reason that we will be able to pass the Bill in pretty quick time is that the Bill sponsor and her researcher brought to us robust and mature legislation that was ambitious in its provisions and realistic about how those provisions would be met. I think that one of the first lines of the Bill states that the Department must make regulations to provide for paid leave in these circumstances. Credit to the Minister and his officials for engaging on the Bill productively, as did the Committee in its scrutiny. We gave it pretty rigorous scrutiny, albeit in an abbreviated time. The Bill sponsor worked with the Department to ensure that the Bill was workable from its perspective. The commencement is not just realistic but generous, in a responsible way, to the Department, giving it the space to draft the regulations and make them workable. It cannot be said by anyone who might be looking at this that the legislation is happening quickly in order to impose a burden on business. First, it is no burden to give your worker safe leave in such appalling circumstances. The rights of the worker to have leave outweigh any concern on the other side. For any business that thinks that it is happening quickly, I say this: it is not happening quickly. We are passing the legislation so that it is on the statute book, but, as I said, there will be a period in which the Department will have space to make the regulations and get them right.

I want people out there who are concerned about the epidemic of domestic abuse that Women's Aid and other organisations have been reporting to know that the Assembly is today doing what it can to make things better for people in that appalling situation. I am proud to have served on the Committee that scrutinised the Bill. I am proud that we will pass the legislation today. In a cross-party way, I again say, "Well done" to Rachel Woods on introducing the Bill. You should be extremely proud. It is a positive step forward. I am pleased to support it.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly at the Final Stage of one of the most important and progressive Bills of the mandate. I commend the positive cross-party engagement to ensure that the Bill was prioritised to make it through the House in this mandate.

As other Members have said, it is regrettable that we have such an epidemic of domestic abuse that a Bill of this nature is required. I hope that the Bill, along with the Domestic Abuse and Civil Proceedings Act 2021 and the Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill, will be another indication from this mandate to victims of domestic abuse that their situation is not of their making and that support is there for them when they build up the courage to ask for it. Just as importantly, I hope that the legislation that is passed in this mandate sends a clear message to the perpetrators of domestic abuse that their evil and atrocious actions will not be tolerated. I commend the sponsor for bringing forward the Bill and support it at Final Stage.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I support the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill at Final Stage. This Final Stage debate and the previous one have provided a useful insight into how our society, governed largely by men, has treated women for generations. I was watching the previous debate — I assure you that I will come to this debate, a LeasCheann Comhairle — and was thinking to myself, "Every day is a school day", because, even though I have been involved in politics for many years and see myself as a liberal, moderate individual, I got an insight into women's experiences in relation to period products that I did not really understand previously.

With regard to the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill, I, as a man, am having an insight into the lives of the — mainly — women who are abused by — mainly — men. It is clear that the vast majority of victims of domestic violence are women and the vast majority of perpetrators are men. That includes when men are the victims of domestic violence: in the majority of cases, it is a man who is carrying out that violence against a man. Of course, there are men who suffer domestic violence from women as well. I say that because it is important that men who are victims of it come forward and seek the support that is there; it is not a sign of weakness or of being unmanly to do so.

We, as men, have a lot of catching up and repair to do for what we have done to women over generations. Much more legislation needs to come through the Assembly and future Assemblies for us to achieve true equality of the sexes in our society. We have made a significant step forward in this mandate. For the reasons that I have outlined, the Bill is important, but the purpose of the Bill is the most important reason why the Bill is coming forward today. It gives an avenue to the victims of domestic abuse to escape the abuser, because one way that abusers hold on to their victims is through financial control. Now, victims of domestic abuse can be assured that they will not lose their job because they have to take time off or because they are unable to go into work or whatever it may be, and the abuser cannot then hold on to them through financial control. We now recognise that domestic abuse impacts on the person in the workplace, and we will support them through that avenue, which is a huge step forward.

