Community development

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Voluntary and community sector


The Dail held a two-day debate on the work of the voluntary and community sector on a motion from Brian Stanley (SF, Laois-Offaly) (Dail Eireann, Debates, 11th October 2011, 73-94; 12th October, 478- 505).  Voluntary and community organizations had been disproportionately targeted by government for cuts, he said.  Not only did this mean unemployment for those in the sector, but a deterioration in the lives of the thousands of others as it was no longer able to maintain its services.  Frontline providers working in the area of drug use and addiction had been especially hard hit. About 5,000 jobs had been lost.  Furthermore, funding had been used as a gag mechanism and these groups were forced to walk a tightrope , trying to look for funding while at the same time highlighting deficiencies in state provision.  They can only highlight so much but with a step too far they will quickly find themselves with a budget significantly cut from the previous year, all for having had the nerve to stand up and be counted and state what is wrong.  The Community Workers Cooperative criticized the local and community development programme and then lost 100% of its funding.  Its office in Galway had now closed and people had lost a very important voice for disadvantaged communities.  

 

‘Hearts of communities ripped out’

Aengus O Snodaigh (SF, Dublin SC) spoke of how, when the people had voted out a government intent on ripping the heart and soul out of communities, he thought he would have seen this government taking a different tack, but this was not the case.  The voluntary and community sector delivered services that should be the responsibility of the state, but the sector had been doing this work for many generations.  It was a very effective and efficient provider of services.  In his view, it was over-evaluated and it was regrettable that the same evaluations of its effectiveness were not applied to many departments or the Central Bank for example.

 

He cited the example of the St John Bosco youth centre which risked seeing its staff numbers cut in two by the middle of 2012 if more cuts were imposed.  The centre had ten directly employed youth workers, whose number would be reduced to five.  The Inchicore community drug team had lost one staff who had been working 21 hours a week, as well as three seasonal workers who provided holistic therapies for three afternoons.   That service was no longer available.  Even in the absence of further cuts, they may still lose another half-time post by the beginning of January.  The FAS Community Employment (CE) Scheme in Dolphin House and Dolphin Park had lost five CE places as a result of an embargo on filling places.  

 

Gerry Adams (SF, Louth) contrasted the decision of the government to transfer, on 2nd November, a gift of €700m to Anglo-Irish Bank, whereas €5,000, €10,000, €20,000 or €30,000 could make a huge difference to a community running a community project.  What could €700m do to help our people through these difficult times?  Pearse Doherty (SF, Donegal SW) spoke of the 7,5000 charitable organizations across the state and how they provided full time employment, contributing more than €6.5bn to the economy, despite receiving only €1.89bn in state funding.  We all knew from our experience in our constituencies that demand for voluntary and community support had risen dramatically.  Not a day went by when we did not read newspaper reports of increased demand for services for people who were struggling, homeless, out of work, or with mental health problems.  The government must indicate that it would reverse the worst decisions of the previous government, such as the closure of community development projects, a decision made by the previous government that was nothing short of a politically motivated attack on some of the most deprived communities in the state.  

 

 

‘Giving up everything that is good’

He urged the government to take a step back when the troika was in town and think about the kind of Ireland it wanted when it sent them home.  Did we want an Ireland where the voluntary and community sector was decimated?  We might get our monetary and fiscal powers back, but we may have given up everything that was good about Ireland.  Sandra McLellan (SF, Cork E) spoke of how local community arts schemes deserved recognition, support and encouragement, but the government intended to continue its assault on them – a shocking reflection of its idea of what counted for a society.  Caomhghin O Caolain (SF, Cavan Monaghan) drew attention to the cutting of childcare programmes by a colossal 24% in 2010. 

 

Replying on behalf of the government, the Minister of State at the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government, Willie Penrose spoke of how the government had already begun to work on the task of achieving greater alignment between local government and local development functions and programmes.  It was important at this stage in the approach to the alignment of functions that ministers and officials at the department have the opportunity to consult with key stakeholders in order to share our view of what we are aiming to achieve and obtain input from all those involved in the areas of local and community development.  ‘Essentially, we must improve service delivery and do so at a significantly reduced cost to the public purse’, Willie Penrose stated.  We must ensure that scarce resources are invested wisely and fairly.  ‘We must not lose sight of the fact that we have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged in our communities’.  The government, he said, was conscious of the critical importance of maintaining the emphasis on front-line service while working to contain and reduce the cost of delivering those services.  

