Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Community and Voluntary Sector: Statements, Questions and Answers

 

12:00 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Chamber. I call on him to address the House.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thank Seanad Members for giving me the opportunity to address the House today on the issue of community affairs. Community issues are central and recurring themes for those of us engaged in public life and public service. We are dedicated to doing what is best for our communities, whether these communities are defined as people bound by geographical areas, by common sectoral interests or by thematic interests. No matter how we describe it, it all comes down to community. I am pleased to have the opportunity to address Senators today on my Department's role in community issues, the programmes and supports we provide and some ideas I am seeking to bring forward in this area.

The deliberate marrying of responsibilities in a single Department - the community and the local government briefs - provides me with an excellent opportunity to deliver more sustainable and practical joined-up services at a local level than otherwise would have been the case. I believe the role of local government is very important here and I will come back to that point in a few minutes.

One of my Department's key objectives is to improve the quality of life and welfare of our communities, with a particular focus on those communities that are vulnerable or disadvantaged. We seek to address this objective through a range of supports that foster vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communities, and which also promote an active, democratic and pluralist society. My Department will invest some €163 million on community and local development in 2011. Of course, much of this is provided as matching funding, which means we leverage substantial additional sums for investment in our communities.

The development of sustainable and vibrant communities is not just about providing funding; the funding provided must be invested wisely. For this reason, we aim to have robust programmes that deliver meaningful outcomes for our communities. We always seek to ensure that the impact of investment under these programmes can be assessed. The Senators will understand that with socially focused programmes, this is not always easy to do. However, if we are to ensure the ongoing sustainability of these programmes and continued investment, it is vital that we are able to demonstrate meaningful impacts for the citizen. I am confident that we are in a position to do so.

The local and community development programme is a key social inclusion intervention managed by my Department, which aims to tackle poverty and social exclusion through partnership and constructive engagement between the Government and its agencies and people in disadvantaged communities. Some €63 million will be invested in our urban and rural communities through the programme this year. Given the current economic crisis and the level of unemployment, the programme is more relevant than ever. It works to increase access to formal and informal educational activities, increase people's work readiness and their employment prospects, and provide a solid foundation for employment creation. The programme as it is now being implemented involves a new and improved approach. It is underpinned by a more focused delivery with the aim of improving employment prospects, with more robust monitoring and evaluation in assessing the impacts for individuals and communities. I am proud to say that international evidence suggests we are leading the way with regard to evaluating the impact of the programme.

The rural development programme, particularly the aspects that support the rural economy and community-focused actions, is another key intervention underpinning my Department's community development ethos. This programme seeks to address the unique challenges facing our rural communities by promoting economic activity, stimulating job creation and improving access to basic services for rural dwellers. Over the full programme period, €425 million will be invested in rural areas through its quality of life measures. Some €62 million of this is earmarked for 2011. Given the straitened times we face, the scale of this investment cannot be overestimated. I believe the support provided through the programme will play a vital role in sustaining and developing dynamic rural communities in the years to come.

Notwithstanding the undoubted impact of these and other programmes over the years, there is room for us to do more and do better. We are facing increasing demands from our citizens for higher quality, more cost-effective and more efficient services against a backdrop of reducing resources. We are also facing demands for greater citizen and community participation in the decision-making process. While resources will continue to be stretched in the coming years, the demand for services is likely to increase.

Accordingly, I have started to examine ways in which we can improve the quality and delivery of services to our communities. I am seeking to maintain the provision of high quality front line services within available resources. I want to examine how we can deliver more integrated and joined-up services in a way that responds more effectively to the needs of our communities, and to determine how to develop our communities in a way that involves the communities themselves in the decision-making process, fosters change and provides people with the means to shape their own futures. The best way to achieve this is through a greater alignment of local and community development functions with local government functions. To assist me in this, I have recently established a high-level alignment steering group to consider options for streamlining the delivery of services for our communities. The steering group has a broad remit: it will review the roles of local development and local government, identify the scope for greater synergies between the sectors, and draft a roadmap for delivering simplified, cost-effective and efficient services for the citizen in a way that allows for local oversight and democratic accountability.

I do not intend to pre-empt the deliberations of the steering group, but for us to deliver on the three key aims I mentioned earlier - improved services, greater efficiency and effectiveness, and an appropriate role for local government - a more democratically accountable and responsible system of local governance is required. It is of key importance that we develop a system that provides an enhanced role for local government in the management and delivery of local and community development functions. To date, local government has been satisfied with a limited role in the provision of services to our communities, focusing primarily on the delivery of housing, water, planning, fire and environmental services, to mention a few. As important as these services are, I am convinced the time has come for local government to take a more proactive role with regard to the social inclusion and quality-of-life aspects of its responsibilities. There is significant scope for local government to broaden its attentions beyond what has been perceived as its traditional sphere of responsibility. Accordingly, I expect to see local government take a more holistic approach to the provision of services to the citizen, take a greater lead in the administration and delivery of community and local development interventions at a local level, and take greater responsibility for local planning and decision making.

Let us not be mistaken about this: there is much work to be done if local government is to develop the capacity it will need to deliver on these expectations. In the past two decades, the gap in service provision at local level has been filled successfully by local development companies, albeit with significant public funding. These companies have a proven track record when it comes to delivering services for their communities. They have been the means through which valuable supports have been delivered to the hardest to reach in our communities. By working closely with the communities they serve, they have developed vital expertise and a unique perspective that local government can learn from. We cannot afford to lose this. It is essential, therefore, that we harness the strengths and experiences of both the local government and the local development sectors and ensure that the best elements of both are retained in any revised local governance arrangements. I am confident that local government can work in partnership with local development structures to deliver efficient, sustainable, joined-up and easy to access services.

Looking forward, our delivery systems need to be efficient and cost-effective and make the best use of available resources. As I stated earlier, a greater role for local government can be the key to achieving this. It is inherently inefficient and ineffective to have local governance arrangements that perpetuate the funding of multiple local development agencies from a significant number of Departments and State agencies for similar, complementary or overlapping objectives. There are questions about the impact on efficiency of these delivery agencies, the ability to effectively measure the impact of resources invested and the administrative cost to the State of sustaining these arrangements.

Notwithstanding the achievements of the cohesion process, which has resulted in a significant rationalisation of local development structures, the sheer scale and complexity of the current structures is still daunting. My aim is to unravel this complexity in order to develop local governance structures that are easy for the citizen to navigate and remove barriers to businesses, allowing economic activity to grow and our communities to prosper.

I am conscious of the importance of the community and voluntary sector to the development of our communities. The economic difficulties facing the country have undoubtedly had a considerable impact on both public funding and private investment from business and individuals to the not-for-profit sector, at a time when the need for services from the sector has increased. Parts of the sector are hugely reliant on State funding, with not-for-profit organisations receiving an average of 60% of their funding from the public purse. Clearly, this is very challenging in the current environment. We have a shared responsibility to support the non-profit sector. However, both philanthropy and fund-raising capacity are underdeveloped in this country, and we lag behind other nations such as the US and the UK in terms of a strategic approach to private investment in the non-profit sector. In particular, there is great scope to increase corporate giving in this country. This is why I reconvened the forum on philanthropy and fund-raising last June. I asked the forum to introduce proposals for a strategy to develop philanthropy and fund-raising in support of civil society, and I anticipate that these proposals will be delivered by the end of this month. There is an urgent need for such a strategy, but also a major opportunity to create new and innovative public-private partnerships to address fundamental social and economic challenges and, in addition, to help support arts and cultural initiatives.

