Thursday, 20 October 2005
My motion also concerns crime, but it relates to how victims of crime are treated, and the need to continue the services provided by Victim Support in the Cork and Munster region. Financial support for the Victim Support organisation ceased on 31 March this year. I am aware of the reasons that happened and I do not wish to get into the merits of that debate. I hope the Minister of State's response does not waste too much time with it.
A commission was established and allocated a budget to make recommendations on how we should support victims of crime and what structures are necessary to do so. I do not have a difficulty with that approach. The problem is that Victim Support offices in Munster continue to function without State assistance. They continue to receive referrals and survive on volunteer work and private donations because no other structure is in place.
The main Victim Support office in the Munster region happens to be 50 yards from my constituency office in Cork, appropriately across the road from the Garda station on Anglesea Street and next door to the district courthouse. That office is busier than ever and last month alone approximately 40 referrals were made from doctors, the Garda and the Courts Service. It also deals with a large number of self-referrals.
The status quo is not sustainable. The service is running out of funds and private donations pay the rent. My concern does not lie with the retention of the name or reputation of Victim Support but with the service itself and the good people involved who provide a vital service. The commission is probably considering two options. One is to restore the Victim Support organisation nationally, perhaps with new management. The second is to develop regional structures, perhaps under a new name and with a new board of management.
The Minister must take an interest in this because if the situation continues and decisions are not made in the near future, the expertise and voluntary staff will be lost. This valuable resource for the victims of crime is being allowed to die a slow death while we wait for commission recommendations. We cannot allow these volunteers to dissipate because if they do, they will start to work in other sectors and they will not return. Approximately 110 volunteers work in the Munster region, and 80 of them are described as high quality and can ill afford to be lost. The organisation has ten branches throughout Cork city and county, Kerry and Limerick.
I know how vital the work done by the organisation is to the Garda, the doctors who make referrals and the courts because I work next door to its office. The Minister of State may well reply that it is the responsibility of the commission to find an answer and provide the resources. The fact remains that it is the responsibility of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform to ensure that victims of crime are looked after and that we have proper well-funded structures to do that. However, the system is in danger of falling apart. I hope for a comprehensive response from the Minister of State that will give an optimistic outlook on what is likely to happen during the coming weeks.
Victim Support is an independent voluntary registered charity and is a company limited by guarantee. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform does not have a seat on the board and has had no role regarding the appointment of the board or staff of Victim Support. The Department had been de facto the main funder of Victim Support, particularly in recent years, although not its only source of income. A total of €5.5 million was made available during the last five years.
In recent years, particularly since mid-2003, tensions in the organisation gave rise to grave concerns on issues of governance, accountability for public funds, value for money and, most particularly, the delivery of services to victims of crime. A number of meetings took place with the various configurations of its board during 2003, 2004 and early 2005 with a view to developing the basis for a recovery of the organisation's service levels and stabilising governance.
In December 2004, with the co-operation of the Victim Support interim board, staff and volunteers, the Department commissioned an independent review of the state of play within the organisation and of the prospect, if any, of organisation recovery. The review report, delivered in February 2005, while praising the commitment and dedication of many of the volunteers locally, concluded that the organisation was terminally damaged and that there was little or no prospect of recovery. After careful consideration, the Minister decided that further funding of the Victim Support organisation could not be justified. Arising from the prospect of Victim Support's ongoing inability to deliver services to victims of crime, the evolution of thinking as regards victim provision generally and in light of the requirements of the EU framework decision on the standing of victims in criminal proceedings, the Minister concluded that the model of funding through the Victim Support organisation was no longer viable.
In that context, on 8 March 2005, the Minister, with the approval of the Government, established a new Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime to devise an appropriate support framework for the future and to disburse funding for victim support measures. The commission's term of office is for three years and its members are Mr. Jim McHugh, retired assistant commissioner of the Garda Síochána, chairman, Ms Nora Owen, former Minister for Justice, Mr. Seán Lowry, former head of the probation and welfare service, Mr. Michael Whelan, Gemini Consulting and Ms Marian Finucane, broadcaster.
The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform provides administrative support for the commission. Its remit includes the examination of all aspects of the provision of services for victims of crime within the criminal justice system. These provisions are currently set out in the Victims' Charter, last updated in 1999.
In addition, the commission will supervise the disbursement of funds to community and other voluntary groups providing victim services, with a particular emphasis on the funding of activities on the ground that provide direct supports for victims of crime. The commission received over 60 applications for funding in response to a public advertisement earlier in the year. It is entirely independent in its decision making and will examine each application on its merits. It has approved ten projects for funding so far this year and a number of others are under consideration.
The commission received separate applications for funding from a number of former elements of Victim Support as well as from that organisation itself, including some of the specialist services, individual branches and a larger grouping of branches that have formed a new organisation, the Federation for Victim Assistance. One of the applications came from the Mayfield branch of Victim Support.
As I have said, the commission is entirely independent in its decision making and will examine each application on its merits. At the same time, it must satisfy itself as regards the accountability of any entity making application to it and that service delivery can be assured on an ongoing basis. The commission is now providing funding support to a number of specialist services, formerly part of Victim Support, that made independent submissions for funding. These services are — or will be — provided on a national basis.
The commission had meetings with the interim board of Victim Support and with officers of the new Federation for Victim Assistance in the last few days in the context of examining their applications for funding. Among the issues discussed with both groups were governance and structures, arrangements for the delivery of services on the ground, the prospects for co-operation with other groups providing victim services and plans for future development.
A particular difficulty arises, however, in services in the Cork and Munster region. Some of the branches have been included in the Victim Support application and one is included in the Federation for Victim Assistance application. In recent days, a new application has been received from a grouping of ten branches in Cork and greater Munster which are already included in the Victim Support application but which now want to be considered separately for funding. The House will appreciate that it is difficult for the commission to be confident about governance, accountability and in particular the capacity of these groups to deliver a quality service to victims in the light of the obvious uncertainties and apparently changing allegiances of the various branches. At the same time, it is anxious to ensure that services to victims of crime are available as widely as possible, and considers that building on the undoubtedly excellent work of the volunteers at ground level is the best way to achieve this objective for the future.
We must not lose sight of the core issue, and that, of course, is the delivery of services to persons in our communities who have fallen victim to a crime. In that respect, the Minister is determined to ensure that a quality service to the victims of crime is put in place in Cork, in Munster and in all other areas of the country. The commission will reflect carefully on all the information available to it in coming to its decision on all of these applications.