 

 

Reducing local bodies ‘considerable achievements’

The closer alignment of local government and local development pursued by his department was aimed at reducing duplication of services, ensuring greater democratic accountability in decision-making at local level and delivering more efficient and effective services.  While it is too easy to predict the outcome, the steering group has been asked to pursue its work within a short timescale.  There had already been a significant reduction in the number of local development bodies, resulting in a more coherent and streamlined targeting of resources at local level.  These achievements were not inconsiderable.  The government was also dissolving the Dormant Account Fund Board and transferring its functions to the department.

 

It was against this background, Willie Penrose said, that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government reconvened the Forum on Philanthropy last June under the chairmanship of Frank Flannery.  The minister asked the forum to bring forward proposals for a strategy to develop philanthropy and fund-raising in support of civil society.  These proposals would be delivered by the end of the month.  There was an urgent need for such a strategy, which offered the opportunity to create new, innovative public private partnerships to address fundamental social and economic challenges to support arts and cultural initiatives.  It was critical to have an appropriate structure in place, with efficient tax and legal frameworks to encourage giving.  

 

 

‘Non-profits must adapt to new realities’

The non-profit sector must adapt to the new economic realities and become better at targeting a diverse range of supports including partnerships with the corporate sector to develop its potential.  It is essential that the non-profit sector tap into the many benefits which can flow from a well-cultivated relationship with the business community.  The minister of state contrasted the levels of planned private donations, where the Irish figure was 0.8% of disposable income, compared to much higher figures in Britain, Sweden and Switzerland.  In Ireland, the 400 top earners accounted for 10% of tax-deducted charitable giving, but it was 30% in Germany, Britain and the United States.  There were only 30 grant-making foundations in Ireland, compared to 8,000 in Britain.  We had 0.7 foundations per 100,000 people, compared to the European average of 20.  We should, if we were in line with Europe, have 857 foundations.  Corporate giving was also very low: only 1.4% or €25m of Irish NGO income came from corporate donations, less than 0.1% of pre-tax profits of the top 500 Irish companies.  

 

Finally, he dealt with part of the motion which referred to the North-South Consultative Forum.  The plenary meeting of the North South Ministerial Council had noted the intention of the Northern Ireland Executive to first complete its 2007 review of the Civic Forum, but that review was still outstanding.  The government had communicated its proposals on the role, format, membership and operation of the forum in 2008 and subsequently held  consultative conferences on 15th October 2009, 26th May 2010 and 12th January 2011.  The North South Consultative Forum was reviewed at regular plenary meetings of the north South Ministerial Council, the next being on 18th November and the government would continue to press strongly for the matter to be brought to an early conclusion.  

 

Eamon O Cuiv (FF, Galway W) said he had never been happy with the transfer of responsibilities to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.  The idea that the money should transfer from the department to the 32 local authorities who in turn allocate it to about 100 groups in their administrative area was crazy thinking.  A move to the system to transfer responsibility to local authorities would add greatly to bureaucracy.  If responsibility for the voluntary sector and the partnerships is shifted to the local authorities, we will wind up with a much higher bill.  On the forum, he said that the previous government was very keen to get it going, but the problem was not here.  

 

 

High salaries and expense accounts

Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin C) told the Dail that she had a problem with the word ‘voluntary’ in voluntary sector.  The word had been misused by many organizations which were far from voluntary.  Executives were on extremely high salaries and had lucrative expensive accounts.  They were doing a disservice to the real volunteers who gave their time so freely.  Community organizations had taken cuts of 18% to 20% and could not take any more and she called on €3m to be allocated to the community sector from the Criminal Assets Bureau.

 

Richard Boyd Barrett (PBP, Dun Laoghaire) described it as extraordinarily disappointing and pretty outrageous that the minister had not bothered to turn up for the debate, which was about defending and protecting one of the most vulnerable sectors of our society.  Likewise Seamus Healy (UWA, Tipperary S) described it as outrageous that the minister was still not present.  Dara Murphy (FG, Cork NC) though said that the state’s difficult financial position was created by Fianna Fail which was not present either.  He rejected the claim of disproportionate cuts to the voluntary and community sector: ‘in fact the reverse is the case’.  The sector was obviously delivering services which the government was unable to deliver.  The government would listen to it with a favourable ear.  