We are fortunate in this country to have a vibrant and diverse community and voluntary sector, with more than 14,000 charities and not-for-profit organisations which contribute to Irish society in myriad ways by providing essential services in areas such as social care, child care, care of the elderly, health services, education, the environment, sport and culture. While we are all aware of the value that these organisations bring to our quality of life, perhaps we do not fully recognise the value of the not-for-profit sector in the economic well-being of our country. The wider not-for-profit sector in Ireland employs more than 100,000 people, which is equivalent to the numbers employed in agriculture. It is estimated that the sector has an annual turnover of €5.7 billion and generates €3.7 billion in wages and salaries per annum. Moreover, funding channelled into the sector goes straight to work in every city, town and parish across the country, boosting local employment and the local economy.

These figures do not include the tens of thousands of unpaid volunteers who make an enormous difference on a daily basis in every parish in the country, from serving on school boards to coaching football teams. For example, the Tidy Towns awards ceremony earlier this year paid tribute to what has become one of the most important environmental initiatives in this country, all driven by an army of volunteers working in 821 cities, towns and villages across the country in co-operation with local authorities as well as local business and tourism efforts.

As many of you are aware, 2011 has been designated the European year of volunteering, and it is appropriate that we pay tribute in this House to the countless active citizens within our communities. These volunteers provide care and support services across the community in large and well-established organisations and in small, informal groupings. They measure their success not by making a profit but by making a difference.

I reaffirm my commitment to supporting our rural and urban communities and the people within those communities. My belief in the resilience of our local communities in the current, difficult economic time has been confirmed and enhanced since I became a Minister. I am committed to securing the resources to ensure our communities will be in the best position to meet the challenges presented with the ingenuity and resourcefulness that exists within them.

The current economic situation will continue to present challenges to our communities but with these challenges will come opportunities to pursue social and community development in a more co-operative, creative, innovative and co-ordinated way throughout the country. By giving our communities the opportunity to have a greater say in decision making at a local level, they will emerge stronger and more sustainable as we continue on the road to economic recovery.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I call Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, who has eight minutes. This is set up so that the five groups have eight minutes each and, after that, there will be one minute per question.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Is Sinn Féin recognised as a group for the purposes of the debate?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It is only for spokespersons for groups. That is the way the business has been ordered.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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In previous debates such as this one we have been given eight minutes. Will the Leas-Chathaoirleach clarify the situation?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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That arrangement does not apply when there are questions and answers.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Does that mean we are limited to one minute?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps that matter should be brought up at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges but that is the instruction I have before me.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I wish to voice our disappointment and dismay because we have a great deal to add to the debate.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Thank you. Senator Ó Murchú, you have eight minutes.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the Minister. I was particularly impressed with the presentation by the Minister today. He has provided a four page document but I believe he has touched on many of the relevant issues for us to consider today and to be considered in future.

I acknowledge the work done at community level through the local councils, development bodies and the voluntary sector generally. It is generally accepted that we are particularly lucky in Ireland that the community sector has remained strong, vibrant and focused throughout the years. Often the sector is at its best when it is challenged. We are especially challenged at the moment and we have been challenged in the past. The challenges are not always about economic issues; other challenges arise for every community. Everyone in the Chamber and all Members have direct experience of how a community responded urgently when the situation required it, whether it was someone suffering as a result of a local issue, and the manner in which the community came to the aid of that person is something that has inspired all of us.

I am disappointed that Sinn Féin will not have eight minutes. It is important at such a time as this to get all the contributions we can.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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This is why we are in the House. Perhaps this can be examined at a future date because it is difficult to discuss the community and voluntary sector if some grouping in the House does not have the opportunity to put forward its views.

The Minister has stated clearly that he is focused on decision making and ensuring that the local community will, hopefully, have an enhanced role when it comes to this issue. There have been many changes in the past as part of which we have endeavoured to bring the local community into greater cohesion with the statutory bodies. The experience most of us have had in this regard is that where there is a partnership between the community and the local authority and where money is spent, there is a better return rather than when the local authority alone is charged with spending the money. This is the case for several reasons. First, local community organisations have a track record and a focus. They have particular aims and objects. They are at the coalface and they are in touch with the community all the time. Often they are able to bring on board a large degree of volunteerism.

In no way does it surprises me that 2011 has been designated as the year of volunteerism. I drew up a paper on this issue and presented it to the Department because I believe it is important to examine precisely what we mean by volunteerism. The experience many of us have had is that people who are given the opportunity and the structures to come forward with their own talents, time, services and so on are perfectly prepared to do so. Multifaceted organisations and large numbers of other organisations are involved.

Previously, I have remarked that in my home town of Cashel there is a population of 3,000 people but there are 37 community organisations operating at the moment. These organisations cover a wide spectrum of activity, including sports, culture and art. However, there are also bodies providing meals on wheels and others that provide a particular service to the people. I have always believed that if one removed these organisations from the town - it holds true for everywhere else - we would have an impoverished town indeed.

I recall years ago when county managers tended to stay somewhat aloof from the local community. In many ways this strangled the possibility and the potential. However, in the past quarter of a century or more I have seen cases where county managers have opened their doors and engaged with local organisations. Often this has taken place in cases not involving monetary issues but they have been able to provide advice or direct an organisation in a certain way. Therefore, the organisation finds that it has become part of an inclusive operation.

At the moment there is debate and discussion on whether town councils should continue. I have a view on the matter. I realise there are many arguments for saying it is not necessary. However, at times we all believe that decentralisation often delivers the best results. Local councils are in touch with the people. I recall sitting on Cashel Town Council for many years. After the annual estimates meeting, one would go outside the door having struck a rate and there were people waiting outside to meet those involved and to discuss issues immediately. One had to defend what one did or explain something. If one removed town councils there would be a vacuum.

We all speak from our own experience but we see the town of Cashel as an ancient city and we refer to it as the city of the kings. There is a great ceremonial role for councils in this regard. If one takes away the town council, one takes away the potential for these ceremonial roles whether historical, cultural or whatever. I call on the Minister to consult as widely as possible in his deliberations on the matter because no two councils are the same.

In the past in Tipperary there have been two county councils, as my good friend, Senator Denis Landy, is aware, namely, North Tipperary and South Tipperary County Councils. These are to amalgamate but there is also a suggestion abroad that we might go further and link two or three councils together. I caution against such a move because we see county loyalty in question in Croke Park and everywhere and it is remarkably strong and an asset in itself. The Minister touched on this in his presentation. It would be a great pity if we did not continue to acknowledge loyalty to a particular county because we need it now more than ever. I believe the Minister will give a good deal of consideration to this when we are discussing any future amalgamation.

I have left the question of funding late in what I have had to say because I do not believe it is the primary issue. The more we can hold discussions with all partners at local level when funding is available, the better. In this context we may be able to ensure that a particular body can do exceptionally good work with the help of a bedrock of volunteerism and great expertise that is not amateurish in any way and much of which is professional. In the case of a recession such as this one such a body might suffer and people may not be aware of the suffering imposed on such an organisation. I hope there can be a local focus whereby we could ensure this would not happen and that the organisations that have been delivering something will be a help in this regard.

