I wish to share time with the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Treacy.
The Government has provided assistance to Irish emigrants, particularly in Britain but also in the US and Australia, for many years. The total amount allocated in recent years is €18 million to Britain and €4 million to the US.
Ireland's emigration story is remarkable. Of the 3 million citizens living abroad, almost 1.2 million are Irish born, which is one third of the current population. That indicates a significant rate of emigration, particularly over the past 30 or 40 years. Emigrants have made an enormous contribution to the development of this country, as well as to the many societies in which they have settled. The majority of our emigrants are well integrated, living productive and happy lives abroad and are contributing greatly to their adopted countries. As the Minister for Foreign Affairs stated last night, the story of Irish emigration is not all doom and gloom and tragedy. It has many positive aspects and should not be seen through the prism of failure.
Thankfully, the number of emigrants has declined considerably over the past few years and, of those who emigrate, only a small proportion require special support. Recent research indicates a greater number of migrants are moving from Britain to Ireland than from Ireland to Britain and that is a welcome change.
Although, the motion focuses on the negative stories of poverty, loneliness and the needs of a particular group of post-war emigrants in the UK, the Government has done a great deal for emigrants in recent years, although we need to do more. Financial assistance for emigrant services abroad has increased substantially. The DÍON fund has been allocated €3.57 million this year, which is almost six times greater than its allocation when the previous Government took office in 1997. The Government has provided more assistance for pre-departure services in Ireland and it has introduced the pre-1953 pension scheme, 60% of which goes to Irish people abroad. This year €80 million will go to emigrants under this heading.
The Government also introduced the special initiative for returning emigrants to enable them to apply for social housing without having to be resident in Ireland and it established a task force on policy regarding emigrants. The task force placed special emphasis in its report on protecting and supporting Irish emigrants abroad who are marginalised or at greatest risk of exclusion. I will illustrate this through examples of how the DÍON fund operates.
The DÍON grant of €2.573 million in 2003 was allocated to 57 voluntary organisations — 45 of which are under Irish management. These organisations provided advice and assistance to approximately 30,500 people in 2002. Irish managed organisations assisted 23,000 while the non-Irish organisations assisted 7,500. In addition, €150,000 was allocated to the Federation of Irish Societies for capacity building to enable it to provide more effective support to its affiliated organisations. A total of €2.723 million was allocated to Britain in 2003, slightly more than in 2002.
Many of the organisations that DÍON funds assist Irish people who are homeless or badly housed and who, in many cases, are in poor health. I have met representatives of these organisations, which include Acton Homeless Concern, Cricklewood Homeless Concern, Leeds Irish Health and Homes and Rehab UK in Coventry. For example, the Rehab Irish Elders Resource Centre, ‘Teach na hÉireann', in Coventry has been supported by DÍON since 1999. It received a grant of €30,158 last year towards the salaries of a project manager and a support worker, who provided services to more than 150 elderly Irish people. Support from DÍON enables Irish voluntary organisations to provide assistance and advice to many such marginalised people. The Rehab project in Coventry is now managed by Rehab Ireland.
DÍON also supports the Simon Community, which works on behalf of homeless people in London. The group received a grant of €30,158 in 2003 towards the salary of an administrator-fundraiser to work on behalf of homeless Irish people in London. The Simon Community assisted 236 Irish people in 2002, which represents one quarter of its clients.
Over the past two years, half of the DÍON allocation went to organisations that provide services to the elderly. One of these is the Southwark Irish Pensioners Project, which has been funded by DÍON since 1995. Last year this organisation received a DÍON grant of €57,708 towards the salary of a community co-ordinator and two part-time outreach workers. The organisation has gone from strength to strength in recent years and it has 482 members. They are all over 60 years of age and 97% of them are Irish. Southwark Irish Pensioners Project operates a drop-in service and lunch club five days a week for its elderly Irish clients, a number of whom are disabled and in poor health. Such interventions make a difference to the lives of these people.
Many of the organisations funded by DÍON have outreach workers who seek out and befriend elderly Irish people who are living alone or homeless and who may be in poor circumstances and health. For instance, Southwark Irish Pensioners Project makes contact with lonely and vulnerable people through the local hospital discharge system and befriends others through home visits. The London Irish Centre in Camden also employs outreach workers, as do the Irish in Greenwich Project, Irish Community Care Manchester, Irish Community Care Merseyside and Coventry Irish Society. I have only mentioned a few but it is important that they should be acknowledged in the debate.
Overall, therefore, much is being done to help disadvantaged Irish emigrants in Britain. We must do more but it is not all down to the Government. In addition to financial support, it would be helpful if the various county organisations such as the Mayo Association could make connections with, and offer support to, needy fellow countymen and women living in the United Kingdom. In most cases these elderly people will not come home but they would like to be remembered and acknowledged by their home town or county by way of contact, annual homecoming, visit or holiday. If the county associations included them on mailing lists and newsletters, it would make a significant difference to lonely Irish people living abroad.
Irish newspapers and radio programmes are vital connecting mechanisms and there are opportunities for media organisations such as RTE, which made the "Prime Time" programme, to contribute. A key recommendation of the task force report is that an agency for the Irish abroad should be established to organise services at home and abroad for our diaspora. The Minister did not rule out the possibility of such an agency last night but he indicated a preference to spend the current budget on frontline services provided by various groups and charities in England rather than spending €2 million on an expensive administrative body. A special unit will be established in the Department of Foreign Affairs to co-ordinate support services for the Irish abroad and, with the support of all Members, the budget will increase substantially over the coming years to meet their needs.
The Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants and the Irish Chaplaincy in Camden have lobbied for many years on the subject of the marginalised Irish in London and elsewhere and they have expressed similar concerns about the alarming rates of mental illness among poor post-war Irish emigrants in England, the above average suicide rates and high levels of alcohol abuse. These issues were properly highlighted in the "Prime Time" programme and the task force report.
At a time of unprecedented prosperity at home, we owe a debt to these elderly emigrants who now find themselves isolated and impoverished in England, after working all of their lives. Many of them worked in the building trade, which is a notoriously harsh and insecure working environment. Although their lives were hard they sent home money to families in Ireland to build up our economy when times were hard here. In this regard, it would be interesting to know what proposals, if any, the various successful construction companies in the United Kingdom, which enriched themselves on the backs of Irish labourers, have to contribute to a welfare fund for their former workers who now find themselves in dire predicaments.