Tuesday, 14 October 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy John Curran): Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh. This is an important and interesting topic for budget day, and I have prepared a few notes accordingly. It is important that we acknowledge the real role that volunteering has played in our society for a very long time.
I am pleased to be able to address the Seanad on the important role of volunteering in Irish society. I shall use this as an opportunity to say a few words about the wider community and voluntary sector, before addressing the specific ways in which the Government encourages volunteering and active citizenship in Irish society.
The community and voluntary sector in Ireland has a long and interesting record that accurately reflects the economic, political and social history of the country. The past 50 years, in particular, have witnessed enormous changes in Irish society, which one can easily track as regards the development of the sector. Irish society today is modern and professional in its outlook and the community and voluntary sector is equally so. The sector often acts on behalf of the State and engages successfully with it on many fronts. It would not be possible to do so without a high level of expertise, professionalism and dedication. Ireland can be proud of its strong tradition of volunteer activity, which existed before the growth of any formal voluntary sector. It has its roots in our Christian tradition and its history and development parallels that of the country. Until relatively recent times the meitheal, or co-operative working in communities, was a standard feature of Irish life. We have retained this tradition of people helping each other, of coming together and pooling resources and skills when a task needs to be done. People who come together to work on school committees or on community activities probably do not even think of themselves as volunteers. Ultimately, the sum of their individual efforts invariably brings a value which is immeasurably more than the simple tally of their individual and unselfish acts.
Volunteering is central to the ideals of democracy, social inclusion and active citizenship. It is also an expression of the individual’s involvement in their community. The giving of time for others strengthens the fabric of our societies and defines the communities in which we live.
In recent years, the Government has sought to encourage the dynamism of the voluntary sector and has prioritised significant new resources in support of this. New research being finalised on behalf of the Department estimates that the State now provides in excess of €5.4 billion per annum to the wider non-profit sector in Ireland. This funding is to support the essential services that community and voluntary groups provide to Irish society on a not-for-profit basis. These services include social care, child care, elder care, health services, education, environmental, sport, cultural, advocacy, artistic and countless other activities.
The important role of the non-profit sector in our society has been reflected in the development of relations between the Government, the public authorities in general and the community and voluntary sector. Nowhere is that better displayed than in the evolution of social partnership to include the sector as a full partner over recent years. It is right that organisations with direct, personal experience of the circumstances and problems of those who might otherwise be almost voiceless in Irish society should be heard at the table of social partnership. It is also right that the participants in that process — including the Government — should be required to take on board and reflect, in policies and actions, the needs and aspirations of communities and interests served by voluntary organisations. It is right, too, that the sector should be aware of the concerns and constraints of the other social partners, and of the public authorities, through a respectful continuing dialogue.
Successive reports on the Irish community and voluntary sector have emphasised the need for an enabling environment for the voluntary sector and experience from other countries have reinforced this view. Such an infrastructure is becoming increasingly important in the context of key objectives under social partnership regarding social inclusion, lifelong learning and the promotion of active citizenship.
In September 2000, the Government published the White Paper on a Framework for Supporting Voluntary Activity and for Developing the Relationship between the State and the Community and Voluntary Sector. The White Paper was designed to establish a policy of support for community and voluntary groups and a framework of support for the sector across Government Departments and agencies.
In the Towards 2016 partnership agreement the Government identified the importance of voluntary activity emerging organically from communities and the responsibility of providing an enabling framework to support this. Towards 2016 described the Government’s approach to engaging with the community and voluntary sector as combining light regulation with proper accountability.
In recent years, the Government has been pursuing the policies developed under Towards 2016 and the White Paper. I will briefly mention some specific measures introduced by my Department to develop an enabling environment for the overall sector. One measure is the introduction of charities legislation. The Charities Bill, which it is anticipated will go to Report Stage in Dáil Éireann in the current Dáil session, provides for the dissolution of the Commissioners of Charitable Donations and Bequests for Ireland. The Bill further proposes that a new charities regulatory authority will take over the functions of the commissioners, as well as assuming a broader regulatory role for charities operating in Ireland, so as to ensure accountability and to protect against abuse of charitable status and fraud, thus enhancing public confidence in the charities sector.
The Department provides funding to the community and voluntary sector for training on capacity building in governance and compliance, strategic development, and service to communities. The local development programme also provides training and education grants for community development capacity building, IT training, or any other training priorities identified by local voluntary groups.
The community development programme provides community premises, development workers and a capacity building project to disadvantaged communities in over 150 locations throughout the country. They play a significant role in building community infrastructure and enhancing the capacity of the voluntary groups within the communities.
Against the background of the Task Force on Active Citizenship, the Government noted the establishment of a forum on philanthropy to deepen and strengthen a culture of philanthropy in Ireland. Developments since the establishment of the forum include Government approval of flagship projects with the private sector to the value of €51 million, publication of Philanthropy Ireland’s Guide to Giving, the endorsement of increased philanthropic activity by the Task Force on Active Citizenship and the establishment of the Social Finance Foundation. The work of the forum is ongoing.
I turn now to the lifeblood of the voluntary sector, the volunteers themselves, who, from every walk of life, offer their time and skills in the service of their community. Since taking over my role as Minister of State with special responsibility for drugs and community affairs, I have become acutely aware of the vital work that is carried out by volunteers the length and breath of Ireland. I have witnessed the sense of optimism and altruism that permeates many communities. There is, however, a paradox. While in this country we pride ourselves on our ingrained tradition of voluntary commitment, there are also increasing numbers of citizens who feel little connection or sense of duty to their neighbours and their wider community. There are ongoing pressures which mitigate against volunteering and civic engagement. Some of these relate to lifestyle and the pressures of combining working life with home and family commitments.
Against the background of the task force on active citizenship, the Government noted the establishment of a forum on philanthropy to deepen and strengthen a culture of philanthropy in Ireland. Developments since the establishment of the forum include Government approval of flagship projects with the private sector to the value of €51 million; publication of Philanthropy Ireland’s Guide to Giving; the endorsement of increased philanthropic activity by the task force on active citizenship and the establishment of the Social Finance Foundation. The work of the forum is ongoing.
I now turn to the lifeblood of the voluntary sector, the volunteers themselves, who, from every walk of life, offer their time and skills in the service of their community. Since taking over my role as Minister of State with special responsibility for drugs and community affairs, I have become acutely aware of the vital work carried out by volunteers the length and breadth of Ireland. I have witnessed the sense of optimism and altruism that permeates many communities. Here though is the paradox. While we in this country pride ourselves on our ingrained tradition of voluntary commitment, there are also increasing numbers of citizens who feel little connection or sense of duty to their neighbours and their wider community.
There are ongoing pressures which militate against volunteering and civic engagement. Some of these relate to lifestyle and the pressures of combining working life with home and family commitments. This is especially the case in the context of more extensive commuting. Some people are put off by the accountability which can arise from engagement in organised activities, old and new. Others still can be discouraged by criticism or by the indifference of those who stand back and leave the effort to others.
In our hectic modern world one can understand why people might opt out but it is vital that they are encouraged to make that commitment to society. The quality of life in Irish society and the ultimate health of our communities, depends on the willingness of people to become involved and active on their own behalf and that of their families, communities and the more vulnerable members of society. In short, a vibrant civic society, which is so essential to a balanced and, ultimately, happy community, requires us to support engagement and to counter disengagement.
Our policies on volunteering must go to the very heart of our vision of how society should develop over the coming years. Unless volunteering can be promoted and strengthened, we run the risk of seeing an increasing number of communities where people do not come together as neighbours, parents and fellow citizens to work together and address common interests and to enjoy each other’s company. The ultimate outcome of a policy on volunteering is to inspire people to participate in the development of their communities and, by putting the necessary supports in place, to turn that inspiration into action.
Much progress has been made in recent years in developing the State’s thinking on its interface with volunteers and volunteering groups and in providing State support in this area. My Department has had the benefit of a number of reports in this regard. I already mentioned the White Paper on Supporting Voluntary Activity published in September 2000 and the Towards 2016 partnership agreement. Another important document was the 2005 report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs which recommended the development of the existing volunteering infrastructure and that a functioning volunteering infrastructure was required.
These recommendations translated to a package of measures, amounting to almost €2 million, announced by my Department in March 2005 to support volunteering, which included providing core funding for the then eight local volunteer centres in existence and core funding for Volunteering Centres Ireland as a national organisation to play a proactive central role in facilitating and supporting the development of the network of local volunteer centres.
The task force on active citizenship report also made a number of recommendations, including that my Department fund a network of volunteer centres throughout the country. The Department now provides annual funding of almost €2.5 million to 20 such centres located throughout the country. So far this year, these volunteer centres have registered more than 5,660 volunteers and in excess of 800 volunteer-involving organisations.
It should also be noted that 56% of registered volunteers had never volunteered before and 70% were aged 35 years and under. To date, 2,300 volunteers have been placed by the volunteer centres, which will generate more than 151,000 volunteering hours this year alone. This is the equivalent of 82 full-time workers over a 12-month period.