The Minister made a good point with regard to fund-raising and methodology. I offer one small suggestion for the Minister to consider. If one has a few euro to spare at the moment and one put it in the bank one would be lucky to get 0.5% for it. I suggest legislation should be introduced to allow organisations to get loans from outside bodies at a given time, at whatever percentage, such that the person given the loan would not have to pay DIRT. This would mean that at the whim of banks money in deposits, which is dormant to a large degree, would be delivered up to the investor and released back out to the various organisations, the advantage being that they might get it at the rate of 1% or 1.5%. We have operated this system in an organisation and I have seen it working. I am absolutely amazed at the amount of money that is available. If legislated for, it would give the organisations an opportunity of tapping into that money which is lying in banks. I do not think any of us is particularly worried if the banks lose that bit of money and it comes back out into the community.

There are many foundations not just in Ireland but in America, all of which have their own particular focus. People have a case for tapping into those foundations but they do not have the expertise to do it. It would be wonderful if local authorities and the Department would assist people to identify the foundations and the theme of the foundations and provide back-up assistance to enable people tap in. I saw a case recently with a local organisation but I will not mention the foundation. One cannot apply to the foundations, they must make the approach. In this case, a particular organisation was advised to apply on the basis that it would get about €10,000. A person from the foundation happened to attend a particular event and was pleased with what he or she saw and advised the organisation to make an application for €30,000. These are only examples but they are much more prolific than one might think. We need the backup and the professional assistance.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is up.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Some of the officers in local authorities should be updated on issues in the same way as officers in the past did specific work because they could help in identifying bodies that might have a problem throughout the recession. They might also find where there is a place for interaction and co-operation. Even if one is an existing officer, one's role should be extended through consultation.

I wish the Minister well. I am impressed with his presentation because he has done precisely what we need. If I had got a 20 or 30 page presentation today I would have said it was for the shelf. He has touched all the right buttons and we should co-operate with him. Perhaps he will return to the House when we have had an opportunity of testing the waters on some of the issues he has put forward. He said something that is very important, namely, it is not just the quality of life which organisations of a voluntary nature give to a community, they also generate money. Perhaps I can beat the drum in my final bid and express an interest. For example, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann held in Cavan in August generated €40 million for the region. One can work out how much VAT was paid on that amount. Many other organisations do likewise. All the festivals throughout the country generate money for the Exchequer.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator's time is well up.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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The money that is coming back to the organisations helps the State and the local community. I wish the Minister well.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister on this important debate on the community and voluntary sector. As we are aware the community and voluntary sector is the backbone of most of our community, and where would we be without it. I am sure it was music to the Minister's ears to hear the praise he got from Senator Ó Murchú when he said the Government is pressing all the right buttons. I could sit down and not say any more and just note it.

In Ireland we have a long history of volunteerism, much of which has gone unrecorded. The other phrase of meithil refers to the practice of neighbours coming together to face a common challenge, such as the harvest and, in doing so, achieve a common purpose. The creation of mutual bonds of kinship bind communities together and this process has carried on throughout generations. For mental health reasons and so on we save much by the community working together .

Historically volunteering has been an inherent part of the way in which communities in Ireland functioned and sustained themselves and, as such, did not garner much academic or policy attention until recent decades. While the history of volunteering might be lacking rigorous or indepth scholarly work, the area was given attention in the national committee on volunteering report in 2002. Different phases in the development of volunteerism in Ireland were noted in that report as drawing on the Christian concept of Caritas in medieval times and the strong tradition of Protestant philanthropy in the 18th century. I will speak a little more about philanthropy which the Minister mentioned in his statement. I welcome his proposals on the forum on philanthropy.

The report identifies the Gaelic revival in sport, culture and language as having very strong historical roots in voluntary work. It also mentions the health benefits that people derive from giving - it is not only in receiving that people benefit but people derive health benefits from giving.

Traditional definitions of volunteerism would suggest that volunteering is comprised of activities that are unpaid and entered into without compulsion. In Ireland, however, volunteering can include a notion of membership, for example, membership of organisations such as the GAA. The concept of member and volunteer can be one and one. The two greatest organisations, one of which was mentioned by Senator Ó Murchú, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and the GAA are built on the selfless efforts of volunteers, both of which have economic benefits. The volunteers travel up and down the country with their clubs. The benefit to the community is in the doing and in the participation. It is important not to forget the many people who give of their time to the community through the Tidy Towns competition.

The nature of volunteering may have changed over the decades but the needs of the individual and community for self-expression will continue and it is one of the significant aspects of volunteering, as is participation in community. They play a valuable role in society. The voluntary sector involves an incredible diversity of activity ranging from the informal to the highly structured, from the small ad hoc group to the well-established larger organisations.

The Minister has mentioned the changes he will make in the community and voluntary sector. Those changes are welcome. While it would be inappropriate for Government to seek full involvement across the voluntary activity or to control it, it is clear that it can continue to provide an enabling framework for this activity.

The great strength of voluntary activities emerges organically from our local communities. The Minister mentioned the proposals made in October by the European Commission outlining frameworks for the delivery of EU funds post the 2013 period which places community-led local development at the centre of the future development of the European Union. This announcement is welcome. The new EAFRD regulation which forms part of the Common Agricultural Policy announced in Brussels last week also reinforces the centrality of community-led local development.

The commitment of the Government and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, to reducing duplication of services providing more efficient and effective local services and ensuring greater democratic accountability in decision making at local level, through the alignment of local government and local development sectors, is commendable. I note the Minister used the word "alignment" and not "amalgamation". There is much alignment and some amalgamation has to be done.

The reconstitution of the Department was a deliberate strategic decision to bring together the three key actors working in all our communities under one Department. Every year two thirds of Irish adults, more than 2 million people, engage in social, cultural and humanitarian exercises through a voluntary organisation.

The community sector is estimated to be worth €5.7 billion to the Irish economy and provides more than 63,000 full-time and part-time jobs, and pays €3.7 billion in wages. That is not to be sniffed at. Where would we be without the community and voluntary sector and its tireless work throughout the State?

The Minister indicated that he is aiming for a closer alignment of local government and local development, with the objective of reducing duplication of services, ensuring greater democratic accountability and decision making at local level and delivering more efficient and effective services for citizens. He mentioned his commitment to the rural social scheme, with €425 million being allocated for quality of life services, of which €62 million is earmarked for this year. I understand this is an increase of some millions of euro. I welcome this announcement and the streamlining of the different organisations.

On public expenditure, the cutbacks in various areas are regrettable. However, many of these cutbacks have been for the purpose of eliminating duplication. The previous Government introduced a reduction of 8% in the community infrastructure programme in 2009. In 2010 the Department's budget was reduced by a further 10%, leading to an overall cut of 18% and 20% in funding for community organisations. This Government, unfortunately, has also had to make reductions, although, as I said, this was in many cases for the purposes of streamlining.

Will the Minister indicate how plans for the setting up of an all-Ireland consultative civic forum, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, are progressing? On a previous occasion in this House I asked the Minister to consider establishing a forum at local authority level. We have the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a member, and we are hopeful that the all-Ireland consultative civic forum will soon be established, but the ad hoc group that was in place at local level is no more.

Have the provisions of the Charities Act 2009 been enacted regarding regulation of charities and the establishment of a charities regulation authority? We are all in favour of good governance and effective regulation not only in business, but also in respect of the community and voluntary sector. The Minister alluded to that in his statement. Although many board members of voluntary organisations are to be commended on their talents, the 2006 Dóchas report into governance in the community and voluntary sector found that many individuals were unsure of their roles and responsibilities and there was a prevalence of individuals sitting on boards who were not perhaps suited to their particular role.

