Finance (Local Property Tax) Bill 2012: Committee Stage

20th December 2012

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 9, between lines 23 and 24, to insert the following:

” “Act of 2003″ means the Capital Acquisitions Tax Consolidation Act 2003;”.

I referred to this on Second Stage and I do not want to take up too much time today. The Minister stated that in principle the properties that I have raised in these categories, those held by trusts for children and youth activities, would be exempt in a similar manner to that of the household charge. I would prefer to hear from the Minister first.

Deputy Michael Noonan: Senator van Turnhout seeks an exemption for residential properties owned by discretionary trusts and charities.

The Thornhill group expressed concern that the exemption provided for in the household charge legislation for discretionary trusts was a potential vehicle for tax avoidance. It considered that it would be relatively easy for a property owner to place the ownership of properties into a discretionary trust and for the trustees to rent the house back to the person setting up the trust or to a family member for a nominal or no rent.

As regards Senator van Turnhout’s amendment of an exemption for charitable bodies, the Thornhill group considered that the local property tax should be centred on principles of equity, transparency and simplicity. Accordingly, I consider that a universal liability should apply to all owners of residential property with a limited number of exemptions. In an effort to keep the rate of tax low and to ensure equity between taxpayers, the Government decided to minimise the number of exemptions to the tax and to limit deferral arrangements to cases where there is a real and material inability to pay the tax.

There will not be a blanket exemption for charitable bodies and in this context, the recommendation to provide an exemption for local authority or social housing providers was limited to special need cases. In practice, the majority of housing provided by registered charities would be expected to be exempt from the tax as it is provided to those who require special accommodation and support to enable them to live in the community. Revenue will be providing guidelines in this regard.

I understand that Senator van Turnhout’s interest is related to her association with the Irish Girl Guides, which organisation owns some properties which are used for breaks and holidays for members. I appreciate that groups such as the girl guides and many other organisations in the community and voluntary sector provide facilities and work with young people and with other sectors for social and personal development purposes. Such organisations were granted exemption from the household charge for the buildings in question and I am disposed to ensuring that the exemption would continue. The matter will be examined and will be dealt with in the finance Bill.

I will not accept the amendment as currently cast because I will not give a blanket exemption to discretionary trusts. However, I will examine the possibility of extending an exemption to bodies such as the girl guides in the context of the finance Bill.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: That should be music to Senator van Turnhout’s ears.

Senator Jillian van Turnhout: I appreciate the Minister’s answer and I will await the finance Bill.

Adjournment Motion – Rehabilitation Services

11th January 2012

I raise the issue of stroke rehabilitation services. An estimated 10,000 people will suffer a stroke in Ireland in 2012 and approximately 2,000 will die as a result, making strokes Ireland’s third biggest killer.

Stroke is the single biggest cause of severe disability and up to 50,000 people are living in communities with disabilities as a result of a stroke. In September 2010, the Irish Heart Foundation published the “Cost of Stroke in Ireland” report, which was compiled by the ESRI, which showed that the wider availability of stroke units and clot-busting treatment countrywide would reduce the number of deaths and cases of permanent severe disability from stroke by at least 750 a year. It would save the State approximately €230 million in the next decade, mainly due to the reduced need for nursing home places. These findings were accepted by the HSE and the Government and specific funding was provided by the HSE’s 2011 service plan to pay for extra consultant, nursing and therapist posts to deliver significant improvements to acute services.

The report also painted a stark picture of the deficits in community rehabilitation facing stroke survivors after their hospital treatment has been completed. No action has been taken to rectify these deficiencies.

The ERSI calculated that the direct annual cost of stroke is up to €557 million, of which as much as €414 million is spent directly on nursing home care. However, only €7 million is being spent on community rehabilitation services that could keep more of Ireland’s 50,000 stroke survivors living in their own homes and, thereby, improving their quality of life and also reducing costs. In effect, the vast majority of money for stroke is spent after the point at which it could help people the most. An average of less than €140 is spent on the rehabilitation of each stroke survivor which is only sufficient to pay for a couple of physio sessions each year for people with often very complex physical, communication and psychological needs.