In addition, the network of volunteer centres is complemented by a range of practical activities to encourage greater active citizenship. Some of these include the young social innovators initiative which involves transition year students at secondary school level from throughout Ireland in identifying social needs and developing strategies to address them, requiring their engagement with local, community and statutory organisations. The key objective is to develop volunteering among young people and grow a cadre of volunteers for the future.
At third level, the DIT community learning programme is an example of a teaching method called service-learning which works by integrating classroom learning in any subject with suitable volunteering activity. The programme has been in development in DIT for a number of years and students have carried out a wide variety of volunteering projects.
Another initiative is a project with Focus Ireland to support the placement of social science graduates within the organisation who wish to gain experience and to develop skills in working with people who are marginalised. Another initiative is support for Boardmatch, an organisation which aims to support the development of the voluntary and community sector in Ireland by strengthening boards of management and management committees of non-profit organisations.
I am pleased to note that this week my Department has entered into a cross-Border volunteering initiative with the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland. The project involves three groups — the GAA, Voluntary Arts Ireland and the Church of Ireland — and the aim of the initiative is to pilot action research into how recruitment of volunteers can be encouraged and also to consider how volunteers recruited within different spheres can provide the catalyst for wider community involvement and the development of active communities.
Through its funding to voluntary and community groups, my Department supports a growing variety of opportunities for citizens to get involved in a task or organisation that appeals to them. I recently attended a number of Give It A Swirl Day events, an initiative promoted by Volunteer Centres Ireland through its members throughout the country, and it is a great example of an innovative approach to encouraging people of all ages and from all walks of life — individuals, families, community groups and businesses — to get involved for just a few hours in a hands-on volunteer project in their local community. The events countrywide included activities such as community clean-ups, tree planting, decorating homes for the elderly and painting murals. Other initiatives assist sporting organisations such as the GAA to develop opportunities for volunteers in local clubs and to engage with other voluntary groups to achieve wider community objectives.
The Government will continue to develop an enabling environment to encourage volunteering and active citizenship. There is an ongoing need to ensure resources are directed in a targeted and effective manner and that we are constantly subjecting our activities to critical appraisal, especially in light of the current economic climate. In that way, we can continue to ensure those we work to assist will receive the maximum benefit. For instance, we are undertaking a review of our support to the volunteer centres throughout the country to ensure our support is focused where it is most needed.
Modern society faces complex problems that cannot be addressed simply by channelling more funds, although funding is important. They require innovative thinking and flexible responses by all the relevant actors at national and local level. However, I believe that this is where the vision, the dedication and the tireless efforts of individuals in the community can make a major difference.
The changed circumstances in which we live today require a sharpening of focus for us all in terms of addressing the nature of the problems which now present themselves. In response to the changing context in which disadvantage is being experienced, my Department is reaffirming the concentration of the focus of its resources on communities where disadvantage and isolation still prevail. Effective support at local and community level is the constant we seek in a rapidly changing society.
There is a huge diversity of organisations within the community and voluntary sector. Their areas of expertise vary. Their target groups, objectives and goals are different. However, there is a commonality in many of their needs. It makes good sense that groups with so much in common should work together to achieve shared ambitions. We must identify ways of promoting cohesion between all organisations, whether community, voluntary or statutory. We look towards the day when all individuals and communities in our society benefit and prosper as they should.
Senator Paul Bradford: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is a topic we understand and support and in which we are all involved to some degree. When I say volunteering should be voluntary, I mean we do not need over-prescription or legislation. Neither do we need a plethora of groups and organisations that prescribe how to be a volunteer. Volunteering and voluntary work should come from the heart and soul.
It is appropriate that we are having this discussion on the day the Minister for Finance must produce in the Dáil a financial response to what in the eyes of many would be seen as the excess of the Celtic tiger. Part of the Minister’s responsibility is to encourage restraint and a sense of responsibility, something which has gone out the door. Over the past 20 years, we have lived in a country awash with money where there was a price on everything but a value on nothing. Volunteerism and voluntary work are the opposite. People value voluntary work and in the majority of cases do not put a price on the work they do.
I am sure colleagues on the Government side, including Senator Butler, have played their part in the voluntary sector. I am sure that before Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú became an official of Comhaltas CeoltóiríÉireann, he spent years working voluntarily with the organisation changing the lives of people throughout the country. I do not know Senator Cannon as well, but I am aware of his work with handicapped people and invalids. This is the type of voluntary work that comes from the heart. Legislation, grants for volunteering bodies and prescribing how people can become volunteers do not always produce the results we would like. Therefore, when I say volunteering should be voluntary, the House will understand what I mean.
The Minister of State spoke about the ethos and culture of the people, which stems in most cases from their Christian ethos. Volunteering, voluntary work and neighbourliness were at their height when the country was at its lowest economically. Society changed, mostly for the good, but the idea of voluntary work, helping neighbours and involving oneself in one’s community went out the door. This is regrettable and is something we must try to address. The question is how to address it.
The Minister of State spoke of the Government continuing to develop an enabling environment to encourage volunteering and active citizenship. While this is a valid aspiration, it may not work. It is artificial to instruct people to volunteer and tell them how to become volunteers. We must start in the home, in families and in communities. Schools too have a role to play, although it sometimes appears we believe all society’s problems can be solved at transition year level and that these pupils can carry out all sorts of projects. At second level, where the focus is geared towards gaining points, we should try to involve students in voluntary work. Older primary school pupils could also be involved. Residents in hundreds of nursing homes and patients in dozens of hospitals never have visitors. The thousands of pupils within walking distance of most of these homes and hospitals should be encouraged to visit these people. This small step would be practical volunteering and would produce a positive result for the elderly and the lonely.
Traditionally, the elderly were looked after in their homes and benefited from significant amounts of voluntary work, not just on the part of their sons, daughters and grandchildren, but from neighbours dropping in and bringing them the news of the community. This was genuine voluntary work. Nowadays, people who call to a neighbour’s house are seen as nosey. This practice is no longer deemed acceptable, another excess of the Celtic tiger, but it is to be hoped we can redress this.
The Minister of State mentioned a community and voluntary forum. I saw an advertisement in the Irish Examiner today advising groups to register as community and voluntary bodies. While this may be necessary from an administrative perspective, it demonstrates how volunteerism and voluntary work are almost being turned into an agency, department or quango. This should not be the case. Volunteering should be something natural and should not require all these rules and regulations. However, I welcome those groups that have come together in a formal structure. While that may be necessary, we must try to reach beyond the formality.
I appreciate that the Government is investing funds in the area, although the Minister of State is restrained with regard to the amount. I read about some of the initiatives such as Give it a Swirl Day and similar projects. While these are welcome, they should not be seen as the total solution. That must come from homes, families and communities. We must spread the message that people must look after their neighbours. They must be made aware that they, their neighbours and parish are all part of the one community and that they should involve themselves at that level.
Recently, I attended a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at which the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs made a presentation on Leader and community funding. During his presentation he made an interesting point about the success of the GAA, which stems not from money but from the parish ethos working at its best and people looking after their clubs and parishes. The majority are involved without ever receiving a grant or a penny from anyone. We do not have Croke Park in every parish, but we have volunteer workers.
Senator Paul Bradford: I thank the Senator. The GAA is a typical organisation where the code of voluntary work is at its best and strongest and produces enormous benefits for the community. This is the sort of volunteerism we must try to support and encourage.
The Minister of State did not refer to the difficulty caused to clubs, communities, sporting organisations and small community hall projects with regard to the public liability insurance fund. There are many occasions when people are willing to provide home help, bring elderly people to the local community hall or provide meals and entertainment, but the issue of public liability insurance rears its ugly head. We cannot ignore this issue because it has a negative impact on volunteerism. The public liability issue is part of a wider debate, but it needs to be addressed.
The Minister of State referred to the Charities Bill and I look forward to the debate on that. Funding is an issue for all organisations because so many groups seek funding and some degree of regulation is required in the area. It is to be hoped the Bill will impact positively on voluntary work and volunteerism.
I wish to refer briefly to social insurance contributions. There may be a role for the Minister for Social and Family Affairs in considering much of the work being done on an almost full-time basis by unpaid volunteers, not that they are seeking payment. I commended the Government on its tackling of the issue of the lack of social insurance contributions via a measure introduced to allow for social insurance recognition for people whose spouses. usually wives, remained at home looking after family members or elderly people and who received no PRSI recognition for doing so. The Minister might consider the possibility of having some degree of social insurance recognition for people who are doing voluntary work on an almost full-time basis. As I said, they receive no pay but are doing it from the bottom of their hearts in the most positive way possible. It would be helpful if something could be done in this regard.
We all welcome volunteerism and voluntary work. Sadly, the International Year of Volunteers passed us by without anyone taking any particular notice. To my shame, I am not sure whether it was last year or the previous year. It was not one of the more successful UN international years. Perhaps in this country we should set aside a month every year in which we try to put volunteerism and voluntary workers at the top of our agenda and recognise their contributions.
