Tuesday, 13 February 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
The task force on active citizenship has held seven plenary meetings since its appointment. The last meeting took place on 30 January 2007. In addition, the task force has set up five subgroups which meet on a regular basis and have consulted with organisations in different sectors.
The task force has also engaged in a major public consultation exercise. The written phase of the consultation process ran from July to October and more than 1,000 submissions were received. As part of this process, the task force hosted regional consultation seminars around the country. I was pleased to attend the first of these on 14 September.
The aim of these regional seminars was to explain the work of the task force and hear the views and ideas of individuals and groups on active citizenship in Ireland today. Over 300 people attended the meeting in Dublin. Subsequent seminars have been held in Monaghan, Sligo, Galway, Cork and Tullamore and all have been well attended.
The task force's work programme also included specific consultation exercises to get the views of young people and a national survey has been carried out by the ESRI. The National Forum on Europe organised a plenary session on the subject of active citizenship in mid-October. The chairperson and members of the task force have also been meeting a range of interested individuals and groups around the country.
I believe that the efforts of the task force have stimulated a wide-ranging debate on the issue of active citizenship and that this, in itself, is an important outcome. An independent report on the consultation process covering both the written phase and the work of the sub-groups has now been published and widely circulated. I understand the task force intends to finalise its report very shortly. I look forward to receiving its report with its conclusions and recommendations on active citizenship in Ireland, including the many issues raised during the consultation process.
I thank the Taoiseach for that information. Will he tell the House if he has any idea what "very shortly" means in respect of the final report? At the launch, he said that "there is a concern that we have become more materialistic, maybe even more selfish. And if we have, I believe many people would conclude that, for all our new wealth, we are much the poorer". I invite the Taoiseach to explain the thinking behind this statement to the House.
I hope the report will be finished by Easter. The task force has issued a very good document based on its travels throughout the country and, perhaps more importantly, on over 1,000 submissions. This has now gone into a format on the task force's website and also into wide circulation. In respect of the final draft, I presume it will depend on the type of feedback it gets. The task force is working to finish the report by Easter.
I said a number of things on the day of the launch. In respect of the particular comment mentioned by Deputy Rabbitte, I posed a question which is being explored by the task force. I acknowledged the amount of work that takes place in this country, where probably more people are involved in active citizenship than in most countries, although the numbers have declined according to surveys by the ESRI and others in recent years. In respect of the points I made on that and many other occasions, I do not think anyone can argue that Ireland has not changed greatly in the past 20 years.
Part of the reason the task force was established was to review the trends of civic participation and to ascertain whether the perception that many people have become more disengaged from our communities and neighbourhoods is true. This is the point made by many groups and organisations and if it is true, it is a question of why this exists. Obviously, there are more people at work, more people commuting and more people with young families who commute long distances. Is this the reason people have disengaged or are there other reasons? I was posing a question so that we can look at it and come forward with a report which examines what we can do if people have disengaged and are not connected with their localities or sports, cultural or historical clubs as they might have been in the 1950s when figures were high. These figures have declined since the 1950s and there has never been a bounce back period in the past 50 years.
I was particularly interested in the Taoiseach's remark that "for all our new wealth, we are much the poorer". I understand where he is coming from in making that statement. However, does he accept that the quality of the delivery of many of our public services is the reason people feel they are poorer in this new, more affluent society? For example, does he agree that if a person is caught driving to and from work for an hour and three quarters or he or she is caught on the M50 toll bridge, he or she will not be particularly minded to train the under nines in the evening? These bottlenecks and deficiencies in our infrastructure and in the delivery of our public services and so on are leading people to question their quality of life, despite the apparent affluence they see around them.
Quality of life has suffered and we have not taken time out to think about its impact on people who are under considerable stress commuting long distances to work and who are concerned about the minding of their children and so on. Are these not issues for Government rather than a task force? Does the Taoiseach envisage the task force will make specific recommendations that are likely to address these big issues, which are the causes of our society being poorer, notwithstanding our greater material wealth?
There are issues for everybody, including the Government. I do not accept services are poorer. When active citizenship was at its height, we had very few services. Class sizes in schools numbered over 50 in most parts of the country whereas now they are under 20. Parts of the country, mainly in Dublin and other cities, have bottlenecks but there are huge stretches of roads across the country. Traffic jams used to begin at the Phoenix Park when one was on the road to Galway but now one can be a long way clear of the city in an hour. That is not the issue. When active citizenship was at its height, central government put very little money into the community whereas €300 million a year is invested in various community activities now.
I agree with the Deputy that if a person spends an hour on the M50 coming and going, he or she will not want to do too much with the under nines until the weekend, but I expect the task force to come up with reports and recommendations. The important thing is to try to analyse the reasons. The figures are not as good in rural communities also, even though one must acknowledge the many people involved in active citizenship in such communities, but they do not have commuting problems or problems with large class sizes, by and large. The issue is broader than that. More people are involved in active citizenship in the "poorer", hard pressed areas than in areas where there are no difficulties.