On the connection between politics and volunteering, many of us are here in this House because of our involvement in volunteer work. I was so concerned about the divide between politics and volunteering that I took off myself off to Maynooth to study community development and volunteering. There are many people on town councils who are volunteers and are not there for the money. They devote great time to these matters and we should not forget them in today's debate. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú referred to that. In seeking to avoid duplication in the provision of water, roads and planning, we should also recognise the input of town councillors and local volunteers. There are ways to accommodate their input; it is not a question of having to have a water authority in every town.

I welcome the measures referred to by the Minister in regard to philanthropy. There is great scope for development in that area.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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I propose to share time with Senator Jillian van Turnhout.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Independent)
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Before I begin, I take this opportunity to express my disappointment that the rules currently limit Sinn Féin's contribution to one minute.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I am impressed with and appreciate his comments. He is a man of action and implementation, and I look forward to what comes from his leadership in this arena. I also welcome the debate as an integral part of the ongoing work of his and other Departments in developing strategies for and with the community and voluntary sector. It is a time of exceptional challenge and opportunity for the work of Ireland's charitable and voluntary groups. The Minister indicated that there are 14,000 such organisations in the country. The figure I had was 7,900, but I will go with the Minister's figure; it all depends how one cuts it. Suffice to say we are talking about a huge number of organisations.

It is also a time of challenge for the sector's representative groupings such as the Irish National Community and Voluntary Forum and the Wheel, and for the Government's agenda of local government reform. I thank the Minister for his leadership in this regard. He referred in his speech to bringing together community and local government; that was a creative stroke. I say this in light of my own lengthy experience of working in the community and voluntary sector in south Dublin county, particularly with the communities of west Tallaght, as well as in colleagueship with other community actors and counties.

From the community and local development side, I have experienced the extraordinary resilience, innovation, flexibility and effectiveness of ordinary citizens gathering together to respond to local needs and ambitions. These citizens, working together, have met the needs which State agencies were unable to meet, especially in communities experiencing severe disadvantage and intergenerational poverty. From the local government side, I have witnessed the progressive efforts of elected representatives and executive administrations in developing programmes to provide more effective public services for citizens and residents which go beyond the traditional services delivered by local authorities. I have experience of working in partnership with community agencies, local development agencies, local authorities and philanthropic organisations in developing innovative services and programmes. I am sure the Minister will take such innovations into account as he develops the plans.

The challenge is to devise a new framework that will enable community and local government actors to develop and implement a common agenda as one community, pushing through the territorialities and drawing on the assets and strengths of each. It is vital at this juncture that there is a mutual meeting of minds between participative democracy - which is where I would locate the community and voluntary sector - and representative democracy, where local government is located, in order to design, decide on, resource and implement the delivery of high-quality, effective and efficient public services. This new framework should contain vibrant public spaces for advocacy and influence on laws and national policies. Surely this is part of the contribution that local democracy in both its forms has to offer national sustainability.

I have several questions which I hope will assist the Minister in meeting this challenge. First, how is his Department engaging with the community and voluntary sector in order to engage its learnings in the design, delivery and evaluation of high-quality services which meet the needs of citizens and residents? Does he plan to engage directly with the sector, perhaps through a national dialogue, on how to structure and govern effective programmes and services, build programme design and service content on robust theories of change, and ensure collaboration between local government and community agents in determining how these programmes should operate and how outcomes should be achieved by means of a negotiated process?

Second, the Minister has spoken of the need for greater alignment between local government and local development sectors in the context of the Government's reform agenda. Does he view the community and voluntary sector as part of the local development sector or situated alongside it? The latter is my view. It is critical to retain the independence of the community and voluntary sector as well as its interdependence with local development and local government. I ask the Department to consider a recent publication from the Wheel on this issue.

Third, what is the scope of the Minister's vision for partnership - I prefer the word "partnership" to "alignment" - between local government and local and community development? Given that, as the Minister is aware, local government is extremely complicated territory, does it encompass the Government's genuine desire to devolve resources as well as responsibility from central to local democratic structures? Does the Minister's vision incorporate a key role for community development approaches to reducing poverty, social exclusion and inequality? I use the term "community development approaches" in a technical sense.

As the Minister has indicated, his Department is responsible for the forum on philanthropy and fund raising, and he will be receiving an interim report shortly. Will he be in a position then to recommend to Government practical ways to increase charitable, philanthropic and planned giving to support the diversification of the funding base of the not-for-profit sector? Does the Government have any plans regarding the Irish Nonprofits Knowledge Exchange, an online register of all Irish charities and a critical building block for effective regulation of the sector?

Organisations within the community and voluntary sector receive supports and funding from a range of Departments. Do the Minister's plans incorporate an ambition to drive a joined-up and cross-departmental strategy and implementation plan to foster vibrant, sustainable and inclusive communities?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Senator van Turnhout has one minute if she wishes to take it.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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That is fine. I hope we get the same latitude other groups got.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Other groups, but not Sinn Féin.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Inconsistency is a bad regime.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I wholeheartedly agree with what Senator Zappone said and will not duplicate it. I cite the exemplar, which I believe goes across the board, of the scheme to support national organisations in the community and voluntary sector. We all appreciate that we are in a time of cuts. However, to try to meet the shortfall created by those cuts, organisations are approaching many Departments or statutory agencies such as the HSE. This year far more organisations received grants from this scheme, which disproportionately affected those national organisations for which this is the sole or core funding they receive from the State. That needs to be reviewed within the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and also in the wider scheme of funding community and voluntary organisations.

In the Dáil on 16 June the Minister highlighted the need to eliminate duplication, with which I agree. However, we also need to be careful about the gaping holes being created by the funding crisis as we force organisations to move from place to place looking to fill that vacuum of a non-consistent funding policy. We have an opportunity to put in the building blocks consistent with the vision we want for the country in the years ahead. A few years ago the previous Government in a very courageous move dropped the €1,000 early child-care supplement and introduced the free pre-school year. It considered impact and outcomes for children. It was universal with no top-up facility and has a 98% uptake rate. It saves money for the State and has improved outcomes for children. Those are the types of initiatives we should consider for this sector.

1:00 pm

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the debate which represents the start to a wider debate. I agree with much of what Senator Zappone said. I approach these matters from the point of view of the citizen and not from the point of view of a sector or group. Having been involved in local government for 25 years and having also worked in the voluntary sector in a family resource centre for a number for a number of years, I can see things from both sides of the fence. It should not be about them versus us but about both groups working in partnership. At the end of this, democratic accountability should be the most important issue. We need to realign and change the present system while maintaining democratic accountability.

The community and voluntary sector covers a wide range. Others have already mentioned that this is the year of volunteering. Local development includes development companies, partnerships and enterprise boards. Community development includes RAPID programmes, community development projects and family resource centres. All these groups work together but sometimes there is a misconception that these are all voluntary organisations. However, as the Minister correctly said, they represent an economic driver and provide almost €6 billion into the economy on an annual basis with wages of almost €4 billion. While this may sometimes be lost it was illuminated during the general election campaign when the figures came out.

