Executive Ministers criticised for poor attendance at domestic and sexual violence group

Over 700 families in Northern Ireland are rehoused annually due to domestic violence

Over 700 families in Northern Ireland are rehoused annually due to domestic violence

By Kathryn Torney

THE statistics are horrifying.

Over 700 families have to be re-housed in Northern Ireland every year as a result of domestic violence. Six people are killed. At least 11,000 children live with domestic violence on a daily basis and the PSNI deals with more than 100 domestic violence assaults on women and men every week.

In 2011/12 there were 10,387 crimes recorded with domestic abuse motivation. Women’s Aid claims that at least one in every four women experience domestic violence in their lifetime but that less than half of all incidents are reported to the police.

Last September, The Detail reported on one woman’s terrifying experience of a relationship with a violent boyfriend and how she found justice through the courts. Abigail Lyle is just one of many women in Northern Ireland to suffer at the hands of an abusive partner.

In December 2007 agreement was reached in the Northern Ireland Assembly to set up an inter-ministerial group (IMG) to address domestic violence. Eight Ministers from relevant government departments would meet twice a year to discuss agreed targets and milestones and the group would be chaired by Health Minister Michael McGimpsey.

Speaking after the first meeting in May 2008, Mr McGimpsey said: “I want this inter-ministerial group to ensure that domestic and sexual violence is given the priority it deserves, to focus on what needs to be done, and for Ministers to use their influence to ensure that the joined up approach actually delivers change.”

This was to be the only meeting attending by a Health Minister.

The Detail has investigated ministerial attendance at the inter-ministerial group’s meetings and we are publishing our story today as the Assembly closes its doors for the summer recess.

We requested documentation and correspondence relating to the group held by the Department of Health. The papers released to us provide evidence of a very disappointing attendance record.

We shared our findings with Marie Brown from Foyle Women’s Aid. She said a two year gap between meeting was “totally unacceptable” and she added: “They clearly don’t think that this issue is important enough for them to make the working of this body effective.”

EMPTY SEATS

More than four years on the IMG has met only four times – May 21st 2008, September 30th 2009, June 29th 2010 and May 24th 2012. There was a gap of almost two years between the last two meetings.

Ministerial attendance has been extremely poor with just two ministers out of a possible nine attending the last sitting of the group in May of this year. Department officials attended in place of the ministers who were absent.

Two of the members – the Finance Minister and Minister of State – have yet to attend a meeting.

A joint press statement was issued after the September 2009 meeting by Michael McGimpsey and Minister of State Paul Goggins – despite neither of the two men attending the meeting. They announced the publication of the latest annual action plans developed to tackle domestic and sexual violence and abuse in Northern Ireland.

Extract from minutes of the first meeting

Extract from minutes of the first meeting

Up to eight Ministers could have attended the first two meetings and this was extended to nine for the last two meetings after the Department of Justice was established in Northern Ireland in 2010. Justice Minister David Ford has attended both meetings which have taken place since then.

The other Ministers who join Minister Ford to make up the group’s current membership are Minister of State Owen Paterson, Health Minister Edwin Poots, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson, Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland, Education Minister John O’Dowd, Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry and the two OFMDFM Junior Ministers Martina Anderson (SF) and Jonathan Bell (DUP).

Many of the post holders have changed since 2007.

Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane attended only one meeting in her position as Education Minister but even then she arrived late and left early. Her ministerial replacement John O’Dowd has attended no meetings since he took over the education portfolio.

The strongest overall attendance record for original members of the group came from the Sinn Fein Junior Ministers in OFMDFM (Gerry Kelly and Martina Anderson). Between them, they attended three of the four meetings.

No Minister attended all four.

Martina Anderson and David Ford were the only ministers to attend the last meeting and documentation obtained by The Detail shows that both planned to raise the issue of low attendance at the Executive meeting on May 31st.

DHSSPSNI correspondence states that Minister Anderson commented at the meeting that she was “not pleased” that only two Ministers were in attendance. She added that it was very important that every effort is made to ensure better ministerial attendance at the IMG.

Graphic: Chris Scott

Graphic: Chris Scott

OUR FREEDOM OF INFORMATION REQUEST

In response to a written Assembly question from Robin Swann (UUP MLA for North Antrim) earlier this year, Minister Poots admitted that the IMG had not met in the last 12 months. He added that any issues requiring ministerial involvement between meetings were dealt with through written correspondence.

Between June 2010 and May 2012, the Minister said that two issues had been dealt with by written correspondence – the endorsement of two action plans.

Under Freedom of Information, we requested all documentation held by the Department of Health relating to the IMG group on domestic and sexual violence, including briefing papers, letters, emails and reports. We also asked for any written correspondence between ministers and minutes of the meetings which have taken place.

