Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 April 2004

2:00 am

Jim Higgins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Parlon. I do not know whether he saw the recent "Prime Time" special investigation into the plight of Irish emigrants in Britain but it was a most graphic exposé of the squalor in which thousands of Irish people live in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. Seeing is believing. I believe "Prime Time" did a considerable public service by illustrating the squalor and deprivation endured by Irish emigrants.

We should examine the backgrounds of the people in question. Who are they? They are Irish emigrants who could not find employment here. They were forced to emigrate because they wanted the dignity of work. They worked hard and helped to build Great Britain. Many of those who sent millions of pounds to relatives and friends in this country are now totally deprived, ill and old. Some are disabled, having endured hardship by working in arduous conditions. The tenements in which many of them are living are not fit for human habitation. A large number of the people to whom I refer are homeless.

This country has a social, moral and political obligation to look after its people. Assistance for emigrants is administered under the DION fund. The name of the fund comes from the Irish word "díon", which means "roof". DION is underfunded — just €2.5 million is available, a derisory amount when one considers the needs and demands of those I have mentioned. The Government's priorities are apparent when one recalls that it made €15 million available to the Punchestown project.

A special task force was established some years ago to examine the plight of Irish emigrants and make recommendations. Some 18 recommendations were included in a report submitted to the Department of Foreign Affairs in November 2002 but few, if any, have been implemented. Given that it is mainly a question of funding and resources, the task force's key recommendation was that the minimum amount needed to administer help to Irish emigrants overseas was €18 million.

Fr. Paul Byrne is one of the people charged with looking after immigrant welfare in Britain. He said on "Prime Time" that he had telephoned an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs, with whom he had been in contact previously, on the day a report was published to find out how much additional funding had been allocated. He said he was absolutely devastated when the official said, "I am sorry, Father, not one red penny more." It is obvious, therefore, that the Government has neglected and abdicated its responsibility to emigrants.

The problems I have outlined will get worse because one of the main centres in which Irish emigrants in Britain who are not able to look after themselves are cared for, Cricklewood Homeless Concern, is for sale. A fund-raising effort is ongoing in an attempt to ensure theCricklewood facility is retained as a welfare centre but a substantial amount of money is needed to buy it. If the centre closes, the plight of those who live there will get considerably worse. Many of them will be sent onto the streets. My home county and province have been bled white over the years as a result of emigration. I saw many from County Mayo, some of whom I know, on "Prime Time". They are living in conditions of the most horrendous and abysmal squalor in London.

We have to get our priorities right. The people I have discussed have an irrefutable case for assistance from the Government which has a social and a moral obligation to do what it has not done before now — to enhance considerably the DION fund and give humane relief to those who find themselves in such a plight.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, was interviewed at the end of the "Prime Time" programme because DION is administered by his Department. I have to say it was one of the most insensitive interviews I have ever seen. The Minister did not seem to have any feeling for the plight and needs of Irish emigrants. He did not seem to sense that we had an obligation to do something about their problems. He certainly did not give any ray of hope in respect of the Government's intention to address this difficult and important issue.

Tom Parlon (Minister of State, Department of Finance; Laois-Offaly, Progressive Democrats)
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I speak on behalf of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, who cannot be here because he is in Rwanda representing the European Union at the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the dreadful genocide that took place there in 1994.

I welcome the opportunity to respond to Senator Higgins who spoke about the DION fund and Cricklewood Homeless Concern. The Government has provided assistance for Irish emigrants abroad for many years. It demonstrated its commitment to protecting and supporting those abroad in December 2001 when it established a task force to examine policy on emigrants. The task force was charged with addressing "the special needs of those Irish emigrants abroad who are particularly marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion" and developing a coherent, long-term approach to emigrants and their needs. The task force presented its report to the Minister for Foreign Affairs at the end of August 2002. The report contains many wide-ranging and far-reaching proposals. It sets the issue of emigrants in a forward-looking context and provides a template for addressing the needs of the Irish abroad in the future. In line with the recommendations of the task force report on emigrants, responsibility for the DION fund was transferred to the Department of Foreign Affairs from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on 5 February 2003. The DION fund is administered by the embassy in London through the DION committee, an advisory committee set up in 1984 in response to concerns about the situation of Irish emigrants in UK.

The total amount allocated in grants by the DION committee since 1984 is now almost €18 million. More than half of this has been allocated since the Government took office in 1997. The DION fund has increased by more than 300% since 1997, from €762,000 in 1997 to €2.573 million last year. In 2003, some 57 organisations received DION grants totalling €2.573 million. This was 5% less than the total allocated in 2002. However, later in the year a further €150,000 was allocated directly to the Federation of Irish Societies in London from savings. This brought the total allocation to emigrant services in Britain to €2.723 million in 2003, representing overall a slight increase — €15,000 — on the 2002 figure.