The work of local and community development groups in tackling poverty and making people more ready to take up employment and to provide foundations for employment opportunities is extremely important. The realignment of local government and local development companies is the core. The Minister used the word "realignment" and others used the word "partnership" - one can use any word one likes. In recent years local development companies in whatever guise have overtaken local government. The role of local government has been greatly reduced. The Minister spoke about broadening the remit of local government into the areas of social inclusion and quality of life issues. I have consistently said that local government should be involved in education, not just in VECs but across the entire sphere of education. It should be involved to a greater extent in policing and not just sitting on joint policing committees but also having a real involvement in policing as well as in health and economic activity in the local area.

I seek information on the terms of reference of the steering group the Minister established. It is essential that the players in community and local government be represented in that group. If the people who are at the coalface are not participating, the outcome will be very poor. There has been mention of the local authority system being involved in the realignment. I hope the Minister is referring to town councils and county councils. The town council is the core of any small town and is the centre of all activity within that town from a democratic perspective. A number of years ago when I was mayor of my local town two development groups from the area attended a meeting on a local issue. Both groups were in a position to offer up to €100,000 to help with the problem the community had, but I, as mayor of the town, did not have the facility to offer €1. We have been overtaken in terms of the money being disbursed in our community, which needs to be brought back into the centre. I want democratic accountability and I want the voluntary, community and the local democratic system to work together. Ultimately, the democratic process and democratic accountability must be at the start and finish.

The Minister spoke about expanding the remit of local government. Would he consider establishing a scheme similar to the CE scheme within the local authority system to provide services for elderly people who live in local authority houses for the general maintenance and upkeep of their houses? Owing to the recruitment embargo local authorities do not have the staff to do this. I ask the Minister to consider the issue of the struggling last shop, pub and filling station in small villages. If they close, the village as an entity and as a community will die. The Minister can have a role in that matter if he makes an intervention. I look forward to his responses to the questions posed and I look forward to the debate continuing.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I wish to share time with Senator Crown.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I appreciate all he has said and is doing, in particular in regard to the forum on philanthropy and fund-raising referred to by Senator Zappone. In regard to the philanthropy problem, it appears to me that the reason we do not have a high target is the use by wealthy people of tax breaks to avoid paying tax. The introduction of tax breaks has affected philanthropy, which I am sure was not the intention. This means a person wishing to give away money rather than pay tax on it cannot do so. It is hoped that issue will be addressed.

There are many great things happening in this country in respect of which the State could act as a catalyst. I wish to bring to the attention of the House the first of a six part programme, in which I am involved, about Drogheda commencing tonight on television entitled, "Local Heroes - A Town Fights Back". It will be fascinating to watch. The programme is produced by RTE, which believes that as a public service broadcaster it should be encouraging community and voluntary effort. One such effort is the investment by the people of Drogheda in a time bank. A time bank is the giving freely by a local solicitor, plumber, electrician and so on of one, two or three hours of his or her time to help the community. It is a great example of what could happen with the assistance of various services throughout the country. This is the type of activity in which the State can act as a catalyst.

The issue of whether people should have to work following a particular length of time on social welfare has been raised. Many people say they would prefer to be doing something to help their community rather than at home doing nothing. In Holland, following receipt of social welfare for 12 months, a person is required by Government to take up a job, say, painting a local school or cleaning the floors of a local hospital in exchange for social welfare payments. As I said earlier, many people would prefer to do this rather than be at home doing nothing.

During a discussion I had with an RTE journalist in regard to an article on community employment schemes in Ireland, he told me how well they are working and that they could, if they had more managers to supervise them, employ hundreds of people. Surely, there are out of work many highly qualified people who could be encouraged by way of extra funding to manage community employment schemes. The journalist told me he saw firsthand the lift given to people working in their communities cleaning graffiti off walls, repairing homes and so on. These are people who would otherwise have been unemployed. In this regard, the journalist spoke to half a dozen from Darndale and Coolock. It is pity there are not more similar projects operating in the country. The manager of the Coolock centre said they need funding for more managers of work teams and that they could take hundreds of people off the dole with a little more funding. I am not seeking funding in that regard.

The international baccalaureate requires students to set themselves eight targets of community work, in respect of which they are awarded extra points in their examination. Perhaps a similar incentive could be included in our education system. As I understand it, sixth year students in Britain who undertake such work are given marks towards their final examinations. I believe we could do likewise. There is much willingness in Ireland to do voluntary work but a little spark is needed. I do not believe that spark is a money spark, rather it is the type of spark being undertaken by RTE in this area. Other State bodies could encourage people to do likewise. All people need is encouragement. The Minister referred earlier to the amount of good work being done and the level of enthusiasm and energy in community and voluntary work. The Minister's heart, in terms of the words he used today, is in the right place. Let us ensure it happens.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I understand that in respect of charities the primary regulatory function resides with the Department of Finance.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Department of Justice and Equality.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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I learn something new every day. Are charities not registered with the Department of Finance?

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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That function has been transferred to the Department of Justice and Equality.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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And Revenue.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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The Minister should encourage the culture and philosophy of the charitable sector within his Department, which would have the same aims of most charities. Before making some general points, I would like to make one specific point. It is probably not widely known that virtually all the clinical medical research which takes place in this country is undertaken voluntarily. Almost no doctors are paid as part of their contract to do medical research. Most of those who do research, do so on an entirely voluntary basis and during family rather than practise time. This can have huge benefits, namely, medical research makes treatment better, patients on medical research programmes tend to get better treatment than do patients getting equivalent treatments off-programme because of the added discipline and rigour of taking part in a research study. Also, it has the potential to bring in huge amounts of investment.

I have run several medical research focused charities over the years. Without going into all the details, I believe, on the back of an envelope calculation, that they have generated approximately 200 jobs and have brought millions of euros into the country. More important, they have resulted in the availability for our people of millions of euros of drugs that would otherwise not have been available.

While the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for ensuring everything is done by the book, it is important the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government attempts to grease the wheels to ensure there is a facilitation of the research process. There are many people who will donate money to charities, charities which have many beneficial social aims. These people may be happier to donate to a charity than to Government which may use it to pay off bondholders, public relations contracts or other functions which they would believe to be less socially rewarding.

The issue of charities being forced to pay VAT on their purchases needs to be addressed. It is wholly illogical that companies can in respect of commercial purposes write off expenses while charities cannot. I strongly encourage the notion of work fare, as outlined by Senator Quinn to whom I am grateful for sharing his time with me. People are, through no fault of their own for the most part, unemployed. There are many unemployed people in receipt of a degree of benefit who would like to contribute to society. The charities with which I am involved have calculated that with ten, 20 or 30 hours of voluntary work their costs could be overcome. I ask that the Minister keep an eye on the charities ball.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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We now move to questions and answers. I remind Senators that they have one minute for questions. I call Senator Colm Burke.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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My involvement in the voluntary sector is based on my legal background and my chairmanship of a community association which employed more than 30 people under a community employment scheme, which worked effectively. Many of the people involved in that scheme had gotten into the rut of being unemployed and found participation in it extremely helpful in terms of assisting them to get back into the labour force.

I have two questions for the Minister. I am concerned, from a legal point of view, about the structure of voluntary organisations. There are no checks and balances in place in regard to the structure of many organisations, in particular organisations in which there is no change of personnel over a long period. There is a need for some accountability in this area. We need to put in place a template for organisations involved at community level. I do not believe this is currently being done. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government needs to address this issue. It is important people do not feel excluded in their communities. One group should not be allowed remain in charge for a long period to the exclusion of others. This issue needs to be addressed.

