Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Ceisteanna - Questions
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent work of the task force on active citizenship; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15574/09]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The steering group on active citizenship, chaired by Mary Davis and appointed in October 2008, has been overseeing the implementation of the recommendations of the task force on active citizenship, which completed its work in March 2007. The group is working in consultation with the relevant Departments and a progress report was completed in December 2008. Copies of the progress report are available in the Oireachtas Library.
The report outlines what had been achieved up to the end of last year and the status of those recommendations which will take more time to implement, subject to resources. In addition, it outlines many active citizenship initiatives being pursued by universities, businesses, volunteer organisations and others which underpin the task force's call to everyone, not just to the Government, to encourage greater connectivity with the community and maximise the potential we all have to generate positive engagement for the greater good. The Central Statistics Office reported in its recent publication on community involvement and social networking in Ireland that, based on 2006 data, 85% of people agreed that by working together, people in their neighbourhood can influence decisions which affect them.
The public policy recommendations that have already been progressed include the audit of community, sports and arts facilities, undertaken through the local authorities in 2008. Up to 27 of the community facilities audits have now been submitted to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, with the remaining seven being finalised at present. The audit will inform the Government on the provision of facilities and identify opportunities for getting the best use of recreational facilities.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs already supports the community and voluntary sectors through a range of funding measures. In supporting capacity development and training for groups in the sector, the Minister launched a new training grants scheme in 2008 for national and locally based organisations. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs now supports a network of 21 volunteer centres which are linked by a common database and a common best practice approach. Through these local offices and websites, volunteer centres act as brokers between potential volunteers and organisations seeking volunteers.
Regarding the recommendation to establish an independent electoral commission, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government engaged consultants to conduct preliminary research on related issues and to recommend a way forward. The Minister published the report for consultation on 10 February 2009, with a closing date for submissions of 26 June 2009. The process being followed also includes consultation with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
Concerning the task force's recommendations for strengthening local civic participation, its views were taken into account in drafting the Green Paper, Local Government, Stronger Local Democracy: Options for Change. The Green Paper discussed civic participation in local government decision-making and proposals for considering novel forms of engagement, such as local plebiscites, petition rights and town hall meetings, to address the democratic deficit identified by the task force. A public consultation process was conducted by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to inform the preparation of a White Paper, which is being finalised for publication following the Government's consideration.
Arising from consultations conducted by the task force on active citizenship in 2006, the task force report recommended the expansion of education for citizenship in the school and adult education systems. In response, the National Council for Curriculum Assessment is developing a syllabus for a new leaving certificate examination subject entitled politics and society, as an extension of the current civic, social and political education subject in junior cycle, which gives students practical experience of active citizenship. With regard to the adult education sector, the possibility of including more voter education into adult programmes in the vocational education committee sector is being further considered.
Several higher education institutions have developed civic engagement awards which recognise outstanding voluntary activities and achievements by students. The National University of Ireland, Galway, for example, is leading a national collaboration programme - Civic Engagement, Student Volunteering and Active Citizenship -to increase opportunities for students to engage with the community through their studies. Campus Engage was launched in 2008 to allow students to browse volunteer opportunities by region, institution and related academic disciplines.
The task force's report proposed a national presidential citizens award to recognise outstanding contribution by our citizens to the life of this country. The options for developing such an awards scheme are being examined in consultation with the relevant authorities, including the Office of the President.
The progress report not only outlined the public policy elements of the active citizenship initiative, but also highlighted the significant contribution to community life by the business sector. Examples of community-related activities include corporate giving, employer-supported volunteering and school-based initiatives among others, worthwhile partnerships that will help to sustain us through the challenging times ahead. At present, the steering group is focusing on plans for an active citizenship conference and active citizenship week during 2010, as well as examining ways in which awareness of active citizenship can be supported through the media, the business sector and professional bodies, as well as Government.
In view of the need to secure maximum value for scarce resources, I have decided that the work of the steering group will be supported from within my Department and that it is not necessary to maintain a separate office. The principal actions and policies to support active citizenship are, in any event, the responsibility of a range of Departments and bodies as they implement their respective core functions.
