Community development

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1 Debates: Voluntary and community sector in the Seanad

The Seanad debated the role of the voluntary and community sector (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 9th November 2011, 267 – 290).  Opening the debate, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Phil Hogan spoke of how his department was investing €163m in community and local development in 2011.  He moved on to speak of the work of his high-level alignment steering group, which had the remit to review the roles of local development and local government, identify the scope for greater synergy and draft a roadmap for delivering simplified and cost effective services with local oversight and democratic accountability.  He expected local government to take a greater lead in administration and delivery of community and local development interventions at local level.  It was inherently inefficient and ineffective to have local governance arrangements that perpetuated the funding of multiple local development agencies.  Despite the achievements of the cohesion process, the sheer scale and complexity of current structures was still daunting and his aim was to unravel its complexity.  The minister then drew attention to the under-development of philanthropy in Ireland compared to Britain and the United States.  He had asked the forum on philanthropy and fund-raising, which he had reconvened in June,  to present proposals, which he anticipated by the end of the month.


Cait Keane (FG, labour) commended his comments and at local level there was much alignment and some amalgamation to be done.  Many of the cutbacks in the funding of community organizations, between 18% and 20%, was for purposes of eliminating duplication and streamlining.  Feargal Quinn (ind, National University) welcomed his comments on philanthropy, attributing its low level of development to the use by the wealthy of tax breaks to avoid paying tax.   


Katherine Zappone (ind, Taoiseach nominee) questioned the minister as to how he would engage directly with the voluntary and community sector on programmes, services and local government.  It was critical that the independence of the voluntary and community sector be retained.  Similarly, Denis Landy (Lab, administrative) asked for the terms of reference of the alignment group and that the players in local and community development be represented thereon, otherwise the outcomes would be very poor.  Jillian van Turnhout (ind, Taoiseach nominee) spoke of the funding scheme for national and voluntary organizations, which ever more voluntary organizations were approaching because of shortfalls created by cuts.  Gaping holes had been created by the funding crisis and organizations moved from place to place to fill the vacuum of a non-consistent funding policy.  John Crown (ind, National University) described as ‘wholly illogical’ the fact that commercial companies could set expenses against VAT, but charities could not. He strongly supported the idea of workfare, whereby unemployed people could contribute hours of voluntary work to charities.


Trevor O Clochartaigh (SF, agricultural) described the voluntary and community sector as in crisis because of cutbacks in funding by the last government continued by the present one.  He questioned alignment: where was the evidence that the services provided by voluntary and community organizations would be better provided by alignment with local authorities?  The cohesion process had reduced structures but he questioned if this provided a better service.  He also questioned the cost: the average cost of a person working in a department was €43,000 a year, but €37,000 in the local authority and €34,000 in the local development company.  The minister, though, drew attention to the back office and administrative burden on the local community, contrasted with the space and capacity of local government to deliver in a focussed and aligned way:


The minister: The taxpayer is in a much better position 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.


Trevor O Clochartaigh:  Is there evidence to back up that claim?


The minister:  I will come back to the senator.


Aideen Hayden (Lab, Taoiseach nominee) drew attention to the uncertainty of funding for voluntary organizations and asked would the minister consider biennial funding.  Although the voluntary and community sector had obligations to be efficient and cost effective, the state had obligations in return.  The minister accepted that there was uncertainty and he had inherited a very difficult situation.  There were many headings that had applied for money, but there was none.  He was streamlining the situation to see what could be done to give more certainty.  Asked about biennial funding by David Cullinane (SF, labour), the minister said he agreed with it and was prepared to look at it, but was not in a position to ring-fence any money, which was a matter for the Minister for Finance.  David Cullinane regretted the bringing of the community development projects into the partnership process.  He proposed that the dormant accounts fund be ring-fenced for voluntary and community organizations, that the seizure of criminal assets go back into the communities concerned and that there be a VAT refund scheme.    The minister told the Seanad that he expected dormant accounts to continue to be used to help disadvantaged communities.  He would bring his proposal on criminal assets to the attention of the Minister for Justice and Equality.  He would make recommendations on VAT in the next couple of weeks.   


Concluding the debate, the minister, Phil Hogan, said he wanted a system of local government that would deliver local services in line with the community development sector and with the assistance of the voluntary and community sector – the debate was about the best structure and mechanism to achieve that in an accountable and transparent way.  As for the scheme of funding for national voluntary organizations, he was trying to maintain its level of spending in next year’s budget and some organizations had to be cut to facilitate others:  ‘one cannot win when one has a small budget’.  €63m was available for the local and community development programme, which he hoped to maintain next year, which was tied to the European Union contribution, 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 available in European Union programmes’.  The local development social inclusion programme and community development programme had been redesigned with a view to drawing on best international practice, drawing on evidence on what works in the field to establish arrangements for evaluation.  Once there were 163 structures and how there are 52, which is enough:  ‘there had been a 6% reduction in funding, but only a 3% reduction in the money going to the citizen and the groups’.