Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 20 February 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board: Discussion with Chairperson Designate
The new Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board is about to have its first chairperson appointed, by agreement of the Cabinet, and this committee has been asked to meet the nominee. I welcome Ms Sylda Langford to our meeting to discuss the approach she will take in her new role and to hear her views on the challenges facing the board. This discussion is part of the new arrangement by the Government to provide for committees to talk to new chairpersons designate. Also in attendance is Ms Mary McGarry, principal officer of the residential institutions redress unit.
Ms Sylda Langford:
I thank the Chairman of the joint committee, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, for the invitation to attend this meeting.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to address the committee in my capacity as chairperson designate of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board. As I only became aware of this appointment to this unremunerated position over a week ago, I am still in the initial stages of reflection as to the challenges presented by the appointment and how best to give leadership in this position. I will speak briefly on three main points. These are: my background and experience in social services; my vision for the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund over the next four years; and my role as chairperson of the board.
With regard to my background and experience in social services, I retired just over three years ago, having spent most of my work life in the public service and the Civil Service. I have a professional background in social policy and social work, having graduated from University College Cork and the London School of Economics. Prior to retirement, I was the director general of the Office of the Minister for Children in the Department of Health and Children. Previously, I was an assistant secretary in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform for nine years and prior to that had worked in the Department of Social Welfare, the Office of the Ombudsman, the Eastern Health Board and the National Social Service Council, now called the Citizens Information Board.
My work experience has included policy development, legislative work, programme development and implementation, investigative work and front-line service delivery across a range of social services. I trained as a counsellor with Relate counselling service, where I was a volunteer counsellor for many years. I also worked as a volunteer counsellor with Parents Under Stress, now called Parentline, for some years.
During my years as a social worker with the Eastern Health Board, I was mainly involved in child protection work. I am therefore fully aware of the damage done to human beings when things go wrong for them in their childhood and the challenges posed for many of them in making their way through life. As director general of the Office of the Minister for Children, I was present at many of the meetings between the Government and the survivors of residential institutions following the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, commonly known as the Ryan report, on 20 May 2009. The suffering and loss articulated at those meetings was palpable and painful.
The Government, in accepting the full list of recommendations in the Ryan report, took the decision to draft an implementation plan with the expressed aim of responding to each of the 20 individual recommendations. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs was asked by the Taoiseach to prepare this implementation plan. As director general of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the work on the preparation of the implementation plan came within my area of responsibility. The implementation plan was published in July 2009 and the establishment of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board flows from this implementation plan. The experience of working on this plan has given me an insight into the challenges facing the new board to fund effectively the provision of servicesto the former residents of institutions.
My vision for the board is that the board members and staff will work together to deliver on what is required under the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act 2012 in a considered, timely and effective manner. As four of the nine board members will be people who were resident in institutions, the board and staff will have available to them insight and advice which will be of valued assistance.
Under the Act, the board has two key functions, the first of which is to make arrangements for the provision of approved services to support the needs of former residents, including mental health, counselling and psychological support services, health and personal social services, education services and housing support services, including adaptations or improvements of real property but not including financial aid for the purchase, mortgage or charge of real property. The second key function of the board is to pay a grant to former residents in order that they may avail of an approved service. The board will be required to do its work in a manner that promotes the principles of equity, consistency and transparency. In addition to its two key functions, the board must also make information available, promote understanding of the effects of abuse on former residents among those involved in the provision of approved services and publicly available services to former residents, carry out evaluations of the effectiveness of services and determine appropriate criteria.
In order to achieve its vision, the board will employ a CEO, for whom a recruitment process is under way, and three employees of the Education Finance Board, which is being dissolved, with the transfer of property, rights and liabilities to the new board. Decisions on individual applications to the board will be made by, or on behalf of, the CEO. The legislation also provides for the appointment by the Minister of an independent appeals officer.
Since my retirement, I have been appointed chairperson of the Citizens Information Board, known as the CIB, a member of the board of the children's detention school in Oberstown, where I chair the child protection sub-committee, and an adjunct professor in the school of applied social sciences in UCD. Through these appointments I have gained experience in providing leadership outside of formal employment roles. I have also acquired insights into the importance of good corporate governance in terms of direction, control and leadership of an organisation. Since the Residential Institutions Statutory Board is a new entity, the first challenge will be to ensure the necessary corporate infrastructure is put in place to ensure an effective and accountable service for the former residents of institutions.
As it is just over a week since I was invited to act as chairperson, in the coming weeks I have to read further into this role and to acquaint myself fully with the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act, 2012. I intend to fulfil my responsibilities as chairperson by working closely with the CEO and staff, and relying on the expertise, judgment and support of the other eight members of the board and the support and assistance of our sponsoring Department, the Department of Education and Skills.
I thank members for their attention. I look forward to the challenge presented to me by this appointment and I sincerely hope and trust that the former residents will truly benefit from the implementation of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund.
I thank the Chairman and join her in welcoming Ms Langford and her colleague, Ms McGarry here today. I thank Ms Langford for agreeing to take on this role. Even as a relatively new Deputy, I am aware of Ms Langford's work in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and her record there was exemplary. She was central to the introduction and execution of the free preschool year. I also applaud her work since then, particularly her chairmanship of the CIB and her willingness to take on this new role, which will take up a significant amount of her time. The fact that the position is non-remunerated is a reflection of the public service ethic of Ms Langford. I have no doubt that her vast experience within the Civil Service will serve her and the State well in her role as chairperson of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund. I wish her well and thank her on behalf of the Oireachtas for her commitment and public service. I wish Ms Langford and the board well in their work, which is very important and very appropriate, given the failures of our State vis-à-vis the people this fund is designed to help.