My second question relates to community employment schemes and whether it is proposed to grow them given the significant number of people looking for something to do. I agree with Senator Feargal Quinn in this matter. People want to get involved but there are not sufficient opportunities available to them. The community sector is one such opportunity. Is the Department considering an expansion and encouragement of that area in the next year?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Go raibh míle maith agat. Tá an diomá orm nach bhfuaireamar deis ráiteas a dheanamh mar tá go leor leor ceisteanna gur cheart a árdú le linn na díospoireachta seo. I am quite disappointed because I do not think this is a real debate but rather more of a back slapping exercise. The community and voluntary sector which I am in contact with is a sector in crisis. It is in crisis because of the cutbacks in funding that have happened under the previous Administration and which are being followed through by this Administration. Structures have been dismantled. A group of people working on a project in Dublin have told me that children are going hungry because of the cut in funding to community and voluntary organisations. It is a scandal that the House is not delving into the much more substantial issues in the community and voluntary sector. Many fundamental questions need to be asked about the fundamental philosophy behind the possible centralisation or alignment of the services. Where is the evidence that the services provided under the community and voluntary sector will be served better by alignment with local authorities?

The Minister stated that the cohesion process resulted in a significant rationalisation of local development structures. I agree that it did this by reducing the number of structures but I question whether it delivered a better service. I contend that it did not because in many cases the rationalisation of those local development structures meant that those services were taken away from the communities. It meant that the people involved in the local development and in different local projects lost the power when the funding was taken away and put into a much more political arena of the local authority which is not necessarily a good thing.

I will give a practical example. I was involved in a local development company in 2008. I did an analysis of the cost of employing an employee in the local development organisation as opposed to the local authority and the relevant Department. The figures showed it cost on average €43,000 a year to employ a person in the Department, €73,000 a year in the local authority and only €34,000 in the local development company. It was much cheaper to employ people locally in those community development projects than to employ them in the more central organisations. I do not believe there is any evidence to show that the realignment suggested by the Minister is in any way more efficient and will deliver a better service and will serve the people in the communities who are marginalised, who are suffering and who need help. These people have had their funding cut. I do not think there is any evidence-----

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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An bhfuil ceist ag an Seanadóir?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Where is the evidence that this is a better model? I do not believe that it is so and I do not think the community and voluntary sector believes it either.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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In reply to Senator Burke's question about a community structures model, I will certainly take on board his suggestion to see if best practice can be streamlined on how structures are established. It is a matter for the community at local level to decide the length of service of a person. The situation can arise in both voluntary organisations and those set up through local development companies where rules of engagement have not been devised as to the length of service allowed for a position. This means that a person may stay in perpetuity. This is not an easy matter to resolve and it is a matter for the local people. I will take on board his suggestions on streamlining and consolidation needed in identifying best practice and a model for community structures.

We are looking at the community employment schemes through local government. I know Senator Ó Clochartaigh has a problem about local government but-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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It is not a problem with local government; it is the question of which is more efficient.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I do not have a problem with local government. I do not have a problem with a democratic structure. When taxpayers' money is being given out we want democratic legitimacy and accountability-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Absolutely, and also efficiency.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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This is why structures which may be close to the Senator's heart found themselves in difficulties. They might not be democratic or accountable to anybody except maybe to a Department whereas the democratic accountability should be at local level. The expansion of community employment schemes is very closely involved with ensuring the people in a community who want to do what Senator Quinn is advocating will be able to work in a structured and supervised way and also with the help of a structure called local government to deliver for the local people. We are in discussions with the trade union movement and with local government and the Department of Social Protection to roll out in 2012 an expansion of that programme through local government.

I note Senator Ó Clochartaigh has a certain problem with local government but I do not have that problem.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I do not have a problem at all with local government.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Senator said services can be delivered more effectively by a standalone local community organisation rather than by local government.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I believe they can deliver them more efficiently.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I do not believe it can be done efficiently because of the back office services and administrative burden it puts on the local community and also the fact that there is space and capacity in local government to deliver in a properly focused and aligned way. The Senator will know from his own area that it does not always work out that the local development company is able to deliver because things can go wrong. There has been a liquidation of a local development company in the Senator's area, not because of the Senator but because of -----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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An official in Galway County Council cannot deliver as well in Lettermullen.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The taxpayer is in a much better position by means of the local representatives and by means of the internal audit procedures and the local government audit to ensure that people are accountable in a very open and transparent way for how money is spent. I am aligning community and local government to achieve a more effective bang for the buck-----

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Is there evidence to back up that claim?

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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There is plenty of evidence.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Where is it?

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I will come back to the Senator in that regard.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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On a point of order, will the questions asked during the contributions from the various speakers be dealt with now or at the conclusion of the session?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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Perhaps, yes.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I have two questions. I note a report on philanthropy and fund-raising will be delivered to the Minister at the end of this month. It would be important for the Minister to talk to his colleague, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, who has also commissioned a report on fund-raising-----

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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His Department is represented on this group.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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He too has commissioned a separate report under the chairmanship of John McGrane to examine the philanthropic context of not-for-profit arts and culture sectors. There could be a possibility of duplication and also a bit of enhancement. I ask the Minister to speak to the officials from that Department to achieve some kind of cohesion. I am not sure if the report has been published yet but the charity sector, the voluntary sector, the arts sector, are all within the same area and it would be helpful if the Government could launch one report and perhaps synergise both outcomes.

I note the Minister's observations with regard to requiring a democratic, accountable and responsible system of local government involving the citizen. This may not be the opportunity but we would welcome the Minister back on another occasion to discuss how the citizen can become involved in local democratic accountability. For instance, in the United States taxes are raised and spent locally. School boards are locally elected and the US citizen can participate in local financial decision-making and the reform of local government.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
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I will make three brief points on contributions from other Senators. I wish to inform Senator Quinn that Dublin City University has a very active programme of student involvement as part of final qualification for activity in the community. I refer to what Senator Crown said about philanthropy in the medical sector. When I was having my second child, I noticed a heart monitor which had been provided by a very famous singer. I would have preferred if he had been paying more tax and I could have had that heart monitor as part of my basic human and health rights rather than it being a matter of philanthropy.

While philanthropy is all very good, I have noticed in third level institutions that the State is providing 85% to 90% of the funding for particular buildings, a particularly well-known person, an entrepreneur, gives 10% of the funding and yet the building is not named after the Minister or the State but rather after the person who gave the 10%. I am exercising a note of caution to the Minister that the State should be receiving congratulations for its contribution rather than the person who gave the 10%.

As for the issue at hand, the point has been made by other speakers that there are wide divergences. It is between the community and the voluntary sector and it is in that regard I have a question for the Minister. Historically, much of the growth of the voluntary sector has arisen by way of gaps identified in the failure of State provision. Part of the reason certain voluntary organisations have become as large as they are is the failure of statutory bodies to mainstream much of that provision. Most voluntary organisations have no assurance from year to year in regard to their funding, yet they employ significant numbers of people, have pension and insurance contributions, must pay for buildings and insurance and so forth. Has the Minister's Department considered promoting biannual funding, at very least, for these organisations? I know from experience that some voluntary organisations receive acknowledgment of their annual funding 11 months into the year. That means the voluntary sector is supporting State activities out of its own resources for 11 of 12 months in the year. This is untenable.