I wish the Minister well in his endeavours. I do not disagree with anything he said in his speech. However, it is not a question of laws, rules and regulations or prescription, but one of ethos and making an effort to get back a little of what we have lost over the past 20 years. It is about removing a bit of greed from society and replacing it with generosity, goodwill and a philosophy of looking after one’s neighbour, which has sadly gone out of fashion but, it is to be hoped, may come back into favour in these lesser economic times.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: Is mian liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit agus roimh an oifigeach ón Roinn. Tááthas orm go bhfuil seans againn na ráitis seo a phlé inniu. Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil éinne ar an oileán seo nach dtuigeann an tábhacht a bhaineann leis an ábhar seo. Níl an t-ábhar seo á phlé toisc go bhfuil an cáinfhaisnéis á chur i láthair inniu. Tá sé mar thraidisiún againn sa tír seo bheith ag faire amach dos na comharsana i gcónaí. Is ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. Tá sé deacair sin a shárú.
Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú: I welcome the Minister of State. His contribution was the best I have heard in my 11 years in the Seanad. That is saying a lot. It was human, real and full of heart. I am talking about the part that came before the figures. I would go so far as to recommend to the Minister of State that he make that part of his contribution available to a wider public because it captures exactly what volunteerism is about. First, he goes back to its traditional and historical foundation, which is vital because volunteering is in our genes. It is inherent in us as a race to give voluntary service in different ways. This has been the case historically because of the difficult times our nation has come through. Even in the most difficult times, such as the Famine, when food was scarce and people were dying, we still looked out for each other and tried to share as far as possible. With each difficulty we met in history, we did likewise. We now see this replicated in each local community.
There are 40 organisations in my home town. One can go down through the list and see sporting bodies, religious groups, charitable bodies, Meals on Wheels and so on. The former Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, speaking last week on volunteerism, said that if the State had to pay for what is being done by volunteers, the cost would be astronomical and probably impossible to meet. We all know this is true. However, the volunteers do not want payment. The Taoiseach is right to focus on the importance of volunteerism. Ten years ago we were not actually using the terms “volunteer” and “volunteering”. No title was given to these people. In fact, even to mention it was to distract from the ethos and the significance of volunteering. To some extent today we feel a little uncomfortable talking about it because it is part of the hidden Ireland. It happens in a community. One does not say what one has done or point it out. However, one does look out to see in what way one can help.
People did not confine themselves to the island of Ireland; they looked abroad as well. Whenever help was needed we rallied, putting funds together and sending them abroad. I believe that per capita, we possibly lead all the other countries in this regard. Nothing will change even in the present economic climate. It is part of us. We will still look out for each other.
There are broader issues involved as well. One might ask what volunteering has to do with North-South relations, for example, and the difficulties we had in Northern Ireland. I suggest that the greatest progress in terms of bridging traditions, bringing people together and respecting others’ backgrounds and traditions happened in voluntary groups. Here, people were meeting, not in a political sense but getting to know each other and becoming able to measure each other’s concerns while at the same time trying to explain their positions, which were often not understood because we were dealing largely with megaphone diplomacy, headlines of a tragic nature, and letters to the newspapers. This is a case in which the volunteer movement played its role when it came to history.
During the week, one political commentator, talking about how we might make savings in the upcoming budget, suggested the abolition of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. This was not tongue-in-cheek. He is a highly respected political correspondent in one of our national newspapers. I was not angry; I was sad that he was so lacking in knowledge about what was happening in the country. I would have said to him that of all Departments, this is the very one that has played a role in getting value for money.
When representatives of the State met volunteers and their groups, as they have done in recent years, the contribution they made was not a reward or an acknowledgement but an opportunity to expand what existed locally already and to position ourselves to deal with a changing society. We have seen how affluence does this by its very nature. We all know of the greed that exists; we have discussed it in this House. We also know that those who are vulnerable in society often get caught in the stampede of those who want to increase their bank balances. Very often these are the silent people and they need groups to speak on their behalf. The bodies that existed needed assistance to use professionalism to support what was already happening locally. In the main, it did not minimise, dilute or distract from the voluntary effort. I certainly hope this will continue into the future.
We must bear in mind the diversity of groups that exist. They all do different things and, to some extent, specialise in different aspects of work. Reference has been made, for example, to the GAA. One could add to that a variety of groups, such as the ICA, farmers’ groups, youth groups, cultural groups and so on all doing their own thing. Wherever there is a coming together of volunteers, it has to help. Ní neart go cur le chéile; unity is strength. There have to be meeting points for these groups because a certain interaction is required. There might even be an overlap.
One thing among many others for which I give credit to the Department is its anxiety, in planning its funding, to ensure it did not undermine in some way the voluntary effort it was trying to help. That was vital. On many of the schemes we have discussed here we have gone through these items in detail and made our points and had the opportunities. They have been listened to and in many ways they have also been built into the legislation.
I also pay tribute to the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, as I have done in the past. He has travelled extensively throughout the country and has met small, big and diverse groups. He has listened to them and invariably he has brought back the benefit of that. With the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, we are proving once again that there is no rural-urban divide. Volunteerism does not end with Dublin city. Volunteerism is everywhere one goes. Regarding tradition, one can pick out Connemara in rural Ireland or the Liberties in Dublin. There is no difference in the focus which applies in all those cases.
However, there is an opportunity for the media to play a role in this regard. I am not going in for media bashing. All I ever look for is some balance. Every day the newspapers portray a tiny number of people from the entertainment world as representative of the entire population, as if they were the only heroes and heroines. There are times when we should acknowledge the unsung heroes and heroines who are beavering away not for their own advancement but for the good of the community at large. I am not saying that a certain amount of that does not already happen, nor am I saying that volunteers even want it. However, it would help to enhance the role they play. When they are looking for role models there are times when they should go away from the glitter and tinsel, and get down to the heart of the community and recognise these people for what they are. I meet them every day of the week.
Senator Bradford made a great presentation and also reflected what I am saying about the whole ethos of volunteering. He picked up one example of a nursing home. I visited a nursing home in my area last night. Some of the people were quite elderly and ill. There are opportunities for young people in particular. Older people love meeting younger people and have time to talk to them. Younger people have much to learn in that regard. We should always seek those opportunities. Regarding the record of the Department, I agree that volunteer centres were necessary. I have no doubt the contribution those 20 centres are making is vital. An investment of €2.5 million is considerable and I am sure more could be required.
The Charities Bill is going through the Houses at the moment. It was necessary to have a more focused regulation in this regard because if one charity comes under the spotlight, all charities come under it. While it might be the wrong day or even the wrong couple of weeks for making this suggestion, I know people with money in the bank, who would be prepared to give a loan to sporting bodies and other charities for a small interest that would be much smaller than the banks charge. I understand that in the past charities were allowed to take loans and pay interest. I suggest that interest should be tax-free. If the money is left lying in the current account it is dead. If that money were lent with a small interest, how much might charities that are borrowing at full commercial rates save?
I wish the Minister of State well. I have no doubt that he has the finger on the pulse in this regard. I compliment him on his contribution and I hope a major part of that could be circulated more widely.
Senator David Norris: I also welcome the Minister of State and compliment him on his speech in which he hit a number of the right notes which I would like to develop. Although it is part of the Christian tradition to help out one’s neighbours, it is not exclusively so. We are far too self-congratulatory and insular if we think we are so wonderful as a Christian country. I have worked with a number of voluntary organisations, Irish and other, here and abroad. Including in a number of the organisations that are specifically Christian, many of their excellent volunteers were devout atheists. However, it did not impact on their capacity to contribute. It is a human trait and not simply a sectional Christian one, although as a Christian, I like to think it is part of our obligation to live out the gospel in this way.
Like many other Senators I have had experience in the voluntary area. Very often it was simply because the authorities were not doing anything at all. Particularly in the area of gay rights, I was involved in the gay rights movement, the National Lesbian and Gay Federation of Ireland and the Hirschfeld Centre. My experience there makes me understand that it is very important for the Government to recognise the value of voluntary input, but not to use it as an excuse to do nothing. We often used to get complimented on what we did with regard to AIDS. The Government simply relaxed with the attitude that we were looking after it ourselves. We did not get a single ha’penny in support and yet we reversed the usual profile of the AIDS infection in this country, which was quite different from what happened in other countries. Wonderful people contributed voluntarily.
All our colleagues here will remember Tom Hyland, an unemployed bus driver from Ballyfermot, who took up the cause of East Timor. He organised ETISC, the East Timor Ireland Solidarity Campaign, from his little corporation house in Ballyfermot. He affected Irish and European policy. He was able to see half the world as his neighbours. I will never forget the day I heard Professor Peter Carey of Oxford saying in his cut-glass tones: “Of course when one considers the downfall of Suharto in Indonesia, one must acknowledge the role played by Tom Hyland of Ballyfermot in Dublin”. That is a real David and Goliath story that gives the answer to anybody who says, “Oh, the situation is dreadful, but I can’t do anything about it”. Of course one can.
