Tuesday, 19 July 2016
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan. As it is the first time he has been in the Chamber since I was appointed Cathaoirleach, I wish him well in his brief and hope he will have a long tenure.
I join in welcoming the Minister of State and congratulate him on his appointment. I thank him for coming to answer my question and the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter which ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to outline the safeguards and mechanisms in place to ensure good governance policies and procedures are adopted within national sports organisations funded by the Irish Sports Council. As it turns out, my question is timely, given the news today about Russia and the International Olympic Committee. I am not asking a question about that matter, nor is it about drugs or doping in sport. In fact, it is of a more general nature and was prompted more by the ongoing disclosures about Console and charity regulations. Also, I have met certain individuals who, based on their own experiences, are seriously concerned about the governance of a particular sport in Ireland, namely, tennis. They have raised a number of issues with me. However, in listening to them I felt the issues being raised might be of general concern in terms of sports body governance.
I acknowledge the many thousands of people across Ireland who work in a voluntary capacity and do immense work in sports organisations. At a very low level, I am involved with the FAI in the local schoolgirl soccer league; therefore, I know the work and commitment that goes into volunteering. I do not mean to question people's commitment or the huge goodwill shown by them. There are, however, three issues that are relevant in referring to national sports organisations funded by the Irish Sports Council. Will the Minister of State outline the mechanisms in place to ensure good governance in such organisations? There is accountability for funding. Clearly, different amounts are provided for different sports bodies by the council. Is there a general mechanism in place to ensure accountability? I understand some funding is channelled through another organisation.
In terms of general governance and the rules sports bodies adopt in selecting, for example, competitors to take part in national or regional competitions, does the Irish Sports Council have any role or mechanism in place to ensure transparent and fair procedures are followed?
The most serious issue is that of child protection. Does the Irish Sports Council have a role in ensuring child protection procedures are observed? In the term of the last Government significant legislation dealing with vetting, child protection and the disclosure of abuse was passed. In this regard, how are national procedures implemented? How does the Irish Sport Council ensure national procedures are implemented at local level? Everyone will be aware of the huge scandal in the sport of swimming. We need to ensure the child protection mechanisms now in place are robust, watertight and being observed by the different sports bodies funded by the Irish Sports Council.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his kind words of welcome. I also thank Senator Ivana Bacik for her words of congratulations and raising this issue.
As Minister of State with responsibility for tourism and sport, I have been anxious since my appointment to engage with all State agencies and regulatory authorities, including Sport Ireland. The leadership provided by Mr. Kieran Mulvey and Mr. John Treacy is something that has struck me as being very professional. They certainly have a good grasp of what they want to achieve in Sport Ireland. I thank them for the work they have done up to now and also acknowledge the work of the board.It is vital, as the Senator said, that the highest standards of governance are adhered to across all levels of Irish sport to ensure accountability, fairness and transparency across organisational activities and support the integrity of sport. The implementation of good governance practices in sport has improved significantly in recent years. Sport Ireland and its predecessor, the Irish Sports Council, have played a key role in this improvement. Sport Ireland continues to work closely with the national governing bodies of sport to provide supports and services, with a focus on improving governance within sports bodies. They include support for strategic planning, internal audit and financial management. There is an established procedure in place for Sport Ireland to provide support for any particular governing body that encounters difficulties.
Since my appointment as Minister of State, I have met a significant number of the national governing bodies of sport to get a handle on the stage they are at in the cycle of development, their priorities, the challenges they are facing and where they see themselves going. All of the national governing bodies of sport are keen to see the conclusion of the development of the national sport policy. One of my priorities as Minister of State with responsibility for sport in the coming months is the development of a national sports policy. The policy is on my desk and I am reviewing the draft which will go out for public consultation and be discussed by the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport.
In terms of governance, the national sports policy will aim to define consolidated governance principles to underpin the future of Irish sport. I think that is what the Senator alluded to and I agree with her, particularly on what happened in swimming which was a wake-up call. Certainly, the recent revelations in the charities sector are another wake-up call. Sport Ireland has an important role in governance issues for the national governing bodies of sport and ensuring taxpayer's money is used in the most effective way and properly accounted for. However, as the Senator alluded to - we all agree with her - governance and accountability are about more than just financial accountability.
