Wednesday, 12 December 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
Programme for Government.
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the proposed work programme for 2008 of the task force on active citizenship; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31358/07]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the civic life commitments in the programme for Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [32327/07]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
In the civic life section of the programme for Government my Department has direct responsibility for the active citizenship and volunteering section. While, as Head of Government, I have an oversight role in respect of all aspects of the programme for Government, I do not have direct responsibility for the implementation of the other areas set out. Individual Departments have primary responsibility for these areas.
As we have set out in the programme for Government, Ireland has a deep tradition of active engagement by its citizens in every aspect of our national life and culture. It is through the commitment and initiative of individuals and communities that so often social services and community leadership have been provided, as well as a sporting and cultural life for our people. The Government has set out ambitious, yet realistic goals to ensure this is safeguarded and strengthened in the years ahead. To ensure this active involvement continues, the Government has committed to acting on the recommendations of the task force on active citizenship which reported last spring. They include introducing a national active citizenship theme culminating in a national active citizenship week, introducing national presidential citizen awards to recognise outstanding contributions made by individuals to Irish society, ensuring local authorities prioritise the provision of community and recreational facilities as part of their development plans, undertaking an audit of existing community facilities to identify gaps and opportunities for improved use of existing facilities, identifying how better use can be made of schools in the evening and at weekends to act as community hubs and introducing a formal citizenship ceremony. We will also examine ways of strengthening further the relationship between the Government and community and voluntary organisations and developing a system of academic accreditation in recognition of volunteering skills.
All Deputies will agree that politicians, with others active within their own communities, can play a valuable role to safeguard and promote a continued sense of community and greater civic participation by citizens in every aspect of our national life and culture. An active citizenship office has been established in my Department and is developing an implementation plan in consultation with relevant stakeholders. The relevant Departments have examined the implications of the task force's recommendations and have identified how their existing strategies and programmes take account of the task force's recommendations. These are being considered by the office.
I am pleased to say Ms Mary Davis has agreed to chair the steering group for the office and I am confident she will guide the work as effectively as she did the task force. I intend to appoint additional members to the steering group from the public and private sectors to cover the variety of activities spanned by the task force's recommendations. The programme for Government gives a new impetus for developing strategies to ensure our communities are made more vibrant. I look forward to progressing this agenda in the period ahead.
One of the promises made in the civic life section of the programme for Government is to reform the Dáil. As the Government has decided to go ahead with the pay rises for Ministers, albeit deferred for one year, will the Taoiseach use the opportunity to increase productivity? For example, will he revert to the practice, as he did prior to the previous Dáil, where he answered questions on a Thursday? Will he also get his Ministers to answer questions more often than every five or six weeks?
The programme for Government includes a commitment to set up an independent electoral commission. When will the commission be set up and will it review electoral boundaries before local elections are held in 2009? When will work on the new rolling national electoral register, also included in the programme for Government, start?
The electoral commission for local elections and the register are matters for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to whom a question should be tabled. One of the task force's recommendations was that an electoral commission be set up. That matter is being examined within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is the Government's intention, as Deputy Ferris will be aware, to bring the Oireachtas Commission, the constituency review groups and other related aspects together in one organisation. Obviously, the work required will be done in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We hope to bring forward the results as soon as we can.
I want to pursue further the question raised by Deputy Ferris on the proposal to establish an independent electoral commission. This was the subject of a specific commitment in the programme for Government, that an independent electoral commission would be established to oversee the way in which we conducted elections and to assume some of the functions of the Standards in Public Office Commission. I have two questions. First, when is it intended to establish the independent electoral commission? Second, does the Government have any plans to change the membership of the Standards in Public Office Commission and, if so, will the Taoiseach outline them to the House?
It is intended to fulfil the Government's commitment to establish an electoral commission. Deputy Gilmore should table a question to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who is handling the matter. There will be an electoral Bill next year.
The period of office of some members of the Standards in Public Office Commission has come to an end and the Minister for Finance will bring forward proposals on the new membership.
