Dáil debates

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Charitable and Voluntary Organisations

9:12 am

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his attendance. This story is not finished but the catchcry of "Are we there yet?" is one that is very well known to Irish people. Bóthar would be perceived as one of the more earthy charities. It is one to which I have contributed myself over the years because there was always a tangible output, or at least that was the perception. Instead of just sending money, there was a tangible result from the contributions the public made, namely, the charitable contribution of live animals and other agricultural produce and materials to developing countries. The premise on which the charity was founded, and on which it succeeded and caught the public's imagination, is that Irish people could finance the sending of a cow, a sheep or a goat and that it would make a manifest difference and impact on the lives of local communities in developing countries.

We have been here before with charities like Console. We thought that was the end of it, that corruption within the charitable sector was over and would never again be tolerated, that it would be much easier to root out and that charities would be subject to much more intensive interrogation, oversight and regulation. However, we find ourselves back at the same point again, not due to the corporate outlook or objectives of an organisation but because of the greed of a few. The Government must give some response to try to reassure the public. As we know, it is often those with the least who give most and over the years people have donated small, or sometimes significant, amounts to such charities. They did so with the best will in the world, as part of an ethos in this country that goes back to our connection to suffering and hardship and our empathy for those who have to endure the same kind of suffering and hardship. It is a crushing blow to people to discover that when they made that gesture and gave to people in countries less developed and less well off than our own, the organisation mediating those funds had within it corrupt and greedy people who would go to great lengths to corrupt the funds, and to cover their tracks in the process.

The issue itself has been well publicised in the newspapers, including the secreting away of significant funds by members of Bóthar and the payment of bonuses to staff. I would like to know what contributions the State made to this charity, whether through the Minister of State's Department or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, over the years. I look forward to his statement on the matter.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this very important matter. The Charities Regulator, under the aegis of my Department, is the State organisation responsible for registering and regulating all of Ireland's charities, with a mandate to promote good governance practices. It is important to note that the regulator is fully independent in the performance of its statutory functions, including investigations into the activities and conduct of charities. All registered charities in Ireland and their trustees are subject to the provisions of the Charities Act 2009. This Act sets out comprehensive legal obligations surrounding the definition of charities and their operations and reporting requirements. Concerns relating to charities may be raised with the regulator and I am assured by it that all such concerns are addressed. Members of the public can also search the Register of Charities to obtain information on registered charities.

Where breaches of charity legislation are identified, the charity is contacted with a view to addressing such breaches. In serious cases, the regulator may appoint investigators to carry out a statutory investigation, as happened in the case of Bóthar.

The Charities Regulator has been engaging with Bóthar since early 2020 on foot of concerns which were raised about the charity. In October 2020, the regulator determined that a statutory investigation into the charity was warranted and appointed inspectors to commence this investigation. It is important to note that the commencement of such an investigation is not a finding of wrongdoing. As the Deputy may be aware, however, a criminal investigation is now under way into activities at Bóthar.

At the request of An Garda Síochána, the Charity Regulator's statutory investigation into the affairs of Bóthar has been temporarily paused until such time as the criminal investigation is complete, at which time the regulator's investigation will resume.

It would not be appropriate for me, the regulator or my Department to comment further on what is an ongoing criminal investigation. I remind the Deputy that the programme for Government includes a commitment to update legislative provisions with the Charities Regulator to ensure it has the necessary powers to increase trust and confidence in the management and administration of charities.

There is ongoing liaison between officials in my Department and the Charities Regulator to review the operation of the legislation to ensure that it is operating effectively, and to consider amendments to the Charities Act 2009. This work is at an advanced stage and it is intended to bring proposals to Government in the very near future to progress the legislation.

9:22 am

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister of State's response was fairly general. I understand the circumstances in which it perhaps might be general. Can he comment on whether this particular charity is engaging in fundraising activities at the moment? That is the first point. Has it been engaging in fundraising activities since the launch of the investigation?

The Minister of State said the Charities Regulator had been engaging with Bóthar since early 2020 on foot of concerns raised about the charity. Can he explain what engagement means? What is the difference between engagement and investigation by the Charities Regulator? What powers does the Charities Regulator have with regard to this engagement?

Does that charity continue to fundraise? Is the Minister of State aware of any State grants or State funding that have gone to Bóthar? I am making an assumption that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would be involved but I could be wrong. I am just making the connection because livestock are involved but I refer to any Department. Has any funding continued since the Charities Regulator began to engage with Bóthar in 2020? Has the Minister of State's Department provided any funding to that charity since engagement with the Charities Regulator began in 2020?

Can the Minister of State give us a little bit more granular detail? There is an awful lot more in the press and in the public domain than was contained in his statement this morning. The statement was quite disappointing given the extensive coverage in the print media over the last three or four months, and particularly in the last few weeks because of particular circumstances. There is significantly more detail in the national media than what was presented in the Minister of State's statement today, which was disappointing. That is not a comment on him but on the information he has been given despite what is available to the public through the media. Responsible broadsheet print media have covered this extensively.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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My statement is defined by the fact that there is a criminal investigation. I am obviously limited in terms of the detail I can give. Under the provisions of the Charities Act 2009, however, the Charities Regulator works closely with other regulatory bodies and organisations to uphold the integrity of charitable organisations and trusts.

In late 2018, the Charities Regulator introduced the charities governance code, which sets out the minimum standards that charity trustees should ensure are met within their charity to effectively manage and control their operations. This includes core standards pertaining to the responsible management of a charity's resources and principles of accountability and transparency.

From 2020, the charities governance code became mandatory for charities and as of 2021, charities will be expected to report directly to the Charities Regulator on their compliance with the code. This is an important step forward in strengthening governance in the sector.

In addition, work is ongoing in my Department on amendments to the 2009 Act. As I mentioned earlier, this is at an advanced stage. It is vital that these developments take place with the input and co-operation of the charities sector. My Department and the regulator continue to work together in this regard to improve public trust in the sector.

I can confirm that the Department of Rural and Community Development has not funded Bóthar in the past. I will also say that in this instance, the system worked. A report was made and the Charities Regulator started to investigate. Informal investigations were then launched, which has brought us to this stage. Much of what is essentially white-collar crime can be difficult to detect and as with much other crime, we are dependent on the public to assist the gardaí in detecting instances like this. In this case, however, the system worked and the regulator did its job, notwithstanding the accounts we are hearing in the media at the moment.