I would like to pay tribute to Volunteering Ireland, which is a remarkable organisation, and Voluntary Service Overseas. I must declare an interest as I have recently been appointed to the board of that body. It is a very fine body as is Volunteering Ireland. At least two Members of this House have recently returned, one from Africa and the other from Mongolia - Senator Mark Daly of Fianna Fáil and Senator Dominic Hannigan of the Labour Party. These young people have gone abroad to experience at first hand what it means for Irish volunteers to be able to contribute to and learn from the societies in which they find themselves.
In an age when we are told we are not living in a society anymore — society has been abolished and it is just an economy — it is very important to realise there is such a thing as social capital and we need to build it up through the voluntary sector through mutual aid, self-help and people with shared problems. A problem shared is a problem halved by people working together to address these difficulties. Philanthropy is the service to others. In the brief I got from Volunteering Ireland I came across a new word, “philantherapy”, which I love. There is a therapeutic quotient to getting involved. I have felt it myself, that when one puts something in one gets it back. Since I have suggested it is not just Christians, I should return to my roots and quote the bible “cast your bread upon the waters and it shall return to you an hundredfold”. In other words one gets a return, a quantifiable bounce in one’s self-esteem, one’s feeling of well being and one’s feeling of connection to one’s community.
The Minister of State and some of my colleagues mentioned the Irish tradition. We are living in the protection of each other’s shadow. Senator Ó Murchú quoted that wonderful Irish proverb. He referred to the meitheal and the community gathering around. I live in the north inner city and I have witnessed that. It has not faded even with the arrival of new communities. Such participation is important and it helps with many emerging problems such as the integration of new communities into our society because these people are often locked into their own ghettos and one way to integrate them into our society is to encourage them to become involved in voluntarism.
Volunteers learn many skills, including advocacy and campaigning, which benefit not only the community but the individuals themselves. I like to pin down the value of voluntarism in economic and social terms. A report on volunteering in Ireland published in 2006 highlighted that 37.1% or 1,570,408 people volunteer for 465,624 hours per year, which is the equivalent of 96,454 full-time workers. I like grand, global figures and, therefore, 1.5 million people volunteer for 500,000 hours, which is the equivalent of 100,000 full-time workers. The financial benefit equates to between €200 million and €600 million. Senator Ó Murchú mentioned an Iar-Taoiseach, Parthalán Ó hEachthairn, who pointed out we would be hard put to afford all the work done by volunteers and, therefore, we should be sensitive when dealing with groups such as the Carers Association. The investment is well worth it. Senator Ó Murchú mentioned the meals on wheels scheme. How many people would be swept over if that did not exist?
This concept has been adopted in a tiny community in the Troodos Mountains in Cyprus. Many members of the community are elderly and they have a community centre. A meal is given to them four days a week and this also provides them with a social outlet.
For every €1.50 invested, a return of between €4.50 and €12 is achieved, which makes economic sense. A total of 72% of people feel volunteers offer something. For example, in the Dublin area alone, 52,000 adults are involved in the organisation of underage football. The GAA is hugely resourced but I do not object to that because it is a voluntary organisation at its core. Mr. Robert Putnam, an American sociologist wrote an interesting book entitled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. He demonstrated that, as a result of the decline in social capital, people are less trusting and less connected with each other, leading to a lack of interest and trust in politics. It is, therefore, in our interest as well. People do not vote because they feel powerless, disenfranchised and cut off and this leads to a lack of civic involvement. They can be empowered through volunteering and by supporting voluntary organisations. However, such support must be clear. It is well worth doing so in the context of the benefits to society.
I commend the Minister of State on mentioning the White Paper published in 2000. I would like the Government to revisit it and audit the recommendations to ascertain how much has been done by Government; to ensure the voluntary sector is recognised and the support provided to the sector is examined; to ensure joined up thinking and initiatives will create the conditions for civic participation; to mainstream volunteering in Government policy; and to support all volunteering initiatives and consult widely with key stakeholders in the area.
I refer to the my own experience with the Hirschfeld Centre, the Joyce Centre and the North Great Georges Street Preservation Society. The voluntary sector must not be left on its own. Constructive interaction is needed because it is easy for us in public life to be lazy and when something wonderful is done by organisations such as Comhaltas CeoltóiríÉireann, which also gets a fair wallop of cash, we need to make sure we do not relax and say everything is all right and such organisations are looking after it. We must support them, particularly in the current economic climate.
Senator Larry Butler: It is important to address voluntarism and the important role volunteers play in their communities. I welcome the Minister of State who is doing tremendous work in his portfolio. Organisational ability is needed to move volunteers in the right direction and he has a major role to play in this regard, which can be constructive.
Reference was made to the tremendous voluntary activity associated with the GAA, rugby and soccer. We could not buy the organisational structure the umbrella organisations have implemented through their volunteers. The Special Olympics were held in Ireland a few years ago and every county was asked to provide 5,000 volunteers. This was a major task but the organisation of this structure was second to none. It proved we were able to compete on a world stage. The games were staged entirely through the voluntary sector. This is why we must financially support, where possible, those engaged in this wonderful work.
Residents and tidy towns associations and other voluntary organisations in our towns and villages play a major role in delivering services the State cannot afford to buy. Events take place in community centres and they are organised by wonderful people who give of their time. They make the community vibrant and their skills, leadership and support are brought to the fore. The most important aspect of being a volunteer is the humanity involved. We should have consideration, for example, for our neighbours. When I was growing up in my community, my mother often asked me to check on our neighbours when she had not seen them for a few hours.
This is an important day in the history of the country, as a budget is being introduced, which will impinge on most of the community but our volunteerism is solid. If our volunteers stick with us and we pull together in tough times, such as now, we will come out the other end successfully. For example, the Wexford Opera Festival is run by a voluntary organisation. The volunteers ensure the festival occurs every year. The Meals on Wheels programme and the Simon Community night-time soup run are voluntary. Many of us do not realise that, while we are sleeping in bed, such people are working to deliver a badly needed service on behalf of our community, State and Government. It is important that the House recognise and salute the people in question because they play a vital role.
I have not mentioned one of the best groups, namely, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which does significant work, finds out where the problems are and deals with them quietly.  The society is a wonderful group. Where would our Olympic team have been if not for our athletics, boxing and swimming bodies? They are voluntary organisations of people who pull athletes together, coach them and ensure their fitness to represent Ireland on the world stage.
In terms of volunteerism, it is important that we deliver skills, leadership, support, care and humanity. I wish the Minister of State well. I will not go through the figures, as he has already done so. He is moving in the right direction. The Minister of State with responsibility for older people is leading in that regard and other Ministers of State are beginning to get on top of their leagues. They are dealing with the issues that matter in life.
Senator Dominic Hannigan: I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this subject and I welcome the Minister of State to the House. As the Labour Party’s Seanad spokesperson on community affairs, I am aware of the real and positive benefits of volunteerism to the community. I have also done some voluntary work at home and overseas, which has given me a perspective on the benefits of volunteerism.
Our country traditionally has been seen as one that produces volunteers for organisations at home and abroad. In recent years, however, questions have been asked as to whether we are maintaining the same levels of volunteerism. For this reason among others, the Task Force on Active Citizenship was established in early 2007.
A study shows that the Irish rate of volunteerism is, more or less, at the European average. Approximately 30% of people volunteer regularly. While one in three Irish people volunteer, two in three Americans volunteer regularly. There is room for improvement. Using the results of the last census to determine who volunteers, why, and from where they come, there are interesting disparities across groups. While 25% of people between the ages of 45 and 54 years volunteer, the figure drops to one in nine among those aged 15-24 years of age. Regarding socio-economic groups, one in every five employers and managers volunteers, but only one in every ten unskilled workers volunteers.
It appears there are two pools of people in which the level of volunteerism could be improved, namely, younger people and the less skilled. We must ask why this is the case. Do they believe they do not have sufficient skills, is it an issue of confidence, do they lack the time or is there another reason? We must consider the reasons and try to work on them.
The benefits of involving young people are immense. Recently, I read a study showing that volunteering makes young people more tolerant, matures them more quickly and gives them a clear sense of what type of career path they should follow. These are benefits not only for young people, but for society as a whole. Given that involving them and those from less advantaged communities is difficult, we must focus on how to improve the rates.
We must determine how people start volunteering. An interesting statistic shows that 60% of current volunteers were originally asked whether they would mind helping. Only one in three volunteers starts by offering his or her services. If we are asking people, perhaps we should ask more. Two thirds of people who do not volunteer stated that they would be willing to do so. The Government could start a media awareness programme to encourage more people to become involved in their communities and to volunteer among local groups. The programme could be aimed at people from less advantaged communities and young people to try to increase the relevant rates.
I recognise that there are limits on the number of volunteers. Recently, I carried out a survey in the commuter belt to determine how people were doing, what quality of life they had and so on. I will make a copy available to the Minister of State. When asked whether people were involved in their local communities, 50% replied that they did not have the time. They spend so long travelling to and from work that, when they get home, they spend the rest of their time with their families. The Government could consider the issue of transport links between the capital and peri-urban communities and the question of encouraging more jobs investment in communities surrounding the capital, such as in counties Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, to ensure that people could have more time to spend at home and making an input in their communities’ lives.