The Department of Health released the information we requested – except for the minutes of the last meeting which will not be issued until they are ratified at the next IMG meeting in November 2012.

The detailed response from the department runs to over 600 pages. The documentation includes ministerial briefing papers, email correspondence, letters written to Ministers, published reports and ministerial action plans. Extracts can be viewed by clicking here.

The early correspondence in 2007 relating to the establishment of the group shows that Finance Minister and First Minister Peter Robinson initially expressed a wish not to be involved with the group claiming his department was not directly involved with the issue.

This was later described as “an administrative mistake” after it was pointed out that the Department of Finance and Personnel is responsible for civil law reform.

However, former Finance Minister Mr Robinson and current post holder Sammy Wilson have not attended any of the meetings.

Michael McGimpsey was forced to backtrack on early attempts to bar the two Junior Ministers from the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM) from membership of the group.

Early documents show that the Health Minister was “resisting their demands” to be included as he wanted only to include ministers he thought could deliver on objectives set out in the action plan. He said extending the group could lead to “administrative difficulties”.

However, a note written to Michael McGimpsey in May 2008 from the director of mental health and disability policy at DHSSPSNI says that the Health Minister presented a paper to the Executive meeting on December 18 2007 containing proposals for the IMG and his suggested membership. Following discussion, the Executive agreed to the proposals with the proviso that he expanded the group to include the junior ministers.

A request from former Agriculture Minister Michelle Gildernew for her to join the group because of her concerns about victims in rural communities was refused.

A briefing note was prepared for Mr Poots by Department of Health officials after the fourth meeting, which he did not attend.

In the ‘lines to take’ section of the document he is advised to say he fully agrees that the issues around domestic and sexual violence are hugely important and high on his agenda and that he was very disappointed at not being present at the meeting on May 24 when he had to attend an international conference.

He is also advised to say: “This does not in any way signal less interest in this issue on my part. I very much hope to chair the next meeting….and would exort all relevant ministers to have this date in their diaries and accord it priority.”

“A LACK OF COMMITMENT TO SUCH A SERIOUS ISSUE

Women’s Aid is the key national charity working to end domestic violence against women and children.

We spoke to Marie Brown from Foyle Women’s Aid about our findings.

She said: "If the poor attendance record of government minsters at the NI Assembly’s Inter-Ministerial Group on Domestic and Sexual Violence is the case, then it demonstrates the low priority that Ministers give to victims of domestic and sexual violence.

“They clearly don’t think that this issue is important enough for them to make the working of this body effective.

“A two year gap between meetings is totally unacceptable and highlights the futility of this particular inter-ministerial group.”

Ms Brown said it was “disappointing” for agencies working with victims on the ground that Ministers are showing “such a lack of committment to such a serious issue”.

She continued: "This record would be lamentable at any time but is brought into sharp focus this week when a man is sentenced for the domestic violence murder of yet another woman in Northern Ireland.

“The poor record of this inter-ministerial group is not reflective of all the hard work that is being done on the ground by voluntary groups and other agencies to support victims of, and tackle root causes of, domestic and sexual violence.

“It is up to the public to ask politicians why they give such low priority to an issue that affects one in four women, men and thousands of children across Northern Ireland.”

Health Minister Edwin Poots chairs the domestic violence group

Health Minister Edwin Poots chairs the domestic violence group

THE HEALTH MINISTER’S VIEW

We requested a comment on the group’s attendance from Mr Poots.

The Minister said: "The issues around Domestic and Sexual Violence are hugely important and they are high on my agenda.

“I intend to ensure that Government remains absolutely committed to addressing the needs of all victims of domestic and sexual violence and abuse through full and effective implementation of the ‘Tackling Violence at Home’ and ‘Tackling Sexual Violence and Abuse’ Strategies."

A Department of Health spokeswoman addressed other questions we posed including whether the Minister was concerned about attendance at the inter-ministerial group, whether the issue was important for the Executive and also what the group had actually achieved since 2007.

The spokeswoman said: “When a Minister is unable to be present at a scheduled inter-ministerial group meeting, a departmental official is in attendance to represent the Minister. This ensures that the Minister is kept fully informed of developments and any emerging issues to be taken forward.

“Domestic and sexual violence are important issues for the Executive. Although DHSSPS and DoJ are joint leads on this work, because of the nature and complexity of domestic and sexual violence issues, the co-operation and commitment of a range of departments and agencies is required in order to make real progress.

“Since the establishment of the Inter-Ministerial Group, several action plans have been developed and a number of initiatives within those actions plans have been successfully realised.”

• Women’s Aid’s Domestic Violence Helpline can be contacted 24 hours a day on 0800 917 1414.