At the end of the previous debate, there was cheering and applause from the Great Hall and understandably so. I suspect that, in reaction to the passing of this Bill, there will be a quiet sigh of relief in many living rooms and workplaces across the North when victims realise that they have support in place. Many of them will not be able to cheer, because it will only bring attention from their abuser, but the recognition and support for this Bill is as loud in its own way as it was for the previous Bill.

Unfortunately, the Chamber will fall silent for the next six weeks. There will be no cheering in the Hall or elsewhere, and my concern is that it will fall silent for much longer than six weeks. We may return to some form of shadow Assembly or shadow Executive, but we will do people a great disservice by doing so because we can pass legislation such as we have passed and make massive change through the Executive. We will not be able to do the same in some form of shadow Executive or shadow Assembly. I appeal to the Members opposite. I am as good as anyone at lambasting my political opponents — I can do it, and I can take it — but I appeal to my colleagues across the Chamber. I, as an Irish republican, could stand here and make a very sound speech and statement as to why I should not come into the Assembly because there is a border on the island of Ireland. I could be self-assured and confident in my contribution and say that I was right in what I said, just as Members across the Room are deeply concerned about what they see as a border down the Irish Sea, but I will tell you now that, if I were to do that, I would be wrong.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I draw the Member back to the motion.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I will, yes.

I would be wrong for this reason: we have shown in the last two years what a difference we can make to people's lives through Bills such as this one. I urge the Members opposite to reconsider their position, come back to a fully functioning Assembly and Executive and ensure that we collectively make differences to people's lives and create the equality for women and others in our society that has been missing for far too long.

Photo of Gordon Lyons Gordon Lyons DUP 2:30 pm, 24th March 2022

Once again, I commend the Member for sponsoring the Bill. I thank not only her but the Committee for the Economy and other Members for engaging so constructively on the new legislation.

I am proud that Northern Ireland will be the first region in the UK and Ireland to provide such an important employment protection for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. More importantly, to anyone who is here or listening today and is dealing with domestic abuse, I say that I hope that it sends a small signal of hope to you that the Assembly cares about your situation, that we want to find ways to help you where we can, and that we will work constructively to try to do better for you.

During the Bill's passage, we reflected on the appalling statistics that, all too sadly, demonstrate just how prevalent domestic abuse is in our society. I know that, as an Assembly, we agree that domestic abuse in all its forms is utterly abhorrent. Domestic abuse has a devastating impact on families, individuals and society as a whole. I welcome the support that the new employment rights in the Bill may offer to workers who find themselves in the most distressing of situations. The Bill will also play an important role in raising awareness of domestic abuse and, hopefully, will reinforce the message to those who may need to hear it that help and support are available. It is for those reasons that I reiterate my firm support for the principles of the Bill.

This important new employment right will provide a valuable space for victims and survivors of domestic abuse. That space may help a person to stay in employment at a time when they need it most and when that employment offers, albeit temporarily, an escape from the horror that they are experiencing at home. It could help an individual to retain some financial independence. It may also help to alleviate some of the pressure that they face as they seek to deal with important issues arising from that domestic abuse. It may help a person to reorganise their life and adjust to any new circumstances in which they find themselves due to such abuse. It may mean that if or, more hopefully, when a person manages to escape domestic abuse, they still have a job to go to.

Helping victims and survivors to stay in employment will bring benefits to wider society. I hope that it will benefit employers by giving a clear instruction as to what they can do to provide support to their workers at such a difficult time. It may also benefit employers by reducing the likelihood of valuable and experienced employees feeling that they must leave their job due to the awful circumstances of domestic abuse. Who knows: maybe this route of encouraging people to tell someone sooner may even help to reduce the overall occurrence of domestic abuse. We can but hope.

Most employers are decent and want to help and look after their staff. Many already offer support to their workers, from time off to flexible working and workplace advice and support services. Furthermore, many employers have workplace policies to support victims and survivors of domestic abuse, and that is to be commended. I hope that the legislation will build on that existing support, as well as bringing it to the attention of employers who may not have had to consider the issue.