In 2003, more than half the fund — approximately €1.3 million — went to vulnerable groups. Of this, €873,000 was allocated to projects to support the older Irish in Britain, €119,000 to projects for returning emigrants and €332,000 to projects for Irish Travellers in Britain. Several of these projects involve social activities which have added health benefits, helping older people to continue to live independently. In addition, older Irish people have access to welfare organisations assisted by the DION fund which provide advice on welfare and health benefits available to them. It is clear that a substantial amount is being done by the Government through the DION fund to assist elderly and vulnerable Irish emigrants in the UK. Although we sympathise with the plight of the individuals featured in the "Prime Time" programme, it did not give a balanced picture of the level of support being provided.

Eighteen organisations now receive funding on a three year basis and this accounts for 47% of the fund. Multi-annual funding is generally accepted to have a positive impact on staff retention in voluntary organisations and leads to greater prospects for securing funding from the statutory sector. Last year the number of Irish people assisted by Irish welfare organisations funded by DION was in the region of 23,000, with a further 7,500 or so in non-Irish managed organisations — more than 30,000 Irish people in all. The employment impact of the DION grants is now significant. DION supported 100 voluntary sector jobs in 2003, double the number of jobs supported three years ago. The total number of staff in the organisations approved for funding was 703, which means that DION supported almost 15% of their staffing. Last year DION supported 35% of the voluntary sector jobs.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs announced in December that he had secured an additional €1 million in the Vote for the Department of Foreign Affairs for services to emigrants in 2004. This brings the overall expenditure on emigrant services by the Department of Foreign Affairs this year to slightly more than €4 million, an increase of one third on 2003. He also hopes to be able to find some additional funds through savings in his Department's Vote later in the year which will enable him to increase this amount even further. In addition, approximately 60% of those who qualify under the pension scheme introduced by the Government in 2000 for people with pre-1953 contributions are living abroad, mostly in Britain. Approximately €80 million will be paid in these pensions to Irish people abroad in 2004. Many thousands of elderly Irish people living in Britain will benefit as a result.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs intends to allocate the bulk of the additional €1 million to the DION fund. There is no doubt that the UK is the country with the largest concentration of vulnerable Irish emigrants. Accordingly, he was pleased to announce that a total of €3.57 million will be allocated to the DION fund this year. This represents an increase of 30% over the total expended in 2003. Included in this amount is funding for a project by the Federation of Irish Societies to provide greater support to their affiliated organisations to improve their capacity to manage their services and secure funding from local sources in the UK. This capacity building support is vital to enable the Irish welfare agencies to make the most effective use of the funds provided by the Government and to assist them in broadening the base of their funding to encompass other available sources. The provision of support for capacity building was a key proposal in the task force report and this project is giving direct effect to that recommendation.

The Cricklewood Homeless Concern is a voluntary organisation which was set up in 1983. It offers day care and other care opportunities to homeless people and people in insecure housing in the north London borough of Brent and surrounding boroughs. In 2002, about 60% of the organisation's predominately male clients were Irish — 433 out of a total of 705. In 1983, the organisation was offered the use of a building at 60 Ashford Road through the good offices of the local parish. The building in question was the property of the Catholic diocese of Westminster and the CHC had rent-free use of the property for almost 20 years. It is the location of the day care centre. Following a decision by the diocese to sell the building, the CHC was offered first refusal and negotiated a purchase price with the diocese for more than £700,000. It is estimated that repairs to and modernisation of the building will cost a further £1 million. The purchase of the building was completed on Wednesday, 31 March. The next stage of the CHC's plans involves the refurbishment of the building and a donor has funded the centre's PR company to work on the funding for this for a further six months.

The Cricklewood Homeless Concern centre has been supported by the DION fund since at least 1989. However, building projects and the provision of accommodation are outside the DION criteria for funding and the Cricklewood Homeless Concern centre has not directly approached the DION committee to seek funding for this project. However, the Irish ambassador in London has met a representative of the company which is spearheading the Cricklewood Homeless Concern centre fundraising and he has indicated that he will give his ongoing support for the centre's efforts to raise funds.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs welcomes and shares the concern of this House about to the plight of our emigrants abroad. We owe an enormous debt to our emigrants. Through their sacrifices and generosity they have helped to make a better life for their families at home as well as themselves. Our emigrants have been a credit to their communities and to their native country and we owe it to those who have not been able to succeed on their own to provide the assistance and support they need. However, we should see our emigrant experience in a wider context than that shown by the recent "Prime Time" programme. Most of our emigrants have created good lives for themselves and their children and have integrated well into their adopted countries. They have made significant contributions to those countries as well as promoting a positive image of Ireland abroad. We can be proud of their achievements.

There is much more that can and should be done to help those who require special support. The Minister for Foreign Affairs will continue to implement the report of the task force and work in partnership with the Governments of the countries concerned and with the voluntary Irish agencies at home and abroad to support our emigrants overseas.