The task force set out two fundamental issues about voting, the first of which concerned the need to reach by the end of the current decade a voter turnout level of at least 60% among young people aged between 18 and 24 years, as, obviously, there is a problem. The Ceann Comhairle has an interest in this issue in disseminating information on politics in a non-party political way. It is important for young people to take an interest in politics and when I speak to them, I advise them that they should support some party. Whichever party they prefer to support is their choice. They are well able to make up their own minds. It is important that young people are involved in and exposed to the political dimensions of parties and Independents so they can make up their minds. What are the Taoiseach's views as to how to give the coming generation of 18 to 24 year olds who will decide the next general election, who are now in second year or approaching junior certificate, an idea and understanding of the political process so they can make up their minds? Has he a set strategy? If so, it should apply across the board.
A recommendation has been made to increase the level of voter participation from a CSO figure of 75.5% to at least 80% in all future general elections. This is a high target. It is difficult to get people out due to long distances and the closure of some polling stations for efficiency reasons. I suppose it is political excitement that generates passions in people and encourages them to go and vote for a political party or person.
We spoke previously about the issue of election day. There appears to be a body of opinion that considers weekends favourable. The Taoiseach has made the point that in his constituency Friday or weekend voting would be disastrous. Sundays used to be taboo, but not any longer. Does the Taoiseach have a particular view in this regard? Although the calling of the most recent general election was not unexpected, it came as a bit of a shock when the Taoiseach went to the Phoenix Park bright and early on a Sunday morning. Perhaps, instead of calling elections on a Sunday, he may decide to hold elections on a Sunday. What is his view on that?
It is in the interest of democracy, regardless of what side we serve, to get people active and involved. Whatever way they vote, we get satisfaction from seeing a higher turnout, particularly in national elections. It is part of good citizenship and community activity and is one of the recommendations of the report. The report was the result of significant work, including a roadshow that travelled the country talking to community and residents' groups, teaching groups, boards of management and scouting groups etc. A small part of the resulting recommendations was to increase the number of people active in communities by 60,000 per year. The report has a loose definition of "active in community". I might argue that it is not "active" because in the report "active" means attending meetings or pressure groups. However, I accept its definition. The aim is to increase the number of adults engaged in at least one form of civic activity by 60,000 each year.
The report sets a target that by the end of the decade there should be at least a 60% turnout of 18 to 24 year olds. The big issue in that regard is registration. The challenge for the future is to ensure we improve our electoral registers throughout the country. We know it is more difficult to achieve accuracy in commercial, private "flatland" and in apartment blocks. Not to mind the fact persons compiling the register for these areas must be good officials, politicians must be good canvassers to get into apartment land. That is a challenge I am glad to say was not there when I was younger.
It is also a challenge to increase the level of participation in general elections from 75.5% to 80%. We must increase the proportion of adults who say they agree with the statement that they can influence decisions affecting their local areas. The report suggests ways to do that. We can do our bit in the House, which I think we do. Despite what people say about reform, the House contributes by what it does. I agree with the Deputy with regard to a television channel for the House and for committees, where much of the work is done. We are here for a few hours, but much other good work takes place during the rest of the day, including good debates, in the committees of the House, including days neither House sits. This is part of the debate.
On education and debate in civic society, people, especially young people, are increasingly interested in the Third World and climate change and we must link education with those issues. Deputy Ferris mentioned the rotation of questions earlier. If we can engage on some issues, we can improve that. However, that should not take away from all the good work. Improvements can always be made.
One of the most significant challenges, not to say the others are not important, is something on which the previous Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Dick Roche, worked, namely, the updating of the registers. He made a good effort and it worked to a great extent. I know how hard he had to work to achieve that and the difficulties and obstacles that were raised to implementing a system that would provide greater register accuracy. This, in my view, is the most important area to deal with in order to increase participation. Many of the other things are happening, but a system to provide register accuracy, amendment of registers and quick action and the ability to check them in detail is the greatest challenge.
We saw the difficulties involved with our most recent census, which in some areas was not at as high a level as it used to be. There were all sorts of reasons for this and I am sure efforts will be made to change them before the next census. It is more difficult nowadays. I have spoken to the people involved in producing the census results and have been told this is something that is accepted in large cities around the world. However, there are things we can do to improve that.