The Government may be able to help in respect of other issues relating to voluntary work. We need people to become involved in running communities and estates in our towns and villages because they ensure that works, such as grass-cutting, fun days and so on, are undertaken. However, people are frightened about getting involved in their estates because of concerns about their liabilities for insurance costs or if the management companies running the estates go bust. The Government should examine these issues.
To illustrate the insurance matter, I will give a specific example of an area in County Meath. The residents of Broomfield and Starinagh, forming a small community group in a rural area, got together to set up a community council. Working together and through their dedication, they have been able to access funds from a variety of sources and build a community centre. Those communities and others in County Meath and elsewhere are concerned about the level of insurance they must pay if they arrange a fun day or a summer fair. Will the Government consider an all-encompassing insurance policy to cover the whole of the country in order that any local group that sets up in its estate need not worry about getting insurance or being sued if someone breaks an arm?
Turning to the subject of volunteering overseas, Ireland has historically been great at sending people to the new world. Other countries have sent some of us as well, but we will not go into that. It is a fantastic experience for our volunteers and gives them a significant sense of achievement. One can see the results of one’s efforts on the ground and one knows that good is being done. It also provides an opportunity to meet new people and to experience different cultures. Three out of every five young people would be very happy to get involved in a voluntary organisation in the Third World. Senator Norris referred to the opportunity I had to volunteer on the 50th anniversary of the VSO, along with seven other parliamentarians from Leinster House, to improve the knowledge of parliamentarians in volunteering. Deputy Varadkar and I spent three weeks in Mongolia learning about Mongolia, taking part in local activities and trying to help in reforming, in my case, the health service.
I naively expected all the participants to be young people like me but there was a range of people there. The VSO accepts people up to the age of 75 and some Members of this House may wish to volunteer. The voluntary organisations benefit greatly from having experienced, well-skilled people assisting them. It is also of great benefit to the individuals.
I refer to one area in which the Minister of State could assist. Organisations such as the VSO get much goodwill from people in the real world who give up their time but they need money from the Government. I recognise that we support such organisations through seed funding but we must ensure that funding is not cut and, where possible, improved so that it can give the experience to even more people.
The spirit of volunteering is alive and doing very well in Ireland. I welcome the statement of the Minister of State. I do not criticise but seek to make suggestions. We could examine the issue of insurance and ensure we support organisations such as the VSO. We could also make it easier for people to get involved in volunteering through a media awareness campaign.
Senator Ciaran Cannon: I welcome the Minister of State who has a serious grasp of the value of the voluntary sector, the challenges facing it and how we should address these. I welcome this opportunity to speak on the important role of volunteerism in the life of our country and how Government can proactively support and encourage the many people who generously give of their time in the service of others. We are now at a time when this most valuable aspect of Irish life needs new life and impetus breathed into it.
There has been a long tradition of volunteerism in this country and this was most apparent to me growing up in rural east Galway in the 1970s where the tradition of the meitheal was still alive and well. A sense of belonging as well as self-sufficiency and reliance were generated when a community helped its own to save the hay, foot the turf and bring in the harvest. I recall summer evenings when people appeared out of nowhere to save the hay. People coming together to help each other in times of difficulty was the beauty of the meitheal. Volunteering, at an informal, non-organisational level, was the key to maintaining and sustaining rural communities while also providing the encouragement to individual farmers to keep going in difficult times. With the increased mechanisation of agriculture, that tradition slowly died out but the spirit of the meitheal is alive and well to this day in rural and urban Ireland.
My belief in the value of volunteerism was further enhanced by my involvement with the Irish Pilgrimage Trust, a national charity caring for young people with special needs. It has grown from a small group of seven volunteers in 1972 to a vibrant national organisation of many thousands of volunteers who give generously of their time and commitment to those who benefit from their support and friendship.
While my experience of volunteerism would lead me to believe it has a bright future, surveys detailing the continued decline in the numbers of those involved in voluntary activity give me serious cause for concern. The most recent of these surveys was conducted by the National Economic and Social Forum in 2002. They found that 17% of all adults questioned were “taking a regular part in any type of unpaid voluntary activity or service outside the home or workplace”. Applying this percentage to the adult population as measured by the 2002 census gives us an estimated figure of 492,000. We should compare this with a figure of 926,000 for the year 1992 and we see a decline of 46% in the numbers of those involved in voluntary activity.
There are a number of factors that have led to this decrease and some are not easily addressed by Government. Senator Bradford referred to international research that has shown that increased wealth leads to a decrease in voluntary activity and there is no doubt our Celtic tiger has led to people becoming more self-obsessed and unwilling to get involved in voluntary activity.
Those who are willing to remain involved need to be encouraged and supported in the work they do. In these stringent economic times in which we live, it is necessary to try to advance economic arguments for Exchequer support for the voluntary sector. This argument was successfully made in an excellent document entitled Volunteers and Volunteering in Ireland produced by the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in January 2005, chaired by our colleague, Senator Cecelia Keaveney. While that report concludes that there are insufficient data available to establish exactly how many volunteers we have in this country, it is possible to estimate that the economic value of their contribution is somewhere in the region of €500 million per annum.
The report also concluded that there is no need to set up another costly quango to foster and nurture volunteerism. The supports provided by Volunteering Ireland and existing volunteering centres should be supported and granted long-term funding as an alternative to an additional layer of bureaucracy in the form of a new statutory body.
I wholeheartedly agree with the conclusion of the report in respect of State funding. It has been my experience in working with a number of voluntary organisations that there is a plethora of ad hoc and multi-agency funding streams available to such groups. I have advocated for a number of years, at local and national government levels, that all funding for voluntary organisations and volunteering should be channelled exclusively through the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. This would improve efficiency and transparency and make the job of securing funding less difficult for voluntary groups. Funding commitments could be entered into over a number of years and in this way the monitoring of State expenditure would also be facilitated. With a long-term and guaranteed funding stream available to voluntary groups, they would be able to formulate long-term plans rather than working on an intermittent and piecemeal basis dictated by sporadic injections of funding. Creating a single funding stream administered through one Department would also lead to reductions in administration costs and these savings in turn could form part of this single funding stream.
At a time when we are challenged to deliver world-class public services, it is interesting to note that recent research carried out by the University of Wales concluded that using volunteers to deliver some public sector services is good for the nation’s health. Senator Norris referred to this earlier when he mentioned philanthropy. The study shows that volunteering can mean people live longer and is good for their health and well-being and for the people they help. It also found that volunteering had a positive effect on people’s self-esteem, led to a reduction in hospital visits and could even combat depression, stress and pain. We need to explore further the possibilities of forging strong links between our public service and the voluntary sector. There are potential synergies in it that could benefit us all.
From the citizen training the local under-8 hurling team to the citizen caring for the 80 year old with Alzheimer’s disease, the spirit of volunteerism is at the very heart of Irish life. It is a flame of selfless generosity that has burned long and bright for generations and it was apparent to us all when we hosted the Special Olympics in 2003. That event gave us a glimpse of the potential that we have as a people to work together in achieving a common goal. It is now time for Government to acknowledge that potential, to fan that flame in a meaningful way and to offer the kind of supports our people need to continue doing the very valuable work they do.
It is important to recognise the value of volunteerism in society and it might be helpful to remind all levels of officialdom that they also should value it. People can become smug in their jobs and can forget the workload and time that volunteers commit in the various activities in which they are involved around the country, in both rural and urban settings.
Volunteerism comes from the heart. It is a passion and a sense of belonging, and comes from the family or the community of those who participate. It is about pride and for that reason we often hear of competitions managed by local authorities, which are most welcome. What does that phrase “pride of place” mean? It means people living in their communities, having a sense of the environment in which they live, wanting to do something on a voluntary basis to improve that environment. Such pride of place is seen also in the involvement of organisations such as the Tidy Towns committees who do endless hours of work and give untold commitment to improving the environment of their towns and villages. We must acknowledge that at all levels. It is vital to have good interaction with voluntary organisations in order that when they deal with officialdom, whether the local area engineer on a council, or the relevant Department, the response they get is flexible, responsive and timely and that they are not frustrated. After all, these are volunteers and are not paid. They cannot wait all day at the end of a telephone line or wait for weeks for a letter of response. Responsiveness to volunteerism should come from the bottom up and the top down and I hope the Minister for State will take on board that point.
The great traditional organisations such as the GAA and the ICA were mentioned and I acknowledge the role they have played, especially in rural Ireland. Rural Ireland can become isolated and disconnected without those organisations, the parish committees and so on. Their activities and initiatives keep rural Ireland together and weld the social and cultural fabric of our society. That should be encouraged at all stages and all times.
I mentioned the individual volunteer. Time is the most important resource and it is a very scarce commodity in people’s lives nowadays. Time is the essence and the blood of the volunteer. One might have the passion and the pride but if one does not have the time one cannot give it. Some people might love to give their time but due to the constraints of modern living they can no longer do so. Both parents in a family might be working, or might be working away from home. Time is the valuable commodity that must be acknowledged and all State agencies must respond and adapt to that.