The taskforce on active citizenship's latest report states:
The Community Development Programme provides community premises, development workers and capacity building projects to disadvantaged communities in over 180 locations throughout the country. These projects are primarily in the most disadvantaged communities. They play a significant role in building community infrastructure and enhancing the capacity of their communities.
How can the Minister of State reconcile that statement with the decision in the budget for 2009 to cut the budget to community development projects by 15%? Will he avail of the opportunity today to give us a firm assurance that the Government will not adopt and implement the savage cuts of €44 million in funding to community development projects and local partnerships proposed in the McCarthy report in budget 2010? Does he agree that if they were implemented they would devastate the network of voluntary and community activists who do Trojan work in all our communities?
Every Member of this House is fully aware, and appreciative, of the major work done in the voluntary and community sector through the supports provided by the community development programmes. These cover child care, meals on wheels, after-school projects, youth groups, literacy groups, drug rehabilitation and many more areas. Active citizens provide all these services. Many of them marched recently in this city in opposition to the cuts proposed in the McCarthy report. Will the Minister of State give us a guarantee and protect these schemes, recognising that such cuts as well as those proposed for the family resource centres will have devastating consequences for the most needy, disadvantaged and marginalised in our society? It is incumbent on all of us, irrespective of the current condition of the economy, to ensure that those sections of our community are protected. Will the Minister of State give us that assurance?
I am well aware of the debate outside the House about community development projects and family resource centres but as I mentioned in my reply the relevant Departments will bear the main funding of active citizenship projects. It is a matter therefore for each Department to identify where savings can be achieved in the current economic climate. This and previous Fianna Fáil-led Governments built up the community development projects in all areas. In the short time that I was a Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs I saw the very valuable work that the community development projects carry out. The model developed for delivery of community development projects is one of several that could be used with equal effect for active citizenship and the benefit of citizens. There are different parts of the country where the integration of community development projects, with RAPID and CLÁR programmes and others is already working very successfully. I saw this in the west and Carlow. It is over a year since I worked in that Department but I have no doubt that local partnerships and their expanded remit can incorporate very successfully and appropriately the work community development projects are doing and will continue to do. I believe that consolidation is probably the way forward for many of them.
Deputy Ó Caoláin will know as well as I do that in some cases there is duplication of effort and outcomes between family resource centre work and community development projects. More efficient outcomes can be achieved with greater consolidation of resources and integration between local development projects at local level. The commitment I will give at this stage is that the Government will continue to invest in the concert of local community development. The models for delivery of that outcome will inevitably change from time to time and from area to area. That is the definition of local community development.
This is very important. I noted the statement last week by the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy John Curran, regarding his proposals to bring about integration across the different programmes. He was specific about this when he spoke in my constituency, Cavan. Has the Government carried out a real net effect assessment of this proposition? Will it guarantee the continuation of the range of services and activities that currently enjoy support under the different programmes, or are some at risk as a result of the consolidation about which the Minister of State, Deputy Carey, speaks? Is this another means of cutting back on the already stated commitment which, as I indicated, was reduced by 15% with respect to community development projects, CDPs, in last year's budget? What are we looking at in the upcoming budget, other than the adoption of a €44 million reduction, as recommended by McCarthy? What percentage is the Government currently considering and what are the outcomes and net effect of that? It will mean further reduction in service provision and supports. The idea of integration is a smokescreen to cover the Government's real agenda, which is to cut back the funding provision.
We can look at the task force and the range of recommendations it put forward from which I shall mention a small number. The Minister of State can pick any one or two of these and tell me the status of the Government's address of the recommendations of the task force. We are seeing neither the actuality of address of the recommendations nor any stated intent to go forward with any or all of them. To take the potential for North-South co-operation, for example, in which I am keenly interested, the implementation of the task force recommendations should take account of opportunities to develop pro-actively on an all-island approach. What about ethnic and cultural diversity and the challenge of engaging newcomers? What of the proposal to reach by the end of the current decade - next year - a level of at least 60% voter turnout among the 18-24 year old age group? Will we see major improvement in voter turnout on 2 October in the second Lisbon referendum as a result of any action by the Government in following the recommendations of the task force?