One of the issues looked at by the task force on active citizenship was volunteers' concern about possible litigation. Fine Gael brought forward good samaritan legislation some years ago to deal with that issue. That concept was referred to the Law Reform Commission, which has recommended that such legislation should be brought forward. Does the Taoiseach have any intention of bringing forward that legislation, which would assist in increasing the number of volunteers in the community?
I cannot remember the actual Bill, but I know there is action in that regard. The Attorney General also had an interest in progressing that issue. Another issue mentioned in the House recently, on which I have tried to get people working, is that some of the most significant obstacles to volunteering throughout the country are insurance and liability, which are related to the issue raised by the Deputy. Local authorities now have a scheme in this regard and we need to promote that scheme, which would help promote the use of sports and community halls and schools for weekend and other activities. A significant network of infrastructure exists and we need to ensure it is used. Liability and insurance issues are significant deterrents to that. There is a scheme in existence to deal with this and the active citizenship office intends to make a big effort to promote it. Many people did not know there was such a scheme.
I will check what the position is with regard to the legislation. The issues of liability and insurance are a huge deterrent to community activity. If an active committee is hit with libel action, insurance and legal costs, it is a significant deterrent.
This is an excellent and important report. I welcome the Taoiseach's initiative and his commitment to it and encourage him to continue his commitment and support. I wish to put three questions to him. Two issues arise with regard to awards. National presidential citizens' awards are proposed to recognise outstanding contributions to civic and community life and a certificate award can be earned through completing at least three months volunteering or community involvement activity. How far have these two concepts been advanced and how does the Taoiseach see them working? We have had discussions in the House previously on the issue of awards. How does he see the decisions being made as to who is to get the awards?
There is also a recommendation that a formal citizenship ceremony be introduced with the aim of marking admission to the State and engaging and welcoming newcomers. It could also apply to our citizens when they reach the age of 18 years. How does the Taoiseach see this happening? Would it be managed locally or nationally? Who would present the award? Would there be an examination for citizenship, as is the case in other countries?
There is a recommendation that better use be made of schools in the evening and at weekends in the form of community hubs. Is the Taoiseach aware that across the country people are anxious to set up youth centres and youth cafés but are having problems finding suitable premises? What resources are being provided for this recommendation and how soon could schools be used in this manner?
To answer the Deputy's last question first, there is a far greater effort being made now that the group insurance scheme has been opened to members of local authorities and voluntary forums. This should be provided widely among relevant organisations. As I said, insurance is one of the recurring barriers to active citizenship cited at public consultation meetings. The scheme has ameliorated the insurance issue for community and voluntary groups by allowing them to secure considerably cheaper premiums. That is a big step towards the opening of youth halls, sports halls, GAA, rugby and soccer facilities, scouting halls and so on. I recently attended the AGM and annual dinner of the scouts organisation and I was told that this was a good scheme. It is to be hoped it will be extended to schools and other community activities. Previously, the issue of liability insurance costs was a great deterrent for school boards of management in allowing people to enter outside school hours.
It is important to help community and voluntary groups meet compliance costs by providing programme funding and ensuring these costs are proportionate and that administrative burdens for these organisations are streamlined and standardised to the greatest possible extent across the public service. The report recommends that we ensure, through the education system or local authorities, that schemes are standardised in order that small committees such as those running summer leagues will not operate by themselves. This should be carried out. I have been told by some of those involved that there is some interest among commercial entities, including insurance companies and commercial organisations with networks of outlets around the country, in joining in and helping with these schemes. I welcome this because networking by such commercial organisations can be very helpful.
The Deputy mentioned facilitating engagement, promoting a sense of community and awards. This has nothing to do with the proposal for an honours system that we discussed previously. That is a separate debate. However, the introduction of a national active citizenship team was suggested in the report, for the remarks on which I thank Deputies. The idea is that there would be a national citizenship week to stimulate local active citizenship activities. For example, there could be a "get to know your neighbour" event, whereby all organisations in a community would get together and show their wares. There is extraordinary support for this idea among both community and commercial interests. It is their idea and they are keen to do it next year, which would be the first year of these events. The team would be selected to promote local community involvement and would draw on existing community resources and initiatives. The initiative would culminate in an active citizenship week and be a focal point for every community.