The Bill was drafted to allow my Department to undertake the necessary consultation and policy work to develop the detail of safe leave and how it should operate in practice. I fully support that drafting approach. This is a new employment right, and my Department will need to engage extensively with stakeholders to develop the regulations and accompanying guidance. My Department will, particularly, wish to seek views from employers, workers and organisations that support those who suffer domestic abuse. That may take time as there is a lot of detail to work through, and we want to make sure that we get it right. We need to ensure that the regulations support and protect workers who are victims and survivors and respect their needs, vulnerability and confidentiality. We also need to make sure that employers know what they have to do and when they have to do it. We need to develop a regulatory framework that encourages and helps to build the capacity of employers to be able to provide support in the workplace. It is appropriate that my Department will have the time and flexibility to carry out that work.

That said, while there is still a lot of work to do, it does not mean that we will be slow to act. As I stated during the debate at Consideration Stage, it is my intention that officials will commence the necessary policy development work as soon as possible. That work will include developing the procedures, conducting the required impact assessments and consultation with stakeholders, engaging with the Committee for the Economy and drafting the regulations. As Minister for the Economy. I intend to provide a clear instruction to my officials to take forward the necessary work to allow the Assembly to pass the regulations that will give effect to the Bill.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McGlone] in the Chair)

Although it will take time to develop the new regulations, the sad reality is that there are people in employment right now who are experiencing domestic violence. I take the opportunity to encourage all employers to continue to support their employees who are victims of domestic abuse with empathy and flexibility. Once again, I refer to the existing guidance for employers on developing a workplace policy for domestic and sexual violence and abuse that was developed by the Department of Health and the Department of Justice.

In conclusion, the Bill is an important step in helping to tackle the wider societal problem of domestic abuse. I am pleased that we, as an Assembly, have been able to ensure that the Bill has had the opportunity to complete its progression into law as the mandate comes to a close. More importantly, I truly hope that the measures will make a real difference to those workers who are victims and survivors of domestic abuse. I look forward to supporting the Bill.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank every Member who spoke during the debate for their comments and support for the Bill. I will address the Minister's comments first. I thank him for being here, and I am glad that he is feeling better.

The Assembly cares, and we need to work constructively together to help. Domestic abuse is utterly abhorrent, and I welcome the Minister's firm support for the Bill. I thank the Minister and his officials for their constructive engagement so far. We need to help victims to stay in their employment. We need to support everybody to stay in employment.

I agree with the Minister's comments on employers who are offering support and resources. They are already doing that, which is very welcome. However, not all of them are doing it, and that is what the Bill is for. We have to get it right, but we are not starting from scratch. We only have to look across the water or down the road to the public and private sectors that already offer that type of leave.

I now turn to the comments of other Members. The Chair of the Economy Committee mentioned that safe leave should be available across this island. I agree; it should be available everywhere. Northern Ireland is set to become the only place in these islands to have such legislation, and I encourage others to adopt the same provisions or to go further. The Chair said that the Bill could be life-saving, and I agree. For whatever reason it is needed, that leave being available could be the deciding factor for someone leaving. Far too many people are affected by domestic abuse. It is a work and employment issue as well. There is no direct cost to employers from safe leave, and it is needed to deal with the issues related to abuse. We need to destigmatise abuse and tackle root causes, misogyny and toxic masculinity.

I agree with Mr Weir's comments. We should not need to have the protections in place. We should not have the scourge of abuse in our society, but the Bill provides a safety net that can be used when needed. One of the great fears of the "Stay at home" message was the problem of abuse and the lack of knowledge of what was going on. We do not know what is going on behind closed doors. Mr Weir also made the point about this being the end of the process. It certainly is not, and I know that the Minister and his Department would agree that it is only the beginning. There is much work to do.

A number of months ago, some people told me that there would not be time to pass the Bill, but it will pass. Mr O'Toole outlined that one of the reasons that we were able to pass the Bill in time was that it is a power-making Bill. The fact that it has the power to save lives also means that it needs to be dealt with urgently. We are offering an antidote to the idea that the Assembly cannot change things for the better. We are about delivering legislation.