School management boards around the country are comprised mainly of volunteers. I am aware of one school board of management that has had three resignations from a total of eight members. The three resigned in the past few weeks because of time constraints. That is an almost unbearable loss to the school and the whole community. These are people who bring valuable skills on a voluntary basis to a board of management for the benefit and general good of the pupils in that school and that community. We cannot neglect this matter and turn a blind eye to it. I see this instance as an alarm bell ringing. Good able people with valuable skill sets are resigning because they do not have time. We see the same happening in politics in the number of councillors who resign because they feel they do not have time to commit. There are messages here for all of us. The alarm bells are ringing and we must be able to respond in such a way that we can help people take on the workload, give their contributions and take full value of the skill sets they offer.
Volunteers on boards of management may experience frustration in their interactions with the Department of Education and Science. How many times might they be required to ring the Department in order to get a simple response? Sometimes it might take months to get a response and we must eliminate that type of frustration. The Minister of State has a responsibility and an obligation in his role to highlight this matter to the relevant Minister and Department and I hope he will hear this. We can lighten the load for the volunteers whom we value so much.
Why do individuals volunteer? What inspires them? Some people mentioned the tradition that might belong in an area. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on that any more. We all know towns and villages where there are many new residents but they do not engage with the cultural and social fabric of that village and so the tradition is dying out. Volunteers get involved for various reasons, often positive ones such as the pride they have in their place. They want to progress the district or the organisation to which they belong or they wish to develop their youth or the society or the circles in which they live. There are also negative reasons why volunteers come on board. It must be remembered that Government is obliged to provide for many areas of service. Unfortunately, in many of these, such as health and counselling services, or hospice work, people who find themselves in harsh predicaments end up volunteering to raise funds for services in their areas not supplied by Government. In my own constituency, the Waterford Hospice Association is out day and night fundraising to provide basic dignity for people who are ill. I believe the Government should help such people at every possible level.
What do volunteers seek? They look for very little and all they want is the satisfaction of having done something for their communities. They must be acknowledged and that is what we were doing here today. This should happen at every level because volunteers need support and assistance and they need delivery. When a well-thought out plan of a voluntary organisation is put in place the organisation needs help to deliver the plan. The most worthwhile thing for any volunteer is a sense of satisfaction and worth for having done something to benefit the community. We cannot underestimate and must never take for granted the time of the volunteer. We must never allow the burden to be left to the few or permit the willing horse to take most of the workload. Unfortunately, if one talks to people in any voluntary organisation or committee, they will often say that they are willing but that there are very few to help them. Renewal, recruitment, support and assistance are required from all levels. I ask the Minister of State to note that point.
Voluntary organisations support health initiatives. In my constituency, the South East Cancer Foundation offers a holistic counselling service for cancer patients. Its members fundraise and volunteer their time to help the patients and they need the assistance of the State. We must never forget the people on the front line in the rescue services, such as the Irish Red Cross, the Order of Malta, the part-time fire services and the Civil Defence. All those organisations have a voluntary element, including the mountain rescue groups and the sea and river rescue services. They all provide valuable contributions to their communities.
Senator Déirdre de Búrca: I welcome the opportunity to discuss the important role of volunteering in Irish society. We cannot emphasise often enough the importance of the volunteer. I came across an interesting definition of volunteering which captures its spirit. It states:
Volunteering can cover many different activities, including visiting the elderly or sick, giving blood, doing a sponsored walk, getting involved in local scouting or guiding clubs, assisting a charity with its finances, helping someone to read or write, planting trees and so on. In his presentation, the Minister of State talked about the essential services provided by volunteers, such as social care, child care, elder care, health services, environment, sport and cultural activities, etc. When we consider the range of services provided on a voluntary basis and noted by the Minister of State as “essential”, the State should be grateful. In taking these services the State has certain responsibilities. It is important that we do not put undue responsibilities on volunteers which probably should be those of the State. We must always keep an eye on what voluntary organisations provide in order that their burden of responsibility is not too great.
We also need to ensure voluntary services continue to be professional and modern. Voluntary services have undergone dramatic change in the past decade or two and a good support infrastructure is in place. The Minister of State referred to the local development and community development programmes, both of which provide the support structures and training required by voluntary services.
Training is extremely important. If we are to have volunteers providing essential services in critical areas such as child care services and care of the elderly, we must be willing to ensure certain standards are upheld. The role of the State is to provide the training and investment in infrastructure that voluntary organisations require to carry out their work. The Minister of State indicated the State spends approximately €5.4 billion on the not-for-profit sector. Given the wide range of services being provided by voluntary organisations, I hope this substantial level of expenditure will be maintained.
The Minister of State referred to the role the Government could play in encouraging philanthropy. The United States has a long tradition of businesses engaging in philanthropy. To achieve an increased level of corporate philanthropy here, we need to encourage a similar philanthropic outlook by businesses.
The Minister of State cited a number of specific voluntary initiatives, including the young social innovators, on which I will focus. Having been involved in this important programme, I am impressed by the manner in which it reaches young people, primarily those in secondary school who are unlikely to have become involved in community groups or local causes, and raises awareness among them of the importance of participation in civic life.
According to the most recent statistics, the level of volunteering is good. A 2006 national survey on volunteering carried out by Volunteering Ireland and entitled The Hidden Landscape indicated that Ireland has more than 1.5 million volunteers, of whom almost 9% are not based in the country. As such, 37.1% of the population is involved in volunteering, a healthy level.
I was surprised to learn that male volunteers outnumber female volunteers by a ratio of more than three to one in the case of Ireland based volunteers. This is an interesting statistic as I would have expected the position to be the reverse. The survey also found that between 17% and 33% of the adult population volunteered on a regular basis, giving on average five to 12 hours per month. The range was, however, wider with some volunteers giving less than one hour, while others gave more than 50 hours.
The estimates on the in kind revenue from volunteering range from €200 million to €600 million per annum. As compared to other European countries, Ireland’s volunteering rate was considered to be average and citizens’ membership of community and voluntary associations above average, with both rates on the increase, which is good news.
One of the interesting statistics to emerge from the report was that 58% of people get involved in voluntary work because they are asked to do so, while 36% offer their services. The State should become more proactive in supporting voluntary organisations. In the case of the VSI, it is already doing this by engaging in outreach and suggesting to people that they could get involved in voluntary activity.
Senator Ivana Bacik: I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on this important topic. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy John Curran, to the House. I agree with his comment that volunteering is central to ideals of democracy, social inclusion and active citizenship and support for volunteering is essential to ensure a vibrant civic society. Like Senator Norris, I stress that volunteering is not exclusive to the Christian tradition, an issue raised by the Minister of State, and much of it has its origins in secular tradition or the traditions of other religions.
It is appropriate that all Senators should pay tribute to the long and proud history of volunteering in Ireland, irrespective of whether its source is religious or secular. However, to refer to the importance of volunteering and pay tribute to those who engage in voluntary work is like apple pie and motherhood in that no one will disagree. For this reason, I wish to inject a more challenging, if not controversial, view on volunteering. Let us be a little more forensic in our investigation of the role of volunteering in society, particularly as certain aspects of this role deserve critical comment. To do so is not in any sense to do disservice to the many generations of volunteers who have done enormous work on behalf of society for the common good. While I do not mean in any way to disparage, discredit or undermine the role of volunteering, we need to examine the issue in a more critical light and ascertain how we, as a society, engage with volunteering and voluntary organisations.
There has been a long tradition in Ireland of voluntary organisations taking on roles which the State should perform. In so doing, they have tended to absolve the State from responsibility. This has not always been a healthy tradition. I speak, in particular, of the highly influential role the Catholic church has played and continues to play in the provision of services such as education, health care, social supports and residential child care. The extent to which the church took on this role, particularly in the early years of the State, resulted in it being referred to by some academics as a shadow welfare state. However, in taking on a role neglected by the State the church became in effect a provider of services that were provided by the authorities in other states. In a sense, this development prevented and obstructed the emergence of a proper welfare state, with unhealthy consequences for the state of our democracy and social services.
We have seen the dreadful abuses which took place in institutions run by voluntary organisations, including religious orders. I do not suggest abuse was exclusive to any religion or religious order because dreadful abuses were perpetrated in a variety of institutions run by many bodies. That for a long time the State was not directly responsible for providing care to the most vulnerable children allowed it to step back and take less of a regulatory role than it should have done in terms of controlling the manner in which children were cared for in institutions. This should be a cause of shame. As a result of the continuing lack of regulation of the voluntary sector, we have a lack of accountability.
Many voluntary groups argue for greater regulation. The long awaited Charities Bill will be an important part of the regulatory system. I welcome the establishment of a charities regulatory authority and a more formal structure for the recognition of charities and non-governmental organisations. It has been unfortunate for NGOs and those for whom they provide services that the legislation has been so long coming.