The report also recommends the introduction of a national presidential citizens' awards scheme to recognise outstanding contributions made by individuals in communities. The awards committee would be given a limited list of individuals selected through an independent process based on nominations from members of the public. The presentation of the awards would tie in with the national active citizen award. We are in consultation with the President on how this fits in with Gaisce, the existing President's awards scheme. The idea is that the award would be given to somebody who has done a good job in the community in a particular year, although he or she may not have been involved in any other year, perhaps running the community games or a mini football league. It does not have to be a sports activity — the person could be involved with Meals on Wheels or the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.
Another novel idea which aims to get people interested is the development of a certificate award which would be earned by completing at least three months of volunteer work or community activity. This is to encourage people to get involved with community activities for at least one summer or winter season. According to the report, research shows that this could be done either during education or in the early stages of working life. It is geared to encourage new generations of people to be active in the community. Their motivation would be to complete at least a three-month period of activity. It is not designed for older people but targets the inclusion of younger people to get them started. It is hoped that in this way they will see that they can achieve something in their local communities.
On the matter of schools and local authorities, an audit by local authorities, through the county, city and development boards, of all existing community facilities in the State is under way and is to be finished by this time next year. It aims to identify gaps in the provision of facilities and opportunities for improving efficiency of use or sharing of facilities, which is what the Deputy referred to in his question. Many facilities currently open only from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. could easily be used in the morning by parents, retired individuals or small children. The report states better use could be made of schools in the evening and at weekends as community hubs, as mentioned. A pilot project is planned for a number of post-primary schools in conjunction with the efforts of the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Carey, with regard to the young people's facilities and services fund.
Thus, a number of good initiatives are planned, which can be carried out with sufficient support and co-ordination. There is only a small office in my Department, but the idea is that we try to co-ordinate the activities of many existing bodies. We are trying to obtain support from private sector organisations with networks around the country. I do not want advertise for these commercial organisations but many of them have been positive in their support and have made staff available to work with us to develop this network. This is very much appreciated.
These questions cover a wide area. My question deals with the implementation of the civic life section of the programme for Government. One of the subsections deals with ethics and investigations. This year the Government published the Ethics in Public Office (Amendment) Bill 2007, the purpose of which was to provide that where a Member of the Dáil or Seanad proposed to accept a significant gift from a friend for personal purposes, he or she would be obliged to check with the Standards in Public Office Commission whether it was all right to accept it. That Bill was passed in the Seanad but seems to have disappeared since. It has not been introduced in the Dáil and I cannot find any reference to it in the programme for Government. Is it still the Government's intention to proceed with this legislation? This is probably a question more appropriate to the Order of Business, but the Taoiseach might give some indication of when the Bill will be brought before the House.
The Bill was due to be introduced before Christmas, but the Minister for Finance has been tied up with other issues. The Standards in Public Office Commission may have sent back a few amendments, but the Bill is ready to be brought before the House.
I assume the Deputy is referring to the new Irish. The survey showed that engagement and involvement among this sector were poor. The number of immigrants began to increase from the early 1990s. I cannot remember the figure for active involvement in society but it was not impressive. It was signalled that they should undertake new activities. Cumann Lúthchleas Gael put a big effort into the Railway Cup tournament recently and invited all of the communities, but it was not hugely successful. Some countries join in with communities but, from my memory, that is not great. The idea is that this will be a separate and active effort to try to engage communities.
Many of these people are here to work for a few years and go home, but many of them have put down roots here, gained citizenship and want to be citizens. I am sure the report is on the whole lot of them, but the Minister of State, Deputy Conor Lenihan, in terms of the integration process, is taking an active interest in how to try to get the various communities — Muslim, Polish, others from eastern Europe and others from African societies — involved in activities in this country. The reason it is listed as a separate issue in the report is because participation of the new Irish according to the work done, which was mainly in 2006, was not impressive.
Would the Taoiseach see a role for a greater partnership between the Defence Forces and local communities? For example, gymnasia could be used by communities when the Defence Forces are not using them. Personnel from the Defence Forces, such as physical trainers or educators, could work with teachers from local schools or supervise classes. It would be a practical way of using a national resource.