People are busier. I was in the airport the other day and staff pointed out to me that the next busiest day of the year after Christmas Eve is next Friday and they were laughing when I did not cop on why. Then I was told it was the mid-term break and there are more flights out of Dublin Airport than normal, which is good. In some ways, they are the poor — I do not want to put a class on them — but I am glad they are doing that because I would not mind doing it myself.
The Deputy knows what I mean. An analysis is needed. However, it is a pity that every organisation must have a full-time person. It should not be like that. I recall that in one part of my constituency, when unemployment was high in the 1980s, we surveyed more than 400 unemployed adult males to mentor football teams but we could not get anyone to look after them. I agree analysis needs to be carried out. In a richer, more modern society where the pace is without doubt faster, there is a need to examine how we can encourage more people to become involved in active citizenship. It is not that we do not have many people already involved, but more are required. If everybody does a bit, it makes it easier. What tends to happen in the community is that a small number of people take on huge burdens We are very appreciative of their work. I accept it is for the Government to help. I hope the task force recommendations will lead to progress, as was the case with the White Paper on community activity a few years ago which led to the investment of large amounts of money into community activities and development in many areas. This gave rise to an improvement, although it may not have brought it to a level with which we are totally satisfied.
When we discussed this matter previously I did not get a clear reply from the Taoiseach to a question on the White Paper on supporting voluntary activity from 2000 and the Tipping the Balance report from 2002. I accept a great deal of work went into those documents. On foot of their publication, has the Taoiseach produced a written report on which recommendations represent Government policy and will be implemented?
I also previously asked the Taoiseach whether he has taken on board the fact that voluntary groups, which essentially depend on voluntary input, would benefit hugely from one person being paid to do administration. For the sake of a fairly modest investment, this would also help to prevent burnout among the one or two people in an organisation who have these necessary skills. Has this been taken into account as a factor responsible for killing off volunteerism? The Taoiseach stated he is putting resources into this area and I am concerned about the targeting of those resources.
The Taoiseach is familiar with Mr. Putnam and Bowling Alone from Inchydoney days. Will he indicate whether the relationship between commuting distance and community involvement has been taken into consideration by Government in any real sense, given the longer commuting distances which reflect the fact that most of Leinster is essentially a bedroom for Dublin city workers, and that there is very little community activity for this reason? Mr. Putnam pointed out——
Has the Taoiseach taken this point on board and how will he respond to it? For every extra 10% in commuting distance, Mr. Putnam posits a 10% reduction in community involvement. I appreciate the Taoiseach may not have first-hand experience of this issue given the €100,000 plus bill for flying from Baldonnel Airport to Dublin Airport——
——but can he relate to it from the interest he previously expressed in this topic? Is he in a position to state whether commuting distances will reduce with proper planning and thereby result in an improvement in community involvement?
In terms of the allocation of grants, I stated account should be taken of those involved in administration in the community and local development programmes. I have been told it is currently the practice, and will continue to be so, to take account of this factor in the allocation of administrative grants for charitable organisations and voluntary or community groups. FÁS does this fairly well but I accept Deputy Sargent referred to grant schemes. l asked that this should be the case when allocating administrative grants particularly for groups with a focus on disadvantage involved in volunteering and support and facilitating communities to try to pursue economic and social regeneration. I asked them to do that. It is relatively small.
The White Paper gave rise to many recommendations. Some €300 million is spent annually supporting communities through a number of programmes, including the dormant accounts programme, tackling economic and social disadvantage, tackling educational disadvantage and assisting those with disabilities. Some €60 million has been spent in those three categories to fund community organisations directly. The local development and social inclusion programme, which covers the 69 partnership groups tackling poverty and disadvantage, receives approximately €57 million for advice, training, job-seeking, start-up businesses, assisting the long-term unemployed, children at risk of dropping out of mainstream activities, ethnic communities and non-nationals training. I have met a number of these groups in the past few years. Some 500 voluntary community representatives are involved in this area, making inroads into the problems. They provide a good service.
The community services programme, formerly the social economy programme, receives over €50 million. It has been extended and co-ordinated, with more than 400 projects around the country. All of these 900 groups are in receipt of statutory aid, as are many people working in the projects. These include community child care services, services for the elderly, services for people with disabilities, rural transport for isolated communities, community halls facilities, rural tourism, community radio, recycling clubs, homework and breakfast clubs, services for Travellers and restoration projects for gardens, buildings and railways.