As no doubt the Minister will be aware, the National Audit of Stroke Care, which was also carried out by the Irish Heart Foundation, looked at the extent of effects of stroke on people. It showed that almost half had a weakness on one side of their body, 22% were unable to walk, more than half needed assistance with activities in their daily life, 32% have depression and a further one third have cognitive impairment. That clearly shows that, more than any other disease, stroke can strip away people’s dignity and make them dependent on others, often to carry out basic personal tasks.

The improvements to acute services are saving lives but we cannot ignore the quality of life of survivors when their hospital stay has come to an end. In addition to the human implications, it does not make economic sense. That is what surprised me when I looked at this issue. This is not about increasing funding. This is about where we are placing the funding.

Those who have had a stroke and their carers need to be able to access a range of services after they have left hospital. Many stroke survivors will need further community based rehabilitation such as physiotherapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, clinical psychology, and nutrition advice and input. Currently, few stroke survivors have access to this type of care and, therefore, their lives are dramatically affected.

My questions for the Minister are whether he accepts that there is a clear case for the provision of rehabilitation services for stroke survivors and others with neurological conditions and that the provision of such services would be cost effective. The Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, announced that there will be shortly publication of a neuro-rehabilitation policy, but will funding be provided for the implementation of this policy to accompany it? If the funding is not provided, how will the policy be introduced and how will the suffering of stroke survivors and others in desperate need of rehabilitation be alleviated in the years to come? Does the Minister intend to support the carrying out of research into the cost benefit of rehabilitation to follow up on the Irish Heart Foundation’s Cost of Stroke in Ireland report?

Adjournment Motion – Children in Direct Provision

2nd October 2012

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, to the House.

The Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, of the Department of Justice and Equality is responsible for the accommodation of asylum seekers in accordance with the Government policy of direct provision. According to RIA’s latest monthly report, that of June 2012, there were 4,900 people its live system, that is, living in direct provision accommodation centres throughout Ireland. Of this number, 1,723 were children. Of this number, 907 were children between the ages of 17 and five, and 816 were aged four years and younger.

The Minister, Deputy Shatter, is very aware of the Irish Refugee Council’s report entitled “State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion: The case of children in accommodation for asylum-seekers”, published on 18 of September last. The report paints a bleak and, indeed, worrying picture about the treatment and care of children in direct provision. It documents frequent instances of poverty, malnutrition and dietary related illnesses among young children in Ireland.

The findings of the IRC report are very much in keeping with the concerns raised by the Government’s Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in his 2011 report, in which he highlighting “the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the … Direct Provision and the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children …”

Dr. Shannon had also expressed concern about the “real risk” of child abuse in direct provision accommodation where single parent families are required to share with strangers and where families with teenage children of opposite gender are required to share one room. He cited, in support of his concern, the case of a 14 year old girl in a centre in Mayo who became pregnant by a male resident in the same centre in September 2011.

Given the parallels between Dr Shannon and the IRC’s respective supports, I was surprised by the tenor of the response on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Shatter, to my colleague Senator Ó Clochartaigh’s recent adjournment motion that the IRC’s findings and contentions simply “seems unlikely”.

That said, I welcome that the Minister has directed that the report be comprehensively examined and any issues arising be addressed. I welcome in particular his directing that issues relating to child welfare be dealt with without delay. I would be interested to hear from the Minister about the logistics for this comprehensive examination, who will carry it out and when we can expect a report.

What we cannot lose sight of when we are talking about children in direct provision accommodation is the fundamental premise that a child is a child. Irrespective of country of origin and regardless of the application status of the parent or parents, the welfare and protection of children must always be at the forefront of what we do.

It is timely to be debating this adjournment motion on the same evening as we passed Second Stage of the Thirty-First Amendment of the Constitution (Children) Bill 2012. In recent years the Oireachtas has spent significant time discussing horrific reports about the institutional abuse of children.

To get to the point of my question, what I am genuinely concerned about here is that our treatment of children in direct provision will become our shameful report of the future. Like many others, I am doing my best to ensure this does not happen.

At this juncture, I will limit my questions to the following. Can the Minister confirm the number of children living in direct provision who have been born in Ireland or born to an Irish parent? Are the HIQA National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children (For Health Service Executive Children and Family Services), published in July 2012, applicable to children in direct provision?

