Thursday, 13 July 2023
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Cathaoirleach and I wish everybody a good recess and break, as well as lots of work in their constituencies. I thank the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for coming here this morning.
Members are aware that we have two unanimously-supported motions in support and on behalf of the victims of major sexual abuse and rape in St. John's Ambulance Ireland. I know the Minister has been very helpful, and they have met. I know all of these things but the frustrations of the victims are still very much paramount. Nothing has changed. The child protection issues that have been raised have not been resolved. The members of the board are still in situ, and all along, when we have engaged with the Minister, he told us that there was nothing really he could do other than support the victims and instruct the people within the organisation to do what is required of them, because we did not give those organisations State funding.
Last week, we discovered that we do give them State funding, and not small beans but enormous amounts of State funding. I am asking now to find out what the State funding is for, what Department it came from and why we did not know about this in the first instance. What are we going to do to resolve the child protection issues that still remain for the victims of St. John's Ambulance Ireland and all of the other children that the current crew has access to?
When Senator Doherty says it is no small beans, in 2018 it was €185,000. In 2019, it was €14,000. In 2020, it was €240,773, or 38% of the income of St. John's Ambulance Ireland for that year. In 2021 it was €286,800. We have a total in excess of €700,000 that the organisation has received from the State since 2018. While I suspect that some of the 2020 and 2021 figures are related to the Covid-19 pandemic, we are still not at that ten-month place where the 2022 figures are out yet, so we do not know what it got in that year. I sincerely hope it is not getting anything this year.
The report by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon revealed very serious incidents. Young people in the Kilmainham unit of this organisation were preyed upon by an individual. They were raped in the back of St. John's ambulances. It is not acceptable that the Minister can just say that it is not a body under the aegis of his Department. Technically, that is true, but "aegis" includes support. It was getting support from the Government, and has been getting it for a number of years, and that is only from the accounts that I could get access to and see for myself.
There is the role of Tusla in this, which borders on negligence insofar as it did not go into the teeth behind that safeguarding statement. It signed off on them until it was challenged repeatedly by the survivors. We have a failure of teeth in childcare, with regard to going in and actually inspecting. A recommendation is going to come from the childcare committee to say that this needs to be like to the Health and Safety Authority or the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, where they can actually go in and do inspections and look for evidence of adherence to safeguarding, not mere lip service.
All the while, the St. John's Ambulance Ireland has been putting it out that it gave an apology and was providing counselling support and therapy services when in actual fact, its attack dogs, in the course of any civil litigation, are going after, forensically analysing and intimidating and using their lawyers and the justice system to intimidate these survivors on a daily basis. They are sending a plethora of discovery motions and letters to them, wanting to know every intimate detail of the survivors' lives, and really lay it at their feet that they came from poverty and so they cannot be believed. That is not acceptable.
We need the State to stand up very strongly and make sure that, for a start, it does not get any more funding from us, and we need to unearth that we do have a responsibility. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is going back to review what it can do further in light of this, because this was brought to our attention by the survivors.
I want to thank the Senators for bringing attention to this important issue today, and it is in the context of the motion brought by the then Leader of the Seanad a number of months ago. In March 2023, I informed this House that as St. John's Ambulance Ireland is an independent organisation, it does not receive funding from Tusla or the Government. Although it remains my understanding that St. John's Ambulance is not the recipient of regular funding under Departmental funding schemes, it has come to my attention this week that it received funding relief under two bespoke Covid-19 pandemic-related support schemes, namely, the employee wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, overseen by Revenue, and the Covid-19 stability fund for community and voluntary, charity and social enterprises, overseen by the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Earlier this week, I asked officials in my Department to make contact with the Departments of Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform and Rural and Community Development, St. John's Ambulance Ireland and the Charities Regulator to seek urgent clarity on these matters. The EWSS was a scheme designed to financially support employers and employees during the restrictions imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It was open to employers who file their payroll submissions electronically through the Revenue online services. I am informed that St. John's Ambulance Ireland received funding relief of €240,773 in 2020, and €286,800 in 2021.In addition, my officials have checked other Covid-19 relief schemes which were open to all voluntary organisations during the pandemic and were provided by the Department of Rural and Community Development under the Covid-19 stability fund. St. John Ambulance Ireland is listed as a grantee on this scheme, corresponding to a 2020 allocation of €290,500 and a 2021 allocation of €100,000.