It is important to bear in mind, too, that the previous Government, in particular, placed much focus on voluntary provision in a number of areas because it deemed this to be more efficient, but mainly because it was cheaper. A great amount of pressure has been put on the voluntary sector to deliver where certain programmes are being put in place, particularly at local authority level. Has the Minister any plans to evaluate some of the decisions of the previous Government concerning the placing of this level of emphasis on the voluntary sector?

I agree completely with the Minister there needs to be cost efficiency, and so forth but it is important to remember this is a two-way street. Although the voluntary sector has obligations to be efficient and cost effective, the State also has an obligation to the voluntary sector.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I am aware of the philanthropy report mentioned by Senator Mac Conghail. An official from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is on the steering group for the forum on philanthropy and is feeding ideas in so I do not believe there will be duplication. We will ensure there is not.

Photo of Fiach MacConghailFiach MacConghail (Independent)
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It would be nice if both Ministers were to launch this together because there would be a good connection between the two areas.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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This will be so big it will not be required of me to launch it. It will be somebody bigger and better than me, perhaps the Taoiseach.

Local Government reform is an area to which we will return in the Seanad in the near future, when I have gone further in crystallising views and hearing Senators' views on how we should move forward with reform.

I acknowledge Senator Hayden's words of caution about philanthropy. I hope it did not take up too much of my speech. I certainly do not wish to convey that it is the only issue but I was asked questions about it and responded in that context. The forum on philanthropy was dormant for a number of years but we have revitalised it in recent months to see what is the best and most structured way for people who are interested in giving and becoming involved in a giving campaign and also to help the very worthy causes that need some assistance. The State will never be able to cover everything. However, I sincerely take on board the Senator's observation. This will be a very small part of the effort we will make towards the community and voluntary sector, in support of the policies we will pursue and the core funding, the other issue she mentioned. I agree there is a degree of uncertainty. I inherited a very difficult situation with regard to the community and voluntary sector. There were many headings that had applied for money but there was no money. I am streamlining that situation at present to see what we can do to give more certainty to the various organisations in the future.

Photo of Terry BrennanTerry Brennan (Fine Gael)
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As a volunteer for more than 40 years, since I was a toddler, I wish to acknowledge the part played by volunteers throughout this country for many years. As we all know, this is the European Year of Volunteering. I wish to pay tribute to those from all walks of life, young and old, who, as the Minister remarked, work in their various communities not for profit but to make a difference. We must acknowledge the difference they make. The Minister mentioned, for example, 820 tidy towns committees throughout the country who work from January to January to improve their own towns and villages and make them better places to live in and to visit. They make a significant contribution to tourism. I often wonder what it would be like if we did not have the GAA, the credit union, tidy towns committees or meals on wheels. What sort of an Ireland would we have in the 21st century? It is remiss of us not to recognise the contribution of all these people. As somebody observed, not all of them get medals or prizes.

My question concerns the Leader programme. The Minister may correct me if I am wrong. For projects in that programme which are in excess of €200,000, I understand final approval is made by Brussels. As a public representative, when I hear Brussels, I think of delay, bureaucracy, i's not dotted, whatever. For communities throughout the country who may have succeeded in raising half their costs and are anxious to get their projects completed, does the Minister envisage any major delays in approval of these various projects?

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I was late so I ask to be forgiven if my questions were already put. I heard the Minister mention the Leader company in Senator Ó Clochartaigh's neck of the woods. When will that company be replaced? Is there any inter-measure in place at present for community groups that may have received approval under the old Leader company and are now not in a position to access funding, in particular those groups which are ready to act? I would appreciate any such information from the Minister.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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As did Senator Brennan, I acknowledge the contribution of the volunteer sector. The OECD did a study some time ago on citizen participation and volunteering. Ireland is the second highest placed in the OECD for citizens volunteering, giving time or money or helping a stranger, with, on average, 60% having done so in the month previous to the carrying out of the survey. The European average is 39%. We have a higher recognition on the part of the general public of the need to volunteer and the generous way in which people do so is reflected in that survey.

In 2007 there was a task force on active citizenship arising from which 22 volunteer centres were established around the country. These are funded by my Department. Core funding is given to Volunteer Ireland, which used to be two organisations, Volunteer Centres of Ireland and Volunteering Ireland, but they merged into one in 2010 and are now focused on the work. Volunteer Ireland is involved in advocacy, facilitating volunteering for groups that seek community volunteers and supporting the volunteer strategy, and is part of the national co-ordinating body for the European Year of Volunteering in 2011. It is the host for the 2012 international association of voluntary effort world conference. Apart from the work it does on the ground, Volunteer Ireland does a great deal of co-ordination work.

Some 55% of Leader funding comes from the European Union which also has a say in how the money is spent. One would expect any body that puts forward 55% would have some input. Every Member present knows the European Commission is currently reviewing the rules and regulations concerning Leader funding; I am involved in that. We will have more certainty in regard to the level of re-fund and also, one hopes, more flexibility regarding the various programmes Leader delivers. At the moment, when one gets tied into a certain axis it is very hard for one to come out of it. I am sure every Member of this House can give examples of this problem, particularly in the food sector.

Senator Kelly asked about Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta, MFG. Senator Ó Clochartaigh will be interested in this. I was anticipating that I would be asked about it. Meitheal Forbartha na Gaeltachta Teoranta is an independent company with its own board of management and memorandum and articles of association. Under company law, the board has responsibility for the proper stewardship of the company. It has been confirmed that the board of MFG, on examination of the company's financial situation, took a decision to cease trading as of 4 p.m. on 7 September 2011 on the basis of insolvency. The company is now in liquidation. MFG was contracted by my Department to deliver two main programmes - axis 3 and 4 of the rural development programme and the local and community development programme. It also implemented other programmes on behalf of other Departments.

The recent dissolution of the company is causing difficulties for project promoters in Gaeltacht areas. I am trying to resolve those difficulties by considering the structures that can be put in place instead of MFG. I will examine whether existing structures are able to deal with some of the projects that require payment. Complex legal issues and contractual obligations have to be resolved by the Department. I am conscious of the need to speed up the process and provide for early delivery on behalf of the people who have made applications for projects. I am also conscious of the rights of the staff of MFG under company law. Although my Department does not have a direct role in or responsibility for this matter, we are monitoring it closely. A new structure will have to be established to ensure programmes that are vital to communities are delivered as quickly as possible.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the Minister to the House for the discussion on this important issue. I recently met representatives of the Waterford City Community Forum, which advocates on behalf of many community and voluntary organisations in Waterford. They have been seeking to meet Members of the Oireachtas to discuss the cuts in the funding of the forum itself and the funding of community and voluntary projects across Waterford. The same thing has been happening across the State. I am a former voluntary member at management level of the Larchville-Lisduggan community project in Waterford. I worked as the financial director of the company.

I support a previous Senator who called for the introduction of multi-annual budgets, as that would give certainty to many projects. I regret the fact that the democratic and voluntary elements of community development projects were undermined when they were brought into the partnership process. We are discussing the voluntary sector here today. Many people give up their time voluntarily to do huge amounts of work. If the services they provide were not provided, it would cost the State more money. An economic argument could be made to the effect that if we reduce the funding given to the community and voluntary sector and make it more difficult for people to help and assist those organisations in a voluntary capacity, somebody will have to take up the flak. Some other State agency will have to do what many of these volunteers are currently doing. I do not think it makes economic sense for us to be cutting funding from many community and voluntary projects.

