Dáil debates

Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Citizens Information Services

9:32 am

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I wish to raise the issue of the Citizens Information Board and paid employees and volunteers in an office setting, a matter I have tried to get on the agenda for quite a while. As people are aware, the Citizens Information Board adopted a policy whereby full-time office staff must be fully paid employees and volunteers were given what they described as menial jobs in the offices. Traditionally, Citizens Information Board offices are located in community centres or local authority buildings so, in essence, they are very much part of the local community. It is a valuable and essential service that has been serviced by a team of local people who are dedicated to their community. Many of them are experts in their field. Where this service deals with legal and confidential issues, a level of professionalism must be maintained but to cast aside volunteer staff, some of whom have been working with the Citizens Information Board for decades, is simply wrong. Reducing them to filing and shredding documents is an insult to their years of service. We constantly hear about the community and voluntary sector and how it must be cherished, valued and applauded, particularly during the Covid period. This move obviously means volunteers are less cherished and valued.

According to an email I received in recent weeks from an individual, their input is to be reduced to 35 staff hours per fortnight and the choice for existing volunteers is to provide a limited supporting role, as outlined, or leave. The email spoke about advisers with long experience in their earlier work environment, many of whom would have been professional people working in areas like taxation and social protection. The email went on to state that the existing 20 volunteers were not consulted in advance but were simply informed of the board's decision and that, as a group, they feel strongly that the proposed change is a retrograde step that will lead to a significant reduction in the level of support for the many disadvantaged people and others who need a range of help and assistance, particularly older people, who lack computer skills or access to computers. For people with disabilities, the community centre is their hub. Reducing the number of staff and volunteers will create a lack of access. The feedback the individual in question received was that face-to-face contact with advisers with wide experience in the public or private sectors who are willing to spend time teasing out their issues is greatly appreciated by many who seek advice.

Most of our offices are directing people to the places where those services are provided. We know quite a lot of them. Unfortunately, if we reduce that service, it will not be there for people in those centres in the community because there is not funding to cover the number of volunteers and hours they are going to lose. It is really disappointing that when they tried to engage with the board, they were met with a brick wall. Is there any update on this? Have there been discussions between the Government and the board as funders? It is important that the board recognises that it takes money from the taxpayer and the State and that it has a responsibility to the people who work for it, the people who volunteer with it and the people who engage with the service.

9:42 am

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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The Citizens Information Board, CIB, is a statutory body tasked with providing information, advocacy and advice to citizens. It must be noted that the staff of the CIB are public servants and that the CIB itself does not have volunteers. The vital services for which the CIB is responsible for are delivered by eight independent regional Citizen Information Service, CIS, companies. The CIB provides funding to the eight CIS companies, which in turn operate a national network of citizens information centres. It is important to note the independent nature of the CIB, which operates under the Comhairle Act 2000, as amended, and is overseen by its own board. Similarly, each CIS company is an independent limited company governed by a voluntary board of directors. The eight CIS companies make decisions independently on the delivery of services in their own regions.

Decisions on the engagement of volunteers are made by the regional CIS companies. I understand that the CIS volunteer strategy was developed by the independent regional CIS companies acting jointly and then implemented by each company in its respective area. I am informed that the strategy was to support the effort to re-engage volunteers in the service after the pandemic years. Significant changes occurred very rapidly during the pandemic. During that time, centres were often unable to offer a drop-in service because of public health restrictions and volunteers were no longer able to be involved. As the pandemic progressed, employees in the centres quickly adapted to the use of digital services, phone services and offering limited appointments to keep the service operating for the public. The updates and changes to information, advice and advocacy that have taken place during the past two years have been unprecedented.

The development of the volunteer strategy is an operational matter for the CIS companies. The Minister for Social Protection cannot direct either the CIB or the CIS companies in such operational issues. Notwithstanding this, in light of concerns raised by Deputies on this matter, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, recently met with the chairperson and CEO of the CIB seeking further information on the issue of volunteers in CIS companies. The Minister absolutely recognises the good work carried out by volunteers. She has made it very clear to the CIB that people who have given up their time down through the years deserve to be treated with respect. I understand the CIB assured the Minister that the contribution of volunteers continues to be highly valued in this regard. The role of volunteers is still seen as central to the delivery of the service. Indeed, volunteers have been returning on a phased basis since mid-2022. To date, the CIB reports that 120 volunteers have returned to support delivery in citizens information centres across the country. The CIB is now urgently engaging with the regional companies in relation to the continued return of volunteers. In addition, following the meeting with the Minister, the CIB has confirmed that it has agreed terms of reference for an independent review of the volunteer programme, which has now commenced. This independent review will engage with internal and external stakeholders, including current and past volunteers, and will make recommendations on the reintegration of volunteers to the service.

Both CIS staff and volunteers are vitally important and both of these roles are focused on the customer. From the moment a person contacts a citizens information centre, her or she is treated with respect and empathy by both volunteers and staff. There is no policy within the CIB or CIS companies of removing volunteers from the CIS. There are currently 89 citizens information centres open to offer information, advice and advocacy to the public.

Photo of Paul DonnellyPaul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I note a couple of things in the Minister of State's statement, particularly with regard to the decision-making process. It is stated very clearly that this is a group of independent bodies that acted jointly and came out with exactly the same strategy at exactly the same time. There was obviously very significant co-ordination on this matter between the board and those independent bodies. It is extremely unfortunate that all of this was done without the input of the volunteers.

There is no doubt that Covid has changed much of the way we operate but, as a volunteer and someone who works in the community, I am noticing that people want to engage with people face to face. That is really important. While we support the new digital way of working, it is really important that we retain that face-to-face contact.

I welcome that there is going to be a review and that it is to include external and internal stakeholders, including current and past volunteers. I hope it is an acknowledgement that a mistake was made in the first instance and that, if such a massive change is to be embarked upon, it is critically important that the people who matter, the staff, volunteers and people who use the service, are all engaged with before any major decisions are made.

I welcome the fact that the board of the CIB is talking about the highest quality of service, whether provided in person or by phone, but I hope that is not meant to imply that the service being provided previously was not up to professional standards because all of the people who have engaged with the service over the years have found it extremely professional and well run.

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I will start where the Deputy finished. Citizens information centres are a trusted source of information, advice and advocacy with a long tradition of volunteering. The Minister fully supports the continued valuing of the role of volunteers in CIS companies. The strong view of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which I share, is that the important service provided by citizens information centres should continue to be available to the public when they need it. This is particularly true given the current cost-of-living crisis and the challenges facing people across the country. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister recently met with the CEO and chairperson of the CIB and sought further information on the issue of volunteers in CIS companies. The board is fully engaged with these companies to support the continued return of volunteers. The CIB has commissioned an independent review of the volunteer programme in the service and has indicated that citizens information companies will not make any decisions on office locations before the findings of the independent review are considered. This is very much welcomed.

If the Acting Chair will indulge me for 30 seconds, I will leave the script. I come in here often to read answers on Topical Issue matters. To be very fair to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and her Department, this is one of the most comprehensive answers I have ever had to give to a Deputy across the House. There is action from the Minister and from within the Department. The answer includes a plan and it addresses every one of the issues the Deputy and the people who have come to him have highlighted. I can see a pathway towards all of this being resolved.