I understand that RIA’s child and family services unit is responsible for the monitoring and implementation of RIA’s child protection policy and does so in close partnership with the HSE child protection and welfare service nationally. I note, in particular, the standards stipulates that “Child protection and welfare services provided on behalf of statutory service providers are monitored for compliance with legislation, regulations, national child protection and welfare policy and standards”. Features to meet the requirements of the Standard include:

3.4.1 Formalised agreements are in place for the provision of child protection and welfare services for children and families, which are sourced externally.

3.4.2 Formalised agreements include the scope of service provided, resources required to deliver the service, monitoring and governance arrangements, including compliance with national policy, Children First and relevant standards.

3.4.3 External service providers are monitored on a regular basis to assure the service provided to children and families is compliant with legislation, regulations, these Standards and national policy.

In my opinion, the National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children clearly apply to direct provision. However, in preparing for this evening, I contacted HIQA and RIA and nobody could assert this for me. I would like to know what arrangements are in place for the inspection of direct provision accommodation centres in accordance with these standards.

Seanad Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees) – Statement on the Social Welfare Bill 2012

Seanad Independent Group (Taoiseach’s Nominees) – Statement on the Social Welfare Bill 2012

I welcome the Minister to the House. I wish to make the following statement as leader of the Independent Group of Taoiseach nominees, namely, Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, Senator Martin McAleese, Senator Mary Ann O’Brien, Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell, Senator Katherine Zappone and myself.

We are aware of the difficult decisions that successive Governments have faced in recent years. However, we have a number of concerns with regard to some of the choices made in the Social Welfare Bill. As a group we have met and discussed the Bill that is before us today. We are, as everyone knows, a group of Independents who come from a wide range of backgrounds including civil society, NGOs, the arts, education, business and human rights.

Each of us has our own unique perspective and it was for this reason we were nominated by the Taoiseach to the House.

The Seanad was established to give a voice to different and challenging opinions of Irish society. We are doing so today. As Independent Senators we all have a role in offering our particular opinion based on our experience and to challenge the Government and the Dáil in decisions they have made. Each one of us has taken time to reflect on our individual viewpoints. In the past week I have had discussions with each of the colleagues in our group. I was struck by the fairness and empathy of their considerations regarding the matters before the House. We had hoped for, and would have supported, reform of the social welfare system. However, we are faced with a proposal to make cuts instead of fundamental reforms.

We have difficulty in supporting some specific aspects of the Bill. We have tabled three amendments which can be summarised as follows. In regard to the respite care grant, we cannot underestimate the importance of this grant to brave carers and the people for whom they care. The proposed cut is inequitable and goes to the heart of our values as a nation. In regard to child benefit, we are concerned about the absence of any measures to cushion families on low incomes against these cuts. Can the Government consider counteracting these cuts for low-income families by increasing the family income supplement and the qualified child allowance or by implementing a second tier payment? In relation to section 13, we agree that measures should be put in place to recoup over-payment but the manner in which this is done is important. Recoupment should be phased or staggered in such a way that the relevant person maintains a minimum income threshold throughout the period of repayment.

We do not plan to hinder the passage of the Social Welfare Bill today as it moves from Second Stage to Committee Stage. On Committee Stage tomorrow we will give our individual viewpoints on the amendments we have tabled. We will listen carefully to the Minister’s response and reflect, and on that basis determine how we will vote. We have a diversity of experience and perspectives in our group. We do not impose a whip on group members. There have been times in the past and I have no doubt there will be times in the future when we will not all vote in the same way. However, on this occasion we anticipate acting in unison.

Oireachtas Health and Children Committee – Cystic Fibrosis Unit

13th December 2012

Part 1

One of my reasons for requesting the meeting today was because we are all very aware of the stress and distress of the patients from the media reports. I understood that the purpose of today’s meeting was to restore confidence. I do not have that confidence. I am reading the statement signed by the witnesses and the Cystic Fibrosis Association that states clearly: “1-2 in-patient rooms in the Nutley Wing will be kept available at all times for emergency admissions. In circumstances where the emergency admission rooms have already been utilised and all the other in patient rooms in the Nutley Wing are occupied, patients with Cystic Fibrosis will be accommodated elsewhere in clinically appropriate single rooms until such time as a room becomes available in the Nutley Wing and then the patient will be transferred there as a priority.” I am not hearing that today. In his Budget Statement last week the Minister for Health, Deputy James Reilly, said 34 beds is 34 beds. That is not what we are hearing.