 

Likewise Sean Kyne (FG, Galway W) described as ‘inaccurate and untruthful’ the allegation that the government had inflicted cutbacks on community and voluntary groups, specifically those that had spoken out against government policies.  Despite such calculated accusations, the government would continue to support voluntary and community organizations that shared its goals of protecting the vulnerable and disadvantaged, upholding and respecting rights and making society fairer despite the traumatic times in which we lived.

 

 

The problem of governance

Eric Byrne (Lab, Dublin SC) spoke of how so many community development projects and other projects had collapsed because of the simple matter of governance.  Many more would do likewise unless the government got a handle on educating people, mainly volunteers, who sat on boards tirelessly but were not equipped to understand the importance of governance.  To strengthen their role and allow them to spend money more productively, they should be better assisted.  Jonathan O’Brien (SF, Cork NC) told the Dail of how he had seen voluntary boards wound up, staff being let go and assets transferred to the partnerships.  The Community Development Projects (CDPs) had the option of refusing to participate in the model, but a consequence was that funding would be stopped.  One project in his constituency went down that road, one of the most successful CDPs in north Cork city providing services to 5 and 6-year olds, afterschool programmes and the elderly.  It is now operating two hours a day because funding had been cut and the organization refused to transfer its assets which the local community had raised funds for and bought.  The local community elected a board to operate the assets on behalf of the community. For refusing to transfer the assets and cede control to the partnerships, funding was cut.  ‘Who suffered?  the local community has suffered’. 

 

Dessie Ellis (SF, Dublin NW) spoke of how his constituency had been hard hit with the loss of community projects and workers in the ground in Ballymun, Finglas, Santry and Whitehall.  Year after year, the drugs task force had faced cuts of 10% to 13% in its funding.  This had resulted in a serious loss of projects and staff to deal with the drugs crisis.

 

 

The value of community employment

Michael Conaghan (Lab, Dublin SC) addressed Community Employment scheme and the valuable role it played.  Entire swathes of community infrastructure, community centres, creches, buildings and halls were kept open through CE schemes.  Their importance extended far beyond infrastructure into meals on wheels services and services for the elderly.  In many communities, CE schemes were the bedrock of the infrastructure and was a crucial resource.

 

Concluding the debate for the government, the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, enterprise and Innovation John Perry drew attention to the funding of 64 national voluntary organizations announced during the summer.    Successful applicants were chosen following an open and merit-based competitive process, with a built-in right of appeal.  All successful applicants were chosen strictly on their merits.  He added that the government did not see philanthropy and fund-raising as a substitute for state funding, rather as untapped potential which can further support the not-for-profit sector.

 

 

Salute to the patriotic work of the voluntary and community sector

Peadar Toibin (SF, Meath W) appealed for services to be restored to their pre-2008 levels.  Mary-Lou McDonald (SF, Dublin C ) told the Dail that she could not take seriously a government or minister who told communities that were historically deprived and now under great pressure that more pain was good for them.  Pain was not good, pain is bad.  The government amendment to the motion was a disgrace, with laughable reference to reducing duplication and streamlining – an undertaking that was neither genuine nor credible.  The amendment was simply code for cuts that have been imposed and the further cuts that are proposed.  She challenged the idea that dormant accounts could not be ring-fenced for the voluntary and community sector, which was a mechanical, bean-counter response.  The minister of state had mentioned ‘philanthropy’ 15 times.  Fifteen times we were told that philanthropists would come and save the day but not once did he make a comment,  recommendations or offer a view on ongoing funding.  In her constituency, the Inner City Partnership was closed down and Labour ministers had done nothing to right that wrong.  Inner city communities were facing a drugs crisis not seen since the 1980s.  Children went routinely to school hungry, some without books.  Women faced the brutality of domestic violence.  Men, women and children cannot use computers and had literacy issues.  People wonder if they will ever work again and the numbers lost to suicide increase each year, but the government response is to give the voluntary and community sector a rap on the knuckles and tell them to adapt to the new economic realities.  ‘Their work is heroic and I salute them.  Their work is patriotic and I salute them all the more because these people are the champions of their communities’.  The motion was lost 88-45.