My final two points refer to the establishment of the independent electoral commission and a group insurance scheme open to members of local community and voluntary fora. This last was one of the recommendations, as was its wide promotion among relevant organisations and groups. Will the Minister of State give us a progress report on those recommendations of the task force on active citizenship? Will he take the opportunity today to put at ease the significant concern of people within the CDPs, the partnerships and those in the family resource centres about what might very well be facing them in the budget announcement in December?
My Department does not have a direct role in delivering any or most of these projects, but nonetheless, as we all know from experience, community development projects have developed. In my time at that Department, considerable rationalisation was undertaken on community development projects. I heard criticisms from Members from all sides of the House about the lack of capacity community development projects to deliver the outcomes that they were expected to deliver, without adequate support and without adequate linkages. Where those linkages exist, be they with area based partnerships or even the local authority, then there are far better outcomes.
There are excellent models of integration in the Deputy's own constituency which are part of LDSIP for the last three, four or more years. The Minister of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has been heavily involved in that and I know that the Deputy has more than a passing knowledge of what has been attempted and achieved.
The Deputy also spoke about the group scheme. The group scheme is still there, with a code of practice that is working extremely well. There is an intention to change the group scheme which is being negotiated and renewed each year. The Department appointed consultants to research issues arising from the electoral commission and to recommend a way forward. The consultants' report was received by the Minister late last year. He subsequently published a consultation report in February 2009, with a closing date of 26 June. The establishment of the commission will be a major body of work, with issues arising for consideration including international best practice, the commission's structure and functions, whom it reports to, its relationship with other bodies currently involved in the approach to be followed on the extensive legislation that will be required.
The Deputy raised the issue of North-South linkages, and this is one of the areas in which really excellent work is being done. The Belfast and Dublin education exchange programme is an initiative which takes groups of young people from similar backgrounds on a North South basis, and invites them to meet and discuss common interests. The civic link project, which was launched in 1999, aims to build positive relationships between young people North and South. It is an action learning project where young people are forced to explore their own communities and the issues that affect them. The European studies project is a post-primary school programme that is curriculum with a strong ICT element. The Washington Ireland programme has been in operation since 1995. It extends opportunities to promising university students from Northern Ireland and the Republic to partake in summer career training and professional development in the US, mainly in Washington. However, I happened to be in Milwaukee earlier this year and I met four people from Northern Ireland and four from the South of Ireland working there and discussing issues to do with event management and so on. I certainly was extremely proud of them, and I would invite any Member to meet with them. The Irish Peace Institute is an NGO committed to the just and peaceful transformation of violent conflict. Its projects involve bands performing together from cross-community and cross-Border schools over a three day period.
These are just some of the examples of the initiatives that have been taken, not directly by my Department, but by a number of other Departments. The Depaul Trust is a project in this city that has been ongoing for a number of years. It particularly targets those people who do not register or, if they do, do not participate in the electoral process. That has been quite successful. It works in my own constituency. I have seen it in Finglas and Ballymun. I certainly know it works in Tallaght and in other places throughout this city. I am sure it operates elsewhere also. It is not fair to say these recommendations and suggestions by the task force are not being followed through. There is no doubt that some require further resources. However, there is a strong commitment on my part and that of the steering committee to progress every recommendation as well as possible.
Some discussions recently took place with the President's office regarding a President's award and how it could be progressed further.
I do not wish to appear cynical about the task force on active citizenship. However, prior to the 2007 general election there was a great fanfare when the task force was established. Very little has been done since the publication of the task force report.
Deputy Carey, as Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, is responsible for the task force. How many meetings has he had with the task force or the review group since becoming Government Chief Whip? The report recommended a new honours system which would recognise outstanding contributions by individuals to Irish society and would be part of a wide-ranging plan to promote higher levels of civic engagement. We all know how important this is for community and voluntary activists. Can the Minister of State give the House an update on this? The report recommended that a national presidential citizens award be awarded to a limited number of people selected annually through an independent process based on nominations from members of the public. Could the Minister of State provide the House with further detail of this worthy project and tell us exactly how it has progressed to date? This is only one part of the task force's report.
