Adjournment Debate. - DION Programme.

I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for selecting this item for the Adjournment. I am appalled that the Government has cut back the grant to this programme, which helps our emigrants, by 5% this year. These are the people who have served this country so well. When there was no EU money coming into this country, these people sent back money from Britain and America. This was the money that kept the Government here afloat.

Hear, hear.

They were waiting for the dollar and sterling to be sent home because there was not much social welfare benefit available at that time. It was the people in Britain, America and elsewhere who looked after this country.

The parcels from America.

That is right.

A task force on emigration was set up and it recommended that the grant to Britain would be increased by 500%, but what did the Government do? The minute there was a downturn in the economy it cut the funding by 5%.

I have been contacted by many people in Britain who are involved with Irish groups. People who have not stood in this country for 30 and 40 years have been brought back by these voluntary groups. Those groups depended on the funding from the Irish Government but it cut the funding this year.

Over the coming weeks many of our Ministers will be heading out of the country to America. The Taoiseach and Deputy Harney may not have the Government jet in time but they will have some other jet to fly them to America. Whatever jet they use, I want them to remind President Bush of our emigrants who could not come home for Christmas. These are the sons and daughters who could not return here because they do not have work permits in America. I call on the Taoiseach and the Minister to represent those people when they visit the White House. Instead of taking the tea or coffee in the White House, they should do serious business and try to get our young emigrants looked after.

In relation to this particular grant in Britain, many of the groups were disappointed because they had many meetings with the Department yet they were not told that the fund would be cut back. I was disappointed about that because these groups do wonderful work for our emigrants in Britain, particularly those who have not done so well. They have looked after them, tried to get them into shelters, fed them and brought some of them home. Shame on the Government for cutting back the fund and for turning on our emigrants who were so good to this country when there was no European Union.

I ask the Minister of State and the Government to examine this issue again. Rather than cutting back the funding by 5% the Government should honour the recommendation in the report on our emigrants, which stated that the fund should be increased by 500%. I ask that it be increased by 500% because many welfare groups in Britain depend on it.

I will finish where I started. We let down our emigrants in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s when they had to leave this country. Some of them did not have a word of English. I always remember the story told by my father about the first train which left Achill. There was a tragedy in Scotland in which hundreds of Irish people were burned. They were people who had to leave this country because there was no work or anything for them here. They sent home the parcel, as Deputy Kenny said, but the most important thing they sent home was sterling and the dollar. They kept this country going when there was no EU.

I ask the Minister of State and the Government not to turn their backs on our emigrants. Some of them in Britain and America have not done so well and we must not forget them because they did not forget this country.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter on the Adjournment. The bulk of DION grants are contributions to the salaries of front-line advice workers in Irish welfare organisations. Most of these are based in London but also in other areas in Britain with significant Irish populations. Helping Irish people to improve their life skills and employment prospects and issues concerning housing, benefits entitlements and health are crucial areas of advice and assistance offered by these workers. In addition, grants were made each year to second-tier organisations which represent Irish organisations and groups and which promote the welfare of the Irish community – the Federation of Irish Societies, the Action Group for Irish Youth, the London Irish Elders Forum and, more recently, the Irish Travellers Movement in Britain.

DION grants went to 57 organisations in 2002 and 21 of those are currently funded on a three year basis which supports capacity building and access to more statutory funding and retention of trained staff. In addition, a small amount of funding was given to a few of these agencies for social and health-related activities for the elderly.

As the Irish-born population grows, demand is growing for advice and support regarding repatriation of elderly Irish people. For the past two years DION has funded two organisations which provide advice and assistance to elderly Irish people who wish to return to live in Ireland: Aisling, a return to Ireland project in Camden, and the Safe Home programme in Mulranny. As a result of their efforts 125 elderly Irish people have returned permanently.

The Government has been able to dramatically increase the level of funding available to DION over the years – it was £500,000 for many years and only reached £750,000 in 1999. The Government increased this above £1 million in 2000 and above £2 million in 2001 to improve the level of support for voluntary organisations which provide advisory and welfare services for Irish emigrants in Britain. It was maintained at that level in real terms in 2002, at €2,708,000. The amount of DION grants was €15.286 million up to the end of 2002 and €18 million including this year's allocation. The doubling of the fund in 2001 represented a new record level of support for Irish emigrant welfare services in Britain. It was recognition by the Irish Government of the essential work of Irish welfare organisations.

This increase in funding has had a number of positive outcomes. It encouraged new applicants for DION grants – up to 57 organisations now receive grants compared to 40 in 1999 and 2000. The salaries of 105 workers dedicated to the welfare of the Irish community are now supported by DION – that is more than double the number two years ago. Almost 30% of jobs in specifically Irish organisations are now supported by DION and it is estimated that approximately 30,000 Irish people were assisted by DION grants in 2001 – 24,000 were assisted by Irish welfare organisations and 6,000 were helped by non-Irish managed organisations. Approximately one quarter of the fund supported capacity building posts and projects in 2001 and 2002. This helps to secure funding from other sources and to develop the organisations, allowing them to operate more efficiently and ultimately benefit the Irish community. The size of the grants is substantial. For example, €133,000 went to the London Irish Centre.

The reduction in the 2003 Estimates affected all areas of expenditure in all Departments and my Department's Vote was subjected to a cut of 5% across the board. This was applied to all subheads. The outcome of the Estimates process was a 5.3% reduction in the Department's budget for 2003. In line with this, the funding voted to DION was reduced by 5% from last year's level. However, a purely arithmetic-based approach does not give the full picture as it does not take account of the now more favourable euro-sterling exchange rate.

That is social welfare.

When looked at in terms of pounds sterling it can be seen that due to the appreciation of the euro since June 2002, the sterling equivalent of the DION fund was in the order of £1.623 million. The sterling equivalent of the 2003 Vote is now equivalent to £1.688 million, up from £1.623 million. There has therefore been no reduction of impact in the UK to date. If the euro appreciation continues DION-funded agencies will not find themselves at any financial disadvantage this year – they could in fact gain from that appreciation.

The report on the task force on policy regarding emigrants is a milestone in the process of developing a coherent long-term approach to our emigrants and their needs. A very significant increase in funding for immigrant services world wide was recommended –€18 million for 2003, increasing to €34 million in 2005, with €8 million of this for welfare services in Britain in 2003, rising to €12 million in 2005.

I wish to continue to have an input in ongoing policy development for Irish emigrants and I intend that my Department is represented on the new Agency for the Irish Abroad or whatever new co-ordinating structure is established by the Government. Even when the Government no longer has responsibility for the DION fund, I will give whatever support I can to improve the situation of the most vulnerable members of the Irish community abroad.