Some NGOs did things other than provide services the State should have provided and many of them continue to challenge the State and ask hard questions of Ministers. In doing so, they carry out a function the State sector is not able to perform. The NGOs must continue to play a vital role in this area. Groups in which I am involved include the Irish Penal Reform Trust, which routinely challenges the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on conditions in our prisons and penal justice and criminal justice policies, and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which asks hard questions of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. These activities cannot be carried out by the State and must be done by organisations established by volunteers in constructive engagement with the State. Similarly, Friends of the Earth, in which I declare an interest, has been asking challenging questions of the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Finance about what will be done in the budget to protect the environment and reduce our carbon emissions. This is a task which must be carried out by a voluntary organisation as it cannot be performed by the State. It is not something the State can do.
In recent years the role of the State and that of voluntary groups has merged to an even greater extent than occurred previously, to which the Minister of State referred. This is happening through State funding of voluntary groups such as, for example, housing charities. These groups provide services, by way of State funding, to homeless persons or people with inadequate housing. They have become what are known as NNGOs, non non-governmental organisations, to use a term that has been coined elsewhere. They are essentially part of the State structures, the State having recognised that they deserve funding because they provide essential services. A question of regulation arises in this context. There is nothing wrong with this practice being the way in which we provide our services, once we can be sure services are provided in a way that is accountable and not abusive. That has been the difficulty in the past, namely, there has been a lack of accountability and of direct democratic answerability for the institutions that provide services.
We debated the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill last week. A good example of such accountability was covered in the debate on the housing Bill. Housing charities are seeking regulation. They want to be included within the framework envisaged in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, under which criteria will be specified whereby those providing housing services will allocate housing to people based on objective criteria of need and so on. There is a lesson there for us in terms of NGOs and voluntary activity. Such work is vital to the functioning of our democracy, but it should be done in a transparent and accountable way and through a regulated system of NGOs.
When we think of volunteerism we tend to think of the GAA, one of the greatest volunteering organisations that has been in place in Ireland for the past 130 years. I admire people who are involved in all sports, whether it be rowing, soccer, athletics or boxing. A great level of volunteerism occurs across the board.
I also recognise the work done by the ICA and one tends to think of it as a professional body. However, one of the strongest organisations involved in farming is the IFA and most of the people involved in it at local level are volunteers. That contribution should be recognised.
Coming from a coastal area in west Cork, I must single out for particular mention the Coast and Cliff Rescue, the RNLI and other such organisations. When the appalling tragedy occurred last January 12 months where three fishing trawlers were lost at sea for several weeks, many people from as far away as Kerry, west Cork, Kinsale, Waterford, Dunmore East, Wexford and east Cork gave voluntarily of their time over several days to search, under supervision, for the bodies of the crew members who might have been washed ashore. In the face of that appalling sea tragedy, these people put their shoulder to the wheel and offered encouragement. It was very well received by the unfortunate people who suffered personal losses and by the coastal community.
The tidy towns associations play a phenomenal role from an environmental perspective in terms of improvements to towns and villages, a role I greatly encourage. Amazing successes have been achieved in west Cork in towns such as Kinsale and Clonakilty, which won international awards.
A previous speaker mentioned the role of school boards, but we should also consider the contribution made by the members of harbour boards. Many people are of the view that people appointed to a harbour board get paid for their contributions. To the best of my knowledge, there are 11 members on the Kinsale Harbour Board, Bantry Harbour Board and Baltimore Harbour Board. They meet, at a minimum, once or twice a month if there is an important issue to be considered. These members do not receive any funding for attending these meetings. When I was a member of Bantry Harbour Board, I recall members were offered the measly sum of €40 per month but, for the sake of the community and other projects in the area, the board decided to decline such funding. Some people believe that people are members of boards, be it a harbour board or any other board, for what they can make of it. People travel to these meetings, which can often continue for two or three hours, and their contributions should be recognised as another form of volunteerism.
Senator Bacik mentioned volunteerism within religious organisations. There is no doubt that the amount of work done by religious organisations not only in Ireland but internationally over the centuries has never been properly recognised. One hears of the abuse by some members of religious organisations, but if we were to separate the chaff from the grain, we would acknowledge the tremendous successes of those organisations not measured by decades but by centuries of hard work. As a nation, we should be proud that we were once the island of saints and scholars. Our missionaries did tremendous work throughout the world. I am not referring only to the Roman Catholic Church but to other church denominations and the contributions of ministers of the Eucharist and other volunteers. I recently attended a fete in my home parish in which a number of volunteers were involved in a annual fundraising event for the local Church of Ireland. It gave a tremendous boost to the local community and great work was done.
We should not forget another element of volunteerism, illustrated by the largest attempted smuggling into west Cork of €500 million worth of cocaine in July 2007. I spoke to the coxswain of the Baltimore lifeboat service subsequently and he was not sure whether it was appropriate to do so but they were asked to bring on board the big bales of cocaine potentially worth a great deal of money. They did that. There is a serious side to this issue. In the context of the volume of drugs being smuggled into this country, we often take for granted the vigilance of local people involved in groups such as Community Alert or Neighbourhood Watch. They do great work in their local areas. The great community spirit in west Cork was evident at the time of that incident when those involved were observed going through a farmer’s yard and eventually some of them were apprehended and are now serving long prison sentences. A great deal of good work is done by these community organisations.
Volunteerism is alive and well. We have several examples of the great work done by volunteers. I acknowledge, however, that society has changed. When I grew up in rural Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, we had thrashings, meitheals for cutting the turf and farmers and neighbours worked together to bring in the hay. Now that we all have such busy lives, we hardly have time to talk to each other. A lot of work has been done. I welcome the Minister of State and I am sure a lot more will be done.
Senator Bacik said she was surprised that the number of male volunteers outnumbered female volunteers by 3:1. In that respect, we have to be mindful of the words of the song, “Girls just wanna have fun”. I will finish on that note.
Senator Fidelma Healy Eames: I welcome the Minister of State and congratulate him on highlighting this important issue, the important role of volunteering in Irish society. Many points have been made that I had intended making and, therefore, I will make a few brief points.
In my experience volunteerism is the lifeblood of local communities. I live in Oranmore, a burgeoning area of population growth. It is the largest growth area in County Galway. When I was elected as a councillor in 2004, I became aware of the many people volunteering and, might I say, they were burnt out from it. They have been continually giving and while many new people were moving into the area they were not necessarily volunteering. I am amazed by the numbers of people mentioned in the House today, as being involved in volunteering because in areas of new population growth, I see the opposite.
I shall give an example of how important this was for me and my local community. After I was elected a benevolent gentleman in the community offered me a donation for any worthy cause. I reflected that hurling enthusiasts would be upset if I gave it to the soccer people, as would some other group if I gave it to drama. I decided not to make any decision until I knew a little more, and eventually decided to set up a volunteers award programme. However, the donation was not adequate and so the benevolent gentleman agreed to triple it and two years ago we started the Oranmore volunteer awards programme.
We decided not to run it every year because we wanted new people to come forward and have a chance to volunteer. There were two aims, to acknowledge and award the wonderful effort of people who had been volunteering for years, and were suffering from burn out, as well as to encourage new people to come forward. The outcome was tremendous and everyone gained in the sense that it was spread very wide, and lasted almost a year. We sought guidance from the community regarding whom it was thought should be rewarded under special categories, from special needs to mental health, sport, young people involved in democracy, older people, etc. I do not have the categories off the top of my head.
The Minister of State is in an ideal position to acknowledge such awards programmes and encourage them. He should find unique methods of encouraging volunteerism to continue. He should also look at PRSI, because this is an issue that has arisen for voluntary groups, since it can prevent them continuing some of their great work. I have seen examples of what I am talking about, throughout Galway city and county, whether as the mayor’s awards or all those volunteering within development associations, boards of management and especially sporting organisations. When we might have been ashamed, at times, of the church, the Government and traditional leadership, the volunteers have been our heroes. It is time to give volunteerism a new status.
I recently visited libraries and tourism offices in Australia where I saw people wearing a pin, which said “Volunteer”. I asked what that meant and was told the pin was to show the wearer was a volunteer. I thought it was a good idea. People are sent on training courses and do a set number of hours in particular organisations, which is reflected on their curricula vitae. My final point — I want to push this one in the area of education — is that we should be making voluntary service a requirement of graduation, either at secondary or third level. It is a real virtue, an exercise in democracy, social inclusion, innovation and active citizenship. I should like to explore that further, and perhaps the Minister of State could think about it as well.
I congratulate the Minister of State on this. There is a long and proud tradition of volunteering in Ireland, and I believe the Minister of State is encouraging that today. Senator Healy Eames talked about being in Australia or somewhere. I was in Beijing last month at the end of the Olympics and there were something like 1.3 million volunteers, 70,000 each day, working with such pride. They were saying they were happy to volunteer and proud to do this. I do not recall whether they were wearing badges, but they were a long way from the action. It is understandable when people are recognised and the pride they have in their effort. We must find a way to encourage people to do something, without there necessarily being a reward, because of the satisfaction involved. Remember the saying, giving is more rewarding than receiving. It is something we must encourage people to do and I believe it may happen at the individual level.
Many Irish institutions have their roots in voluntary work, whether church, school credit unions or whatever. It comes down to individual people. I was coming out of La Guardia Airport in the United States on one occasion and looking for White Plains. I asked directions from a man picking up a rental car. I could not follow his directions so he said he would show me. When we passed a toll booth, I was told that the guy in front had paid for me. The same happened at the next toll booth. The benefit I got from that one little gesture has encouraged me to do something similar as I travel around.