Deputy Carey also spoke about community and development projects and said the Government has built them up in recent years. I do not disagree. However, the Government is now pulling them asunder. It was all very well to throw money at worthy projects when it was available. Deputy Carey says many of these projects are now duplicated. His Department should look at the productivity and efficiency of these projects. Why has he not done so?
With regard to the number of meetings, the steering committee met in November of last year and in January, April and July of this year. A further meeting will take place before the end of this month.
I mentioned the President's award scheme briefly. Initial discussions have taken place between officials from the office of the President and from my Department. Further discussions will take place on issues such as the selection process and criteria for the awards over the coming months. I do not wish to anticipate the outcome of those meetings but they are being actively pursued.
I come from a very strong community development and youth work background. I have seen many community development projects being set up. Some have ceased to operate voluntarily because they have decided their remit no longer exists or that there are other community needs to be met. That is the essence of the community development process. Something which suits today and is fit for today's purpose will almost certainly have to be modified and adapted for the future. That is what we have been trying to do with the partnerships and the community development projects. When I was Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, many Members of this House were very persistent in asking that something be done about them. Of the intermediary bodies between the Department and the projects on the grounds, some were worthwhile whereas many were past their sell by dates, although they did good work when they were first set up. I am long enough in this business and can see some people present who were directly or indirectly involved during the days in which these projects were set up under the Combat Poverty pilot projects. A colleague of Labour Party Members, their late leader, Frank Cluskey, was instrumental in setting them up in 1973 or 1974. They have developed over the years. The model that works in Tallaght will not always work in Tubbercurry. The one that works in Finglas might not work in, for example, Falcarragh. 3 o'clock
When Muintir na Tíre was the leading community development organisation and Macra na Feirme and so forth were funded by the Kellogg Foundation, the Nuffield Foundation and others, those projects were always in experimental mode. Through a variety of project types, we have come a long way in refining and improving outcomes that make life better for everyone, not just those in disadvantaged communities. It has always bothered me that community development projects tend to be linked with disadvantage. The process of community development is as valid in an upper middle class area as in an area of high unemployment. Consolidation, redevelopment and restructuring of community development projects give us one part of that. What the Minister of State, Deputy John Curran, and the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, are doing in the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs fits this objective perfectly.
How many volunteer centres are there, where are they located and what are they doing? A pilot project in which schools would be used by communities after hours was mentioned. Will the Minister of State provide Deputies with a list of where those schools are and what is the situation? Has the report on the implementation of the steering group's work been published? It was promised.
I have information on the number of volunteer centres, but I must put my hands on it. The Minister of State, Deputy Curran, launched "Give it a Swirl Day" yesterday.
"Give it a Swirl Day", an initiative of the Volunteer Centres of Ireland in Deputy Rabbitte's constituency of Dublin South.
This year, the national day of volunteering will occur in south Dublin on the last day of active citizenship week, Friday, 25 September, to highlight local volunteering opportunities. I apologise, as I thought it was about-----
Regarding the use of schools, discussions between management bodies and the Department of Education and Science are ongoing. It is an area in which there has been some progress, but not enough.
Through the Chair, I agree with Deputy Barrett. For a long time, organisations have been working to try to ensure a greater use. The Catholic archdiocese of Dublin has developed a model in which schools are being used to a greater extent than previously. I am trying to put my hands on the figure for the number of volunteer centres. I have it, but I will supply it as soon as I put my finger on it.
The Minister of State can send it to us tomorrow. What we are discussing is the Taskforce on Active Citizenship. It was the brainchild of the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, who decided a taskforce should be established in Ireland on having read a book on the subject by some American guru. There was a report in 2007.
I thank the Minister of State for his verbose answers. He has used more than the time allowed for nearly all the questions, without giving us any information at all. He spoke about other Departments and not about the subject.