I thank my Justice Committee colleague Jemma Dolan for her kind words and for her support for the Bill throughout its progression. I hope that this "progressive" Bill, as she described it, is an indication to victims that we are doing everything that we can and that abuse is not tolerated.

Mr O'Dowd, I am glad to have been part of your education today. There is a lot of repair work to do — you are right — but we need societal change alongside legislative change on equality. I am glad that he recognises that the purpose of the Bill is to formally recognise domestic abuse as a workplace issue, and I, too, appeal to everybody to re-form the Assembly post the election, because we have much more work to do. I am glad, though, that the Minister has committed to leaving a direction to his Department in relation to the legislation.

The Bill supports victims and survivors of domestic abuse by introducing a legal entitlement to paid time off work: a safe leave day-1 right for all workers. It will give them the space and time that they need to go to court, see a solicitor, move house, seek healthcare, including mental healthcare, obtain welfare support and support family members. Providing a statutory entitlement to safe leave will address the inequality between those who currently have access to it and those who do not. When it comes to people's lives, we cannot have a lottery based on how compassionate their employers are or how well developed a business's domestic abuse policy may be, if it has one.

Allowing for access to safe leave across the board will help to remove one of the biggest barriers — the financial one — preventing victims and survivors from seeking help and leaving an abusive relationship. The Bill enables them to stay in employment. It means that they can take time off to deal with issues related to the abuse and find a safe place to live without being penalised financially. We know that abusers deliberately target and control finances, which is why paid safe leave is so important. Yes, employers will cover the cost of safe leave, but they will also reap the benefits. We have to look at those two things together. All research and evidence elsewhere points to the cost of this leave being offset by savings, increased productivity and a reduction in the other types of leave taken.

The last few weeks in the Assembly have shown that, when it comes down to it, on some occasions, the House can work together when it matters. We can pass laws. We can do what we are here to do, and that is to legislate for the betterment of our society and everybody in Northern Ireland. We can listen to our communities and our constituents, and we can consider our friends' and families' experiences — or our own — of domestic abuse and make a change. The Bill is a response to those close to me who have been through this and who have been controlled and abused, suffered and had nowhere to go. We are in an incredibly privileged position sitting in the Chamber, and being a member of a Committee brings a scrutiny role with it. There are many responsibilities that come with being elected to this place, and we can help the people who elected us and those who did not. The Bill is a prime example of that, and, like many others that we have worked on, it is a progressive step for victims and survivors of abuse. Granted, it is one that we should not have to have in the first place, but it is one that is much needed.

We have so much more to do, not just in tackling the scourge of domestic abuse across our society, which the Bill will go only some way in addressing. It cannot stop the abuse, but it can be a lifeline to those who are trying to escape. On a much wider level, we need to tackle the fundamental structures of power and relationships that enable violence and abuse to happen and go unreported and unacknowledged. Only then can we challenge the cultural factors that are the root of violence against women and girls.

It is time to end the coercive control that criminal gangs have over our communities. Victim and survivors' voices must be heard and reflected in our laws and policies. Minority groups should not be sidelined or silenced. We need to educate from a very young age. We need to learn what a healthy relationship is and teach our children and young people what consent is and what abuse looks like: it can be emotional and psychological. We have to empower people and teach them that it is OK to say no, that there is support out there and that they will be believed and understood. We must build a society that is safe for everybody, where everyone is valued and where we have happy, healthy communities. That is our purpose going forward, and I hope that every single person here today can get on board with that.

I will say one final thank you, and it is to my researcher, who will not be named but is sitting upstairs listening to this. He knows who he is. The Bill should have his name on it as well as mine. He should be very proud, because I am.

Mr Deputy Speaker, in my final contribution in this mandate, I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved:

That the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill [NIA 41/17-22] do now pass.

[Applause.]

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Final Stage of the Domestic Abuse (Safe Leave) Bill has passed. The Bill now stands referred to the Speaker.

Members, please take your ease while we move to the next item of business.