I also wish Ms Langford the best in her new role. It is clear from her opening statement that she brings much valuable experience to the table, particularly in terms of her role in the preparation of the implementation plan and her role within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This will be a challenging time for the board because its work carries an enormous amount of responsibility. Apart from the two key functions mentioned by Ms Langford, some of the responsibilities she referred to, for example, making information available, will be critical. Carrying out evaluations of the effectiveness of the services will also be a critical element of the board's work, as will determining the criteria. There are huge challenges ahead for Ms Langford but it is quite clear that in her role as chairperson, she will make the work of the board easier. The fact that Ms Langford has experience with people who have gone through terrible pain and awful suffering will give the board an invaluable insight. Her final sentence really sums up what we all hope the board will achieve, namely, to ensure former residents will truly benefit from the implementation of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund. That is what everyone must work towards and I wish Ms Langford the very best. If there is anything we can do as a committee to help her achieve that, our door is open.
I reiterate the comments of my colleagues and I welcome the delegation. I congratulate Ms Langford on her role. She is rather calm for someone who got word of her position only one week ago. I have no doubt about her capabilities or about the impressive wealth of knowledge and experience she brings to the job. Her reputation in this area speaks for itself. It is a challenging and difficult role but I have no doubt she will fulfil it glowingly. Our door is open and if we can help in any way, we would certainly welcome the opportunity to do so.
Ms Sylda Langford:
At the moment, as I understand it, they have shortlisted the applications and the first interviews will take place possibly next week. If they need a second interview, it will follow quickly. Under the Acts the Minister can appoint the chief executive designate and, as a result, once the interviews are over, the person can be appointed before the board is established. The quicker we get the chief executive, the better we can get started. The committee will be aware that the Education Finance Board will cease to exist from the end of March and we must take over the existing responsibilities and liabilities. Therefore, the board must be set up before the end of March anyway. There are three staff associated with the board and they will move over to the new board.
One challenge for us is that under the legislation all the costs for running the board and the service must come from the fund. One of my aims is to run a lean and mean system in order that whatever funds we have are used on services. Since the residents have an entitlement to whatever services everyone else gets, we need to ensure that what the money is spent on does not substitute what they are entitled to anyway.
As part of the communication process, we need to establish liaison officers in all the State services. I expect we will need an advisory committee made up of people who work in State services in order that they can advise on the services available and any shortcomings in the current service. I have had only one week to think about it but we will need to work out criteria for the services and we must make certain decisions. Let us suppose there is a two year waiting list for something. Part of the fund might go to enable the residents to get access. Some 80% of people with an entitlement are over 50 years of age and we must ensure they get the services as quickly as possible.
Ms Sylda Langford:
My understanding is the staff costs will come from the fund as well. Information campaigns and advertising can be expensive, as the committee is aware. My thinking has been that we should be using embassies throughout the world and try to piggyback on whatever we can in order that our money brings added value rather than reinventing the wheel each time.
I understand eligibility for the new fund will be confined to those who have received payment under the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Is advertising necessary? Is there no means of communication available to contact those who have already received payments? Is it not possible to communicate directly with them as opposed to advertising?
Ms Sylda Langford:
Under the legislation the redress board is allowed to give us the name and address and the fact that someone got an award. We cannot use that information to contact anyone. I understand the reason for this is that many people may be married or have families and may never have told their families that they had been in an institution or that they had received an award.
We can act on the information that comes from the Education Finance Board. If residents have received services from the Education Finance Board, we can act on that. We are allowed to use information from the redress board to establish eligibility, but not for any other reason. That is why getting information is so important because we cannot write to someone and state that we understand she was in an institution.
Surely it is possible to amend that. I am unsure the of reasons because I was not involved in the initial legislation. Deputy McConalogue and I have only recently come into this role. Was there some reason why that was not allowable or included under the legislation? It may be an unfair question for Ms Langford because she has only been appointed recently.
Ms Sylda Langford:
The legal advice from the Department is that we cannot do so, but we can liaise with the redress board and the board can help us in any way it sees fit. There is a legal line that we must be extremely careful about. I worked in adoption at one stage and the same issue arises. It is always a difficult situation if someone is trying to trace a relative and that person turns up out of the blue at another person's door. If a person has not told anyone about their past, it can be very difficult to have something come out of the past and hit them. We have to manage our business very carefully.
Ms Sylda Langford:
Absolutely. We must have a commonsensical approach and ensure we comply with the legislation. My aim is that for the people who have already got redress, this is about getting additional services. We need to get to them as quickly and efficiently as we can and we need to get good services for them as quickly as possible as well. We are also obliged to evaluate the effectiveness of the work.
I do not think Ms Langford covered the remainder of the board in her remarks. Have the other members of the board been appointed yet? I understand there will be eight in total. Is Ms Langford the first appointment? When do we expect the Minister to appoint the others? When will the first board meeting take place?
Ms Sylda Langford:
I understand the Minister is considering making the appointments and that it is also possible that some people have been spoken to. Four must be former residents and four must be people other than former residents. I expect that in the coming weeks the other members of the board will be appointed.
I wish you well in your new posts and I commend you on your commitment to public service and to this role. Is it agreed that the committee inform the Minister for Education and Skills that we have concluded our discussion with Ms Langford and that we will forward a copy of the transcript of the meeting to the Minister for information? Agreed.