As I wish to be helpful to the Minister, I will make a number of proposals that he might like to take on board. My first suggestion relates to the Dormant Accounts (Amendment) Bill 2011, which was discussed in the House recently. I suggest that we could ring-fence €50 million in funding from dormant accounts for community and voluntary organisations.

Second, I suggest we could use the proceeds of crime. As we are aware, the Criminal Assets Bureau confiscates money and assets from members of criminal gangs and drug dealers who are devastating communities. I strongly believe that when assets, including money, are seized, their value should be ring-fenced and reinvested back into communities that are being devastated by the activities of criminal gangs and drug dealers.

The third thing that could be considered by the Minister is a VAT refund scheme for charities. Everybody understands that we are in tightened economic circumstances. We all understand that the Government is looking to make savings. The Government has to be clever in what it does. If it takes funding from community and voluntary projects, especially projects that depend on volunteers, it will make it more difficult for them to provide the much-needed services that many people have spoken about during this debate. Senators have commended volunteers for their efforts. If the Government makes it more difficult for them to operate, other State agencies will have to come in and provide those services. That will cost us more in the long run.

I hope the Minister will respond to the specific points I have made about the multi-annual budgeting of State-funded community and voluntary projects and the ways in which money can be ring-fenced. If the Minister does not support what I have said, perhaps he can tell us where these projects can get the money they require. Funds need to be ring-fenced to support the community and voluntary projects that do such tremendous work across the State.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I assure Senator Cullinane that I agree with the biannual funding mechanism for voluntary and community groups. I am prepared to look at that. However, I am not in a position to ring-fence any money. That is a matter for the Department of Finance and the Minister for Finance.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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The Minister can advocate it.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I can do that. The Senator asked me to do something I cannot do.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I am asking the Government to do it. I do not think the Minister is Superman.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I am just the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Minister for Finance makes decisions about ring-fencing money.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I accept that.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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That is good. The issue of the dormant accounts legislation was discussed during the debate. Disbursements of €267 million were made from dormant accounts to projects of community benefit between the establishment of the fund in April 2003 and the end of August 2011. Money does not have to be ring-fenced in order for something to happen. It has happened in this case. The net value of uncommitted moneys in the fund is €82 million. Those moneys will be transferred to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which will be responsible for disbursing them at the end of the day. I expect that unclaimed funds will continue to be used to help disadvantaged communities and increase educational opportunity. It will be done along the lines of how these programmes were assisted in the past. The Senator made an interesting point about criminal assets that are ultimately procured by the State. I will bring it to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality. We are examining the VAT refund scheme in the context of our forum on philanthropy. The charities legislation that is vested in the Department of Justice and Equality used to be vested in the former Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We will make some recommendations on VAT to the Minister for Finance in the next couple of weeks.

Photo of Michael MullinsMichael Mullins (Fine Gael)
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I would like to ask two brief questions. The Minister referred in his speech to the ongoing discussions he is having with trade unions, etc., with a view to possibly being able to extend the range of activity and type of work that can be done under community employment schemes and what used to be known as FÁS schemes. Local authorities used to look after many activities but, as a result of reductions in resources and manpower, they are no longer in a position to do so. Many of the schemes to which I refer could be used in a cost-effective and imaginative way to improve the quality of life in communities. I hope the issues the trade unions have in that regard can be resolved.

The Minister has spoken about the realignment of local government and local development. The local development companies employ significant numbers of people. Does the Minister envisage that the people employed in those companies will become employees of the local authority when such a realignment takes place?

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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As no further Members are offering to ask questions, perhaps the Minister might wish to use the remaining time to address the wider debate as well as responding to Senator Mullins.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Members were generally interested in how we can align the community with local government. We have a group that is looking at that. No vested interests are involved in the group. I want to see how we can achieve that in an independent way, based on people's personal experiences in local government and in the community sector. We are in an era in which duplication and triplication cannot be afforded. We want to find the best way of delivering services to citizens, which is the ultimate objective.

I am a strong proponent of local government. I make no apologies for that. Local government is democratic. Its money is audited. It is accountable and transparent. Although it delivers local services, it does not deliver enough of them. I want the system of local government that is in place to deliver local services to citizens in line with the community development sector and with the assistance of the voluntary and community sector. The debate is about the best structure and mechanism to achieve that in an accountable and an open way.

Senator Keane mentioned local Leader groups and local development. We are in discussions with European Commission to see if we can achieve a little bit more flexibility in transferring money from one programme to another. If we do not achieve that, there will be a surplus of money in Brussels at the end of 2013, which we will not be able to spend. In the current climate, we will do everything we can to avoid that. However, we are working with our partners in the European Union to see what we can do to resolve that.

Senator Ó Murchú and others mentioned the scheme to support national community and voluntary organisations. That small scheme has a budget of €4 million and it provides core costs to 64 national community and voluntary organisations, including many organisations involved in advocacy. In this year's round of funding under the scheme, there were 149 applications and 64 were successful. One cannot expect it to do everything one wants it to do with €4 million but I am trying to maintain that level of expenditure in next year's budget. Perhaps that funding can leverage other synergies with local government, in particular.

An independent mechanism was set up in order to deal with these applications. All successful applicants knew exactly what the criteria were before they applied. Senator van Turnhout will be disappointed that funding for some of the national organisations had to be cut in order to facilitate others. One cannot win when one has a small budget but I understand from where she is coming. I will review the scheme at the end of the year to see what criteria will apply for 2012 and to be able to give more certainty early on in the year for people who are successful.

Some €63 million is available under the local and community development programme. That is a lot of money which can leverage a lot of activity. I hope we will be able to maintain that next year. That is tied into our European Union contribution which I suppose is helpful from my perspective because one must have 45% in one's budget in order to draw down the remaining 55% from the European Commission. It does not make sense not to take advantage of the money that is available in the European Union programmes.

The role of local authorities in regard to community issues is a central point which Senator Landy made. I have a lot of experience of local government, as has Senator Landy. I see the valuable work which goes on but I also see that local government neglected the community sector. A distance was created between the community and voluntary sector and local government because local authorities did not set up the appropriate structures or conversations, especially in the light of programmes coming on stream through the European Union. That was a mistake by local government and I am seeking to ensure it rectifies that. It must also show a better culture towards the community development work going on in every community with the help of an enormous number of people who do not get paid for anything but who are doing good work on behalf of the community they represent. I want to ensure we are in a position to draw together all the structures, funds and programmes available in every community and to have a dialogue about the best structures to deliver those services to the people which, ultimately, is what it is all about.

The local development social inclusion programme and community development programme were redesigned with a view to drawing on best international practice. We drew on evidence of what works in this field in order to establish arrangements for the ongoing re-evaluation of the programme. The LCDP encapsulates the best elements of the local development social inclusion programme and the community development programme. At one time, there were 163 structures and there are now 52, which is enough. They are more efficient and we were able to make a lot of savings. There has been a 6% reduction in funding for the entire programme and only a 3% reduction in the money going to the citizen and the groups. That answers that question. I thank Senators for their time.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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A number of questions were asked by my colleague, Senator Zappone. Perhaps the Minister could respond in writing.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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I thought I addressed them.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his time.

Sitting suspended at 1.45 p.m. and resumed at 3 p.m.