Recently, the Defence Forces built a state-of-the-art gymnasium in the Curragh for €6 million, but when it is not being used by the military, it is not being used by the locals. Before the last election, the Minister, Deputy O'Dea, promised a new gymnasium in Limerick to the value of €10 million or some such. If it ever comes to fruition, it will be an ideal opportunity to allow people from Moyross, South Hill and other places in Limerick to use it for fitness and physical education classes and so on.
I do not know the specific issues around the Defence Forces gymnasium but, as a general rule and principle, wherever the State puts in infrastructure or taxpayers' money is going to provide facilities, whether directly to clubs, associations or organisations or to something in the State's hands, we should maximise its use. It is ridiculous that, as can be seen in some areas, there are a few halls that are a bit run down because their use has not been maximised and they have not been properly organised. It annoys me because the taxpayer has put in money.
In the last number of years in the youth facilities fund, we have tried to get multi-purpose and multi-use halls for all ages without elitism or groups, cabals or clubs getting their hands on them, where the halls can be open in the morning from 8 o'clock for people who are dropping their children to school to do their aerobics classes or older people to come to do——
That is how the facilities should be used. Without knowing the particular case, that is what should happen. We should maximise the use for people. We are a small country with 4,000 schools and cannot have a gymnasium outside every classroom, but we should maximise the use in cities, towns and villages.
I welcome the Taoiseach's overview of the use of facilities, with which I agree. He mentioned how multi-purpose sports facilities could be used by a number of organisations, but will it be Government policy? Will the Taoiseach direct the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism when he is allocating national lottery funding to give preferential treatment to groups that get together to provide indoor or outdoor multi-sports facilities? For example, they could have common indoor facilities and changing rooms while using a broader area for outdoor facilities, such as different pitches. This is a way forward, but what is the Taoiseach's opinion? Were he to endorse this approach, it would be important. If he would direct the Minister to fund, encourage and prioritise this type of application for lottery funding, he would make an important contribution to the provision of well-used sports facilities.
I will be very clear — wherever it is practical to do so, which should be the case. The big obstacles we talked about earlier were insurance and litigation.
I was recently in the University of Limerick, DCU and UCD. They are using their facilities for sports. The new schools being built by the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, in the Fingal area have increased space and facilities. One of the best schools I have ever seen in the country is in Cherry Orchard. It has pre-school, after school, cooking and play facilities.
As a policy, I am totally opposed to elitist groups saying something is built for them and locking the door, letting no one else in and only having it open for a few hours each week. There are plenty of those facilities. We have been trying through the concept of active citizenship to have multi-purpose and multi-use facilities. It has worked well under the youth facilities fund. We worked with the local authorities where they managed it. The money was not going to one organisation and every organisation could participate. A number of those facilities have worked very well. If we do that progressively as we give money for recreation, sport and leisure, which covers a lot because it can range from the very young to the very old and is gender neutral, we can improve facilities greatly.
The Defence Forces Reserve has many premises that are rarely used. Rather than selling them, would it be Government policy to make them available to other clubs and organisations in local communities with a dearth of facilities?
I asked a question about applying a formal citizenship ceremony to citizens upon reaching the age of 18 years. Has the Taoiseach progressed that initiative any further?
The first question is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Defence, but we should try to extend it. The military authorities have a say in this, but they allow community involvement at some of their facilities. For example, in this city and at their playing spaces in the Phoenix Park where they have traditionally had space, they give them over for other community uses. Deputy Stagg will help me quickly, but they do the same at the Curragh, where I have been over the years. They do it wherever possible.
Deputy Stanton raised a point about involving the new Irish. The attempt is to look at identifiable gaps in local community structures and local authorities, to try to get local civic participation structures and to try to use the county and city development boards of local authorities to experiment with modes of local democracy and local engagement to get people involved.
This is to give recognition to people and to make it special for them when they take up citizenship in that they will have a formal ceremony. It is being done for two purposes, and that was clear when I attended the main conference. First, it is an honour for them to achieve it and, second, it formalises them in terms of our lifestyle and culture and the responsibilities that come with what they have achieved. That is the idea behind it.