If it can manage to encourage citizens to contribute in little ways like this, then when it comes to the bigger issues, whether credit unions, church or sport, the country will be a better place from all the volunteerism it is possible to achieve.
Senator Mark Daly: Citizenship of the Republic of Ireland bestows rights as well as responsibilities on all its people. We, as citizens, have obligations to our country, our communities and fellow citizens. These responsibilities were heard in the words of former Taoiseach, Seán Lemass, when he said, “Patriotism, as I understand it, is a combination of love of country, pride in its history, traditions and culture, and a determination to add to its prestige and achievements”.
Some would believe patriotism is a cause and a word from a bygone era, where responsibility and obligation to the nation involve fighting for it and freedom of its people. Patriotism or love of country today no longer requires the sacrifice or volunteerism that Lemass would have known. However, it requires a new type of sacrifice, commitment and volunteerism. This new volunteerism requires all citizens to play an active part in their country’s future.
Last week I met Alan Kearns, the inter-county hurler from Galway, who happens to be Ireland’s Person of the Year 2006. Being an inter-county star means people will recognise one. It also means a strict diet, no drinking and ten months of social inactivity. People admire the commitment and sacrifice and it also means that one is recognised and respected. However, Alan Kearns is also recognised and respected in a small town in western Zambia called Mongu, for a different reason to his fame in Ireland. Since 2005 he has travelled there every year to lend a hand to one of the poorest communities on earth. From that time he has highlighted the story of the people of Mongu and linked it with his own village, Clarinbridge, in Galway. Through his work he has created a link between two communities, 6,000 miles apart. The story of that Zambian town has travelled down the line, like two children talking into cups linked by a piece of string. The people have responded to this story and so far have raised more than €1 million for Sr. Cathy and the children of the Cheshire Home and the town of Mongu, so that they may have a better life. This golden threat has strengthened the tie between the two communities.
Throughout this country there are thousands of people who get involved in charities such as this. This volunteerism is the force and the catalyst that can bond communities together. The Alan Kearns story shows what can be achieved when a sense of community and volunteerism are harnessed. Community is the only cure for the ills of modern living. It is the common denominator, the solution to loneliness, isolation, anti-social behaviour and social breakdown. No doubt, in today’s Ireland these threads have become frayed as communities have atomised over the last few years, with people increasingly seeking fulfilment from consumer products and services on an individual level. When one hears of an old person who has been found dead, whose body had not been discovered for days, one knows that thread is broken. When one hears that depression has increased 100% since the 1980s one knows the thread is broken. It is broken where individualism and consumerism replace community as a source of belonging and fulfilment for people. The economic boom of the last few years demonstrates clearly that happiness does not necessarily follow wealth. In his first address to the Dáil as Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen said:
There are those who say that in this century the world will not allow time for the fulfilment of obligations to this generation or the next. If one seeks excuses one will surely find them, but those who are too busy today will not be aware that this generation has more free time than any previous generation. Those who pursue happiness through continued self-indulgence through continuous consumerism would not be aware of studies such as Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which have proved that the more one gives, the more one receives in return.
The endless pursuit of riches by some who seek to achieve the ultimate accolade of being the richest person in the graveyard would do well to remember the words of Thomas Jefferson. When he was berated by his mother for spending too much time on politics and in public service to the neglect of his business, he wrote to his mother, “I would rather have it said that he lived usefully than he died rich”. If a person does not volunteer in his community or if there is no community to contribute to then we build, one person at a time, an increasingly unequal society as wealth grows.
There is one force that cements a community in the lives of people, and that is active citizenship. Deputy Bertie Ahern, in his time as Taoiseach, advocated active citizenship in his speech of 30 September 2006, when he said, “I believe that the quality of life in society and the ultimate health of our communities depends on the willingness of people to become involved and active, active on behalf of themselves and their families, their communities and the more vulnerable members of society. Happy the society that has people who act, rather than lament, who organise rather than complain, who accept a personal responsibility rather than walk by on the other side”. He set up the Taskforce on Active Citizenship.
Education is the key to creating the next generation of active citizens. I am happy to hear the NCCA will introduce a new subject in the autumn called politics and society. If, as a society, we believe we can send children to school, not teach them French for 14 years, and then expect them to speak French that is a fool’s paradise. If we send them to school and do not teach them how to be active citizens, how to vote and volunteer, they will not be active citizens.
It is often easier to believe we cannot affect change and cannot make a difference, but think of a Galway jersey in a southern African town and the golden thread connecting Clarinbridge to Mongu. Think of the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change in the world one wants to see and the rest will follow”.
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy John Curran): I thank the Senators for the opportunity to present some views and hear the opinions put forward. Senator Quinn said we have a long and proud tradition of volunteering in Ireland, and every speaker reflected that point of view. Shortly before I was promoted in May of this year, I was with the Committee of Public Accounts in Zambia in South Africa. We did the official part, and in our free time we had a private itinerary. We visited some of the Irish there who were involved in charitable works. In many cases they were from religious organisations. They were there in small numbers, but the impact they had was huge. They still had ties and contact with Ireland, and many of them received support because they were religious organisations. One example was the Silesians. There were two Silesian fathers involved in a homeless project. They ran a school, accommodation and a hostel outside Capetown in a deprived part of the town. They were in contact with the Silesian College in Celbridge, and there were funds and school items sent over. The impact they were having, even though there were small numbers and resources, was unbelievable. Everyone who spoke on that recognised that there is something in us as a race that wants to give, to participate and volunteer.
Any time we are faced with a challenge, people at a national or global level rise to the challenge, whether it is a global disaster such as a tsunami, the Special Olympics or in our own community rise to the challenge time and again. The important aspect of volunteering is not to make volunteers but to create the capacity and opportunity for people to volunteer. I will not address all the comments made, but I have taken them and I will reflect on them.
Some of the figures were right. People do not volunteer because they are not asked. Many of us volunteer because we are parents. We become involved in organisations and societies because of our children. They join the football club and we go with them. One comment made was that it is important to engage with young people and students. They are the volunteers of the future and the way they learn in school is the way they will continue. Having an informal chat or a pint with people here, I have found almost every member of all parties of both Houses have come from backgrounds where they have been involved in their local communities, initially as volunteers. Many remain so to this day.
I became involved in the board of management of a school approximately 11 years ago when my eldest child started school. It was easier to get on the board of management than off it. I am still on the same board even though all three children had passed through the school. There is something in us all that wants to give.
When people move house, for example from rural Ireland to Dublin, if we do not create the opportunities and facilities for people to volunteer it may not be easy for them. We have established the volunteer centres; they are relatively new and there are 20 of them. Rather than roll out more and let them go off at a tangent, we are now doing a review to find out what they are doing, how they are doing it and make sure we have best practice. We want to roll out the 20 volunteer centres we have on a national basis. We need to know their precise role and that they meet specific criteria. A number of people have come to the volunteer centres; they have recruited and asked people to volunteer and have matched them with a range of organisations.
Many people spoke on the GAA. Those of my age, and older and younger, will know when we grew up volunteering was very different. Even the GAA has changed today. When I grew up, the GAA I knew in my area was a completely voluntary organisation. Now there are development officers assisting and working alongside volunteers. It is important to acknowledge we still have large volunteering groups, but we must assist them. Times have changed, but not for the worse. We have changed for the better. We have standards and criteria, and they are for the good of the population at large.
The legislation on charities will insure against fraud and misappropriation. The regulations we are introducing are not intended to make things more complicated, but for the good of all. The Government has made significant progress in implementing the objectives of volunteering and active citizenship agreed under Towards 2016, and in the White Paper on supporting voluntary activity. Through its involvement in social partnership, the community and voluntary sector has put the issue of active citizenship to the forefront of the Government’s thinking. Initiatives such as the Taskforce on Active Citizenship have further underlined the need to continue to develop opportunities for our citizens to get involved in a meaningful way with their communities. Financial support for the community and voluntary sector, and for volunteering, has grown in line with the Government’s commitment to active citizenship. In addition to the €6 million allocated for supports to volunteering, more than €300 million of my Department’s budget is channelled to voluntary and community groups, most of whom rely on volunteers to carry out their services. It includes funding for community premises and development workers. It also includes additional capacity for the most disadvantaged communities in more than 150 locations throughout the country. My Department now supports a network of 20 volunteer centres which are under review. It is important we adopt best practice.
In addition, by supporting key initiatives at second and third levels, the Government is assisting the next generation to take up the challenge of active citizenship and to make a difference. My Department is also encouraging initiatives to encourage a culture of philanthropy at every level in society from schools to the boardrooms of our most successful companies.
I listened to all the comments and a number of issues arose, including insurance for community groups, which we need to look at to ensure we facilitate them. We spoke about community awards. My local authority, South Dublin County Council, has a scheme that gives recognition to small voluntary groups which, without those awards, would largely go unnoticed. It gives them a huge boost, a sense of well-being and status within the community.
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