In 2008, €200,000 was provided for the taskforce but it did not spend any money at all. I therefore presume it did nothing. This year, the Government, recognising the fact that it was doing nothing, reduced the allocation to €56,000, which is not a huge sum. I do not know whether the taskforce has done anything at all yet this year. An bord snip cast its eye on it and decided it should be abolished. I am partly of the view that an bord snip might be right. The Minister of State obviously believes it is right because he is now trying to hive off all the responsibility for the taskforce to every Department in the State except his own. The section in his own Department will no longer exist.
We have had a talking shop taskforce with no money. Perhaps that is why the Minister of State got into the habit of doing so much talking. Maybe he had been listening to the taskforce, which did nothing at all except talking. All the good phenomena to which the Minister referred, including volunteerism, existed before the taskforce was conceived. It has grown in the face of the recession. The volunteers I know who are working in the community, including on community development projects, do not even know the taskforce exists.
The Minister of State has been talking about many issues but he gave one very good example of Fianna Fáil preparation for the axe when referring to community development projects. He stated how they have to evolve and that sometimes evolution includes disappearance off the face of the earth. The latter is the case because the Minister of State's Department will not provide organisations with the required money. It is all about money but the Minister of State did not provide any money for the taskforce. None of the recreational facilities was provided through the taskforce. It was through other agencies and local campaigns therefor. There is no sign of citizenship awards, as proposed by Deputy Durkan. Perhaps the Minister gave a few bob out of the €56,000 to prepare the report in that regard. I suppose that is what that money was for.
The Minister may be correct in stating the taskforce is a waste of money and time, and that he has dispensed with it and scattered whatever is left of it around the other Departments. Will he confirm it is dead so we will not have to spend another three quarters of an hour in six months repeating the same questions?
On the basis of my having read the record from the last time I had to answer these questions, Deputy Stagg is at least consistent. His questions are very much the same. The Deputy's views are typical of Labour Party policy. When we save money we are criticised for it and when we spend it we are criticised for it.
The financial allocation for active citizenship in the Vote of the Department for 2009 is €56,000 and it is for the administration of active citizenship. Expenditure to date is in the region of €20,000.
I will answer that in a second.
Funding of specific activities will be made by other Departments where the activities are relevant to them. Otherwise, I am confident the corporate sector will continue to give extensive support to projects, as it does at present. I am certain that Deputy Stagg has read page 74 and previous pages, including the material on the plan for the way forward. Having done so, he will know how active the corporate sector is in that area.
I have no doubt the Deputy did. I hope he did not smoke too many of the usuals. I appreciate we are in a difficult economic climate but the ethos of corporate social responsibility is strongly embedded in our corporate sector. Long may it continue. Deputy Stanton should note that there are 21 volunteer centres located throughout the country, five of which are based in Dublin, namely, the south Dublin county, Dublin city south, Dublin city north, Dún Laoghaire Rathdown and Fingal centres. They provide a very important service and the audit which the volunteer centres of Ireland has carried out shows the level of volunteering has increased very significantly in the past year or 18 months.
Does the Minister of State agree that if there were a proper local government system there would be no need for all these different groups, bodies, offices and everything else? Would he consider discussing with his colleagues in Government the restructuring of the whole local government system and incorporating all of these volunteers, who have vast experience, into that system?
I agree with the Deputy when he suggests that what may be suitable in one area may not be suitable in others. A danger is that when this is administered on a national basis everyone gets the same, whereas if there were a local government system each local government could decide what is suitable for its particular area. The sooner we get down to examining local government, extending its powers and incorporating much of the good work of these organisations into a properly funded local government system, the better for everyone.
Deputy Barrett comes from a local authority background as do I. During the past year I have been following the work of both the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy John Curran, and the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cúiv. Throughout the country there is an increasing level of integration of these initiatives which are a spin off of local authorities - there is no doubt about that. They are being brought closer to the centre of local authorities. There is an issue or debate concerning the powers which local authorities ought to be given and I believe many of these issues will form part of the debate on the Green Paper which has been issued by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, and I have no doubt they will be developed further in the White Paper on the future of local government. We look forward to a debate, whether it is under this area of questions or wherever, and it would be worthwhile to have this debate nationally.