It is important that national governing bodies of sport which are independent entities have some space in decision-making within their own organisations. That covers the Senator's point about the selection of competitors. There has been a great deal of interest recently in the selection of competitors for the Rio Olympic Games, but neither the Department nor Sport Ireland has a role in the selection of individuals. Once the selection criteria are signed off on by the national governing bodies of sport at the outset, they are communicated to Sport Ireland and difficulties invariably arise. In the case of every Olympic Games and international meet one will have issues. I was asked recently if I would intervene in an issue to do with the Olympic Games and I had to tell the person in question that I could not do so because the next thing I would have to do was pick the Limerick under-21 team. It is not the role of politicians or Sport Ireland to engage in the running of national governing bodies of sport. However, I agree with the Senator that it is our role to ensure the national governing bodies of sport are accountable financially and in every other way.
The national governing bodies of sport are central to Irish sport and the achievement of sports policy objectives in terms of participation, performance and excellence. It is important to recognise that not one size fits all. National governing bodies of sport can range from small organisations run by a number of volunteers, to which the Senator alluded, to large-scale organisations run by full-time administrators. However, whatever the size of the organisation, sports organisations in receipt of public funds should have appropriate governance structures in place. That brings me back to the same point the Senator raised about Console. We have major charity organisations that run a very good ship and by the same token we have small charities that do the same. We have seen organisations at both ends of the spectrum that were in dire need of an intervention at a much earlier stage but which did not happen.
The new national sports policy framework will seek to set out governance procedures for Irish sport, including the roles of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Sport Ireland, the national governing bodies of sport and all sports bodies in receipt of public money. The policy will consider options to uphold the highest standards of governance in sport. Sport Ireland is continually working to ensure good governance policies and procedures within organisations which are obliged to comply with requirements in that regard. Let me give an example of what is required. Any organisation which applyies for funding from Sport Ireland must submit satisfactory projected budgets and operational plans. All national governing bodies of sport are required to provide a mid-year update for Sport Ireland in order to receive their full grant. Sport Ireland is subject to the scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General and can also be examined by the Committee of Public Accounts. In addition, any national governing body of sport in receipt of funding from Sport Ireland may be subject to an audit by Sport Ireland's auditors.
Sport Ireland will continue to support those organisations that are delivering best returns for public investment. It provides a range of supports and services for national governing bodies of sport in ensuring good governance, including board training provision, assistance in marketing and branding, volunteer support and assistance in organisational capacity building. I have seen this at first hand with particular national governing bodies of sport where there are capacity issues.I encourage Senators and all Deputies to go and see the National Sports Campus, if they have the opportunity. Some of them may already have seen it. It is second to none. Sport Ireland is more than just a sports campus. It regularly provides a set of soft skills to NGBs, and this capacity building is important to ensure what the Senator referred to, namely, good governance.
I agree with the Senator on the need to have safeguards and mechanisms in place to ensure good governance policies and procedures. I am satisfied that Sport Ireland is working hard to make sure the improvements in this area continue. I fully expect that, when completed, the national sports policy will lead to further enhancements around good governance. If there is a specific issue regarding governance, whoever the Senator is referring to can contact my Department. If there is an issue or a concern, whether founded or unfounded, regarding an NGB that is in receipt of taxpayers' money, we have a duty to examine it, if we have learned anything from all the stuff that has gone on during recent years. If the Senator wants to bring a particular issue to my attention, I will have the Department and Sport Ireland examine it.
I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive response, particularly for his last few words when he invited me to make contact with him about any specific issue. I agree with him about the selection of competitors. It is about fair procedures. Clearly, the Department cannot and should not be involved in it. When is the national sports policy likely to be completed? The Minister of State said it would be out for consultation with stakeholders and I am delighted it is at such an advanced stage. Is there a timeline?
I hope to have it finished as soon as possible in the early autumn and to roll it out then. I have made some minor amendments to it and it has gone back to the Department. The Department of Health has a health promotion aspect, as does the Department of Education and Skills in terms of physical activity. I have made some minor changes regarding access for people with disabilities. I want to have the maximum amount of consultation, given that it is a framework within which I hope the development of sport will be able to continue as the economy continues. As the Senator said, it is not all about money. Good governance is about ensuring people are treated with respect and are protected. This includes competitors, those working in the environment and those who are seeking to enjoy it. There is a range of issues, including broadcasting and media rights, which I have included in it.