Some €43 million is spent on the rural social scheme, all of which came from the community support programme. Most of these had few resources until that programme started. The rural social scheme includes Leader programmes, some of which are run in conjunction with Údarás na Gaeltachta, which maintain and enhance ways, walks and roads. It also includes energy conservation, countryside enhancement, social care for the elderly, pre-school and after school care, environment maintenance groups and non-profit projects for cultural heritage areas.
Some €24 million is spent on the 180 community development projects that operate in disadvantaged housing estates in urban areas. This does not include Leader programmes, the national drugs strategy, the young person services fund and RAPID. All groups mentioned receive core funding from the State, involving thousands of people. This does not include resources from FÁS.
Regarding time, in my experience the busiest people are the best people to ask to do something. In the Deputies' areas, people are very active. They may spend a long time in their cars but they get involved. However, time is limited by the amount one spends travelling. That is obvious.
The best way to address it is to invest money in transport and improve it, as we are doing. We are spending billions of euro on improving that aspect. That is the fastest way of moving people. We are also trying to provide incentives for people to locate outside the city areas. All grant schemes have a bias in favour of people outside city areas.
I wish the leader of our party in the Dáil well. He has been ill recently and we in Sinn Féin wish him a speedy recovery. Will the task force address the need for a more democratic approach to running our schools, involving the parents and the community? Many parents feel cut off from the schools their children attend.
I want to know if the task force will examine this area, as one in which many would actively participate if given the opportunity. Surely facilitating a more central role for parents in the life of the school would be an excellent way to demonstrate active citizenship?
On behalf of the Government parties I wish the leader of Sinn Féin in the House, Deputy Ó Caoláin, a quick return to full health after his heart attack and operation last Friday. I hope he makes a full and speedy recovery.
The suggestion of involving schools and young people in active local community programmes is a good one. The more young people are involved in such programmes, the more parents are likely to be involved. Active citizenship has examined this area in great detail but I do not know what it will recommend. It has considered involving young people in building on the initiatives of many national organisations specifically concerned with young people.
Where do young people go when they go out? Does the Taoiseach agree that the seed of active citizenship is best sown among young people? Often, those between the ages of 12 and 16 have nowhere safe to go and are unfortunately more comfortable at home watching television instead of going out to socialise and form groups and clubs or getting involved in activities such as active citizenship envisages.
It does not require a report to show that there has been significant investment in sporting and community facilities around the country in recent years. In towns and villages and other urban areas people work to share these facilities, by bringing committees together. Parents of people in the age group Deputy Stanton mentioned are concerned to keep them away from the drink and drug culture. There are many good organisations to help these people such as Eddie Kerr's organisation, the no-drink and no-name clubs which do a wonderful job in providing hops and discos for young people. This is not possible everywhere and the involvement of alcohol or drugs ruins these activities.
Earlier today I attended the launch of some of these programmes and I have heard and seen submissions stating that as long as they can confine themselves to simple youth activities there is no problem in scouting organisations, GAA, soccer, rugby or athletic clubs. When programmes aim at youth alone, not in association with a club, there is a difficulty. The point these people make is that the organisations should work together to use the infrastructure to the best of their ability so that people from various clubs and organisations can get out. Most people say it is very hard to keep drink and drugs out of youth clubs. The many submissions to the task force from up and down the country make this point.
A few months ago Fine Gael tabled a good samaritans Bill to afford a defence to volunteers against a damages claim. The Government unfortunately rejected the Bill due to a deliberate misinterpretation by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Will the Taoiseach ask the task force to consider recommending that the Government table a good samaritans Bill to assist volunteers? Several hundred volunteers in Wicklow and Kildare are involved with a community first responders scheme. Such legislation would provide these people, who are concerned with carrying out voluntary work, with protection.
The volunteers to whom I refer received support from the ambulance service in the former Eastern Regional Health Authority area. Such support from professionals was vital. In the past month or two, however, the support to which I refer has been withdrawn, for reasons I cannot fathom. Will the Taoiseach use his good offices to see if it can be re-established? The several hundred people in question have provided valuable assistance for nothing.
I am not familiar with the scheme but I will ask someone to investigate the position. I am aware that a facility exists in respect of the Civil Defence, the FCA, the St. John Ambulance Brigade, the Order of Malta and other organisations. I do not know why the group to which the Deputy refers has not been extended this facility.
On the previous occasion we discussed this matter, it was in reference to important legislation for the voluntary sector, namely, the charities Bill. At the time, the Taoiseach stated the Bill was an absolute priority and that he hoped it would be before the House early this year. Many voluntary groups will be interested to know if that remains the case, particularly as it is now February.
The charities Bill has proven to be extremely complex from a legal point of view and there are an enormous number of vested interests involved. The Bill, on which a member of staff of the Parliamentary Counsel's office has been working on a full-time basis for a year, is almost ready. It is a priority and will be published. There has not been a great deal of charity in its preparation.