St. John Ambulance Ireland, as an employer and similar to other employers in the State, was eligible to apply to the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, scheme operated by Revenue to provide for its employees who were unable to attend workplaces during restrictions put in place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In addition, as a voluntary organisation, St. John Ambulance applied for the Covid-19 stability fund scheme. In the emergency context of that time, both schemes operated on a principle of providing critical financial supports swiftly to the broadest possible number of recipients in line with their respective terms and conditions.
The Charities Regulatory Authority is Ireland's statutory regulator for charitable organisations, including St. John Ambulance. It remains the case that I, as Minister, do not have a role in the governance or funding of St. John Ambulance. However, it is clear now that the information in my possession when I previously addressed this House on this matter was not accurate at the time. This is no doubt a source of frustration and anger for Senators and survivors. It is also a source of frustration and anger for me.
I am informed that the information shared today covers the full extent of public funding awarded in the last three years. Officials are continuing their engagements across government, however, and I will advise the House if further financial supports were provided. I note the two figures that Senator Seery Kearney mentioned in respect of 2018 and 2019.
Senator Doherty made the point in terms of the ongoing work to ensure the implementation of the Shannon report. My officials continue to engage with St. John Ambulance on this. I met with one survivor on 15 June and advised him on our ongoing efforts to ensure the implementation of all elements.
Following on from that and from our continuous engagement, we recently wrote to St. John Ambulance seeking an update on the low uptake of the counselling support services Senator Seery Kearney mentioned and an update on the appointment of the national child safeguarding or compliance officer, and also to seek clarity on the commitment to undertake the replacement of board members.
I appreciate the position the Minister is in. This is not about him per se. However, the two outstanding years that had nothing to do with Covid, 2018 and 2019, come to the sum total of €200,000. I would be very grateful because the Minister would find out about this far quicker than Senator Seery Kearney and I would.
I had the privilege of being Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection at the time we established the EWSS. Since then, probably for approximately two years afterwards, I spent an awful lot of my time trying to fight and help people to get access to the 80% of their salary to which they were entitled under the EWSS.
Yet, the Minister is telling me that with two employees, because that is all it has on its books, in 2021, St. John Ambulance Ireland got €286,800 under the EWSS and in 2020, it got €240,773. It does not add up. For the record of the House, I will instigate that the Minister for Public Expenditure, National Development Plan Delivery and Reform ask for a review with the Revenue Commissioners today to find out how such enormous amounts of money were given to an organisation that had two full-time employees during Covid-19 when the rest of the country had to struggle.
When an organisation makes public statements of apology to survivors but privately behaves completely differently, why on earth would they take up a counselling service provided by that organisation? The counselling services needed to be provided by the State.
Counselling services was one of the issues we discussed when I met one of the survivors recently. We have written to St. John Ambulance in terms of having an independent third party through which a request for counselling could go, rather than going through the organisation. The Senator is absolutely right in terms of the aggressive approach that has been adopted. It is hugely unlikely that anyone is going to take it up. We have been advising them to obtain a third party through which any contacts for counselling can be undertaken.
We will come back to Senator Doherty about those two years. I take her point in terms of the EWSS payments. As I said, we have also been in touch with the Charities Regulator. We will continue our engagement in terms of the sums at which we are looking and the totality from the two different funding streams, and how that matches or otherwise with the accounts for 2020 and 2021 we have seen in respect of the overall amounts.