Part 2

Professor Gallagher made a very clear statement that the 14 beds should be allocated in the same place. I do not have all the clinical terms. This is my understanding of reading an agreement about 20 beds being flexed up to 34. Everybody would know where these 14 are. I would like a commitment to work towards allocating the 14 beds and to examine structurally how to allocate them. I know the witnesses cannot state they exist now, but can we get a commitment this is what will be worked towards so the statement issued will live up to what it states?

Private Members’ Business – Economic Value of Youth Work

Part 1

I welcome the Minister to the House. I also welcome the representatives of the many wonderful youth work organisations and the National Youth Council of Ireland to the Visitors Gallery. Before I begin, it would be remiss of me were I not to congratulate the Minister wholeheartedly on the recent passing of the children’s rights referendum. Other issues are ongoing, but they should not take from that success. Many promised; the Minister delivered. I thank her very much.

I have a long list of issues that I would like to be able to discuss with the Minister, but I will limit myself to the value of youth work. I speak as someone who has benefited from experience as a young person in a youth organisation. I was lucky to have some truly inspirational youth leaders. Indeed, I wonder whether I would have the confidence to stand before the Minister today had I not become involved in the girl guides. I can trace many of my skills to my experience in youth work.

I also had the honour of being president of the National Youth Council of Ireland several years ago. Through that experience, I learned the value of providing young people with a choice of youth activities. Just like us adults, one size does not fit all.

I tabled this motion a number of weeks ago in the hope we could have a debate prior to the budget. As such, I thank my colleagues in the Independent Group for allowing me to use our precious time to have this debate now. We know that youth work makes a real difference in the lives of young people and the communities in which they live. The Indecon report, produced on behalf of the National Youth Council of Ireland, regarding the assessment of the economic value of youth work provides hard evidence to the effect that youth work is value for money and makes economic sense.

Like me, the Minister is undoubtedly alarmed by the fact that, in the EU, Ireland has the fourth highest number of young people who are not in education, employment or training, NEETs, at 18.4%. The EU average is 12.9%. In terms of marginalisation, 29% of people under 25 years of age are unemployed and one third of men between the ages of 20 years and 24 years are unemployed. The youth population is growing, with 18.4% of our population aged between ten and 24 years. Alongside this growth, youth work organisations have reported an increased demand for their services. Perhaps this is due to the recession, in that people are searching for value for money activities. It is in light of the increased demand that my Independent colleagues and I have tabled this motion. I also thank the other Senators who added their signatures to the motion.

The report outlines the evidence, but going through it would use up all of my time. I can provide hard economic evidence as well as many case studies. In one example, young teenagers regularly drank in the fields behind the school where a youth work organisation met. Over a period of two years, they were gradually encouraged to get involved in the organisation’s activities. Through gentle encouragement, they realised the harmful effects of alcohol and ceased hanging out in the fields because they had found a worthwhile activity.

In another example, an eight year old used to turn up to her youth work meeting half an hour early every week just to chat. It transpired that this young person had no active engagement with an adult from one end of the week to the other except for the youth worker. Her parents instructed her in what to do, but no one simply chatted with her.

Another young person had autism and found any group activity painful and frightening. After two years of coming along to meetings with her sister, she started to smile and progressively became more involved. According to her mother, the social skills that the young person developed were remarkable and directly attributable to her youth work experience.

While on a weekend away with a youth group, a teenager began hitting the other participants and using very sexualised language. After careful handling by the youth worker who talked with the girl and her parents, it transpired that she was being abused by someone known to the family. The abuse needed to be reported to the authorities.

I could continue with my list. I have not taken these examples from a report or research. They are my personal experiences as a youth work leader with the Irish Girl Guides. I have no doubt that any youth worker or, indeed, anyone present in the Gallery could share with the Minister a long list of examples where youth work had made a difference. The economic report also shows that. I call them magic moments. Sometimes, one goes to a meeting and does not have a great night, but situations arise that prove that youth work makes a difference.

When I tabled the motion, I tried to put down an evidence-based, factual account. I was tempted to add lines to the effect that, for example, funding should not be cut, but I decided on a wording that was non-confrontational. When I saw the Government’s amendment, it struck me as an attempt to gild the lily. In recent years, most youth work organisations have seen funding cuts amounting to a cumulative 30%. Some, particularly small specialist organisations, will no longer be viable, thereby reducing the selection of organisations that young people can join. Demands on youth work organisations are also increasing because young people do not have resources within their families, which places even greater pressure on local youth work clubs’ resources.

I do not wish to divide the House. To be constructive and as a first step, I will ask a number of questions. Perhaps the Minister might help by answering. I will add some of my own commentary so that the record of this debate can stand.

The first point I wish to raise is that of front-line youth work services. There are 382,615 young people participating in and benefiting from youth work, 1,400 full-time employees and more than 40,000 volunteers. My background is in guiding and scouting. For me, when we refer to front-line youth work services, we mean volunteers working on the front line who are being provided with resources and supports by staff. A small group of staff are based in a national office, and they provide and help with programme materials. They do not design those materials. Rather, that is done by the volunteers. Indeed, everything is done by the volunteers, but they need backup. When I hear “front-line youth work services”, I wonder whether the true voluntary nature is understood.

In the Minister’s discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the lead-up to the budget, did she discuss the Indecon report on the assessment of youth work and the benefits that it clearly demonstrated? The documents published by the Department of Public Expenditure and reform on budget 2013 showed that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is proposing a further cut of €3 million in 2014. These cuts are unsustainable. Youth work funding is 14% of the latter Department’s overall budget, yet is being allocated 30% of the overall cut to that budget.

There is talk about cutting 30% of funding, which is disproportionate and should be questioned.

The Government amendment to the motion mentions the provision of significant capital funding for the development of youth facilities, which is welcome. Will the Minister clarify the exact funding? In November last year there was an announcement of capital funding of €1.5 million for 2012 and in November 2012 there was announcement of €500,000 funding for 2012 and €1.5 million in capital funding for 2013. Is the total capital funding for 2012 and 2013, €3.5 million or €2 million? Has the Department carried out an assessment to ensure the sustainability of these services? If a facility can be only opened for a few hours per week I would question the expenditure. There is a great disparity in services being provided.

The third point of the Government amendment mentions, “Prioritising the protection of funding for front-line volunteer-led provision”. I have already mentioned what I believe is front-line provision but will the Minister clarify if this refers to the €1.035 million funding for local services out of a total youth work funding budget of €56.8 million? When I read the amendment at first I was excited but I must make progress.

Who is being consulted on the national youth work advisory committee? I saw a reply to a parliamentary question put down by Deputy Ó Caoláin but what are the terms of reference? The amendment mentions “reforming and rationalising” and I know the Minister is talking about doing a review. Is that the same review promised in the 2011 comprehensive review of expenditure and when can it be expected? What will be the terms of reference? School facilities are a bugbear of mine. The Government has told youth organisations to rationalise but when will schools be opened in the evenings for utilisation by youth work organisations? Too many schools are locked up, with youth organisations being charged for other facilities in the community.

We have had debates in this House on mental health, youth suicide, social inclusion, youth unemployment, bullying and alcohol-related harm. Central to all of these debates was the valuable role played by youth work organisations, which is why I passionately believe we must support these organisations rather than decimating them.


Part 2

I thank the Minister for her input and for having attended the full debate. I also wish to thank each of my colleagues who contributed to the discussion, in particular, the Independent group’s Members who contributed without hesitation. Senator O’Donnell seconded the motion and explained superbly how our group feels about this issue. At the group meeting, Senators Zappone, Mary Ann O’Brien, Mac Conghail, McAleese and others all had stories to tell about the value of youth work and its importance in all our lives.

As regards cuts, I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say about a “sharper focus on quality, outcome and evidence-based practice”. Part of me says that just means cuts, but I take the spirit of what the Minister means. Equally, however, I read in the Indecon report’s summary that “public funding provided by the State for youth work services represents value for money”. It does not say that it will represent value for money, but that it does so now.

In considering the review of funding streams – which is something that youth groups have been seeking for years – it does not suit anybody to crudely cut organisations by the same percentage every year, whether or not they improve. I welcome the review but how will it happen, what are its terms of reference and will it be transparent? Many organisations are wondering about those questions.

I do not want to divide the House, but will the Minister give a commitment to meet with the National Youth Council of Ireland to discuss the funding streams?