Leaders' Questions

All the Members of both Houses and the public at large will have been appalled by the revelations concerning one of the charities most associated with our nation's silent crisis, the loss of life through suicide. There are now five investigations under way between the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation, the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement, the HSE, the Charities Regulatory Authority and the remaining directors of Console itself. We all look forward to the outcome of those reports in order that we can have some peace of mind that the charity's good work over many years can continue and that its reputation can be cleaned up.

There is, however, a very serious issue at large with the some 3,000 other charities. There is clearly an issue among some with what is referred to within the charity sector as founder's syndrome, which has often served to undermine the introduction of good governance and appropriate management controls. Apart from all this, however, is the failure of these Houses to commence provisions of the Charities Act 2009, in particular Part 4. It is incumbent on the Government to explain why, during the previous Administration and this one so far, the Oireachtas and the Government have failed to provide the necessary provisions to commence that part of the Act in order that the Charities Regulatory Authority can begin to do the work which it was set up to do. Why do we have a regulator if it does not have the teeth or the resources to do what we wish it to do? As things stand, the regulator can only seek materials from these organisations with the agreement of the organisations themselves, so in effect, despite its good intentions, it can do no work. Can the Government confirm, therefore, that it will commence the provisions relevant to resourcing and giving the regulator the necessary teeth, as envisaged by the 2009 Act, before the summer recess and that the necessary resources will be provided to do that?

Over recent years €12 million of public funds has been made available to the charity in question. Many millions more were donated and fund-raised by service users, their families, relatives and neighbours and the many communities throughout the country which have been hit with the blow of loss of life through suicide. These are people who cannot afford to give money or to dig deep and fund-raise and give valuable resources throughout a recession and a most difficult period in this country, yet they do. The Oireachtas and the Government have a responsibility to ensure this Act is more than just window dressing. We need to see tangible action to introduce the provisions of this Act that give the regulator teeth in order that we can begin to focus on the other 3,000 charities, most of them doing an excellent job. They are entitled to the peace of mind of knowing that their hard work, taxpayers' money and donations are going to a good cause that is appropriately managed with the appropriate level of governance.

First, I share Deputy MacSharry's view that this has come as a shocking revelation in an area of particular sensitivity.

We all understand the trauma people and families go through in cases of suicide. There has been major shock and disgust among those who have supported the charity. As the Deputy said, it is very important that we protect the valuable work done by many of those who have worked in the area. It is heartening to see that the investigation comes directly from the HSE's close scrutiny of charities under its framework. The HSE has a revised framework for all of the bodies it funds. It was in this context that the irregularities in Console were first identified, followed by an audit and the investigation, with a new governance structure being put in place to deal particularly with the issues in Console.

The Deputy referred to the role of the Charities Regulatory Authority, which is being rolled out. Its first priority was to establish a proper register of the organisations the operations of which it would oversee. It has done this. It has established an interim arrangement under which it receives complaints from individuals. It is moving to provide staffing in order that it can, as the Deputy requested, commence Part 4. The authority has 23 staff and its 2016 budget provided for an increase to 36. This will allow the regulator to move to establish the basis on which this Part of the Act can be implemented.

Some elements such as the investigation of potential fraud fall beyond the operation of the Charities Regulatory Authority. Failings in respect of directors' responsibilities fall to be investigated by the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement. Issues are being actively pursued in the case of Console that fall outside the Charities Regulatory Authority's direct responsibility. We are moving to ensure the authority will engage in the oversight which the Deputy rightly says is appropriate for the future.

That is not acceptable. There are many reasons for failure but no excuses. The Oireachtas and the Government cannot constantly depend on the focus and sharpness of "Prime Time" in looking after the hard-working staff of Console and the many charities throughout the country, including the counsellors we heard on radio who struggle on a monthly basis to get paid. A precise date is required from the Government, before the Dáil rises on 31 July, by which this Part of the Act will be fully commenced, as well as a commitment to focus heavily to ensure it will not take a "Prime Time" or a HSE audit to bring this stuff up. We need to do it on a constant basis, with regular checks, to ensure all these materials are being made available. Before we are much older, in a matter of hours the Minister should indicate that it will be done before the Dáil rises on 31 July.

Part of the work of this and the previous Government has been turning over stones that were not previously overturned. Activities were ongoing that were totally unacceptable. The result of the work done by the HSE and the Committee of Public Accounts was that the HSE introduced new governance standards for such organisations. It is as a result of this work that we have such scrutiny. This has been found in a HSE audit. While it is very uncomfortable, it is the result of the system working. Oversight has resulted in the identification of wrongdoing and misgovernance which is being tackled in a very determined way. We are determined to ensure all organisations will be subject to appropriate scrutiny. The work being done by the Charities Regulatory Authority with its new staff will put it in a position where it will be able to implement the Part of the Act that provides for investigations. I am sure the Minister will keep the Deputy abreast of when it is to be enacted.

Last week the RTE "Prime Time" programme did a great public service in setting out a tale of truly outlandish spending by the charity Console on the part of its founder and his family.

The story is amazing but not unique. Sadly, we have been down this road previously with other charitable entities. The programme told a story of irregularities in finances, of altering accounts, and of how benefits were extracted. It was reported that the charity's founder, Mr. Paul Kelly, his wife, Patricia, and indeed their son used 11 credit cards over a two-year period to shell out almost €500,000 of the charity's funds to fund their lavish lifestyle. That is truly shocking and despicable. Money was used for trips to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, designer clothes by Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren, tickets for the Rugby World Cup, dental work, groceries, restaurants and consultancy payments at an extraordinary level. This has left those who work for Console and those who avail of its services not just shocked but angry and traumatised by these revelations.

I am sure the Minister will be as shocked as the rest of us by this turn of events. His claim that all this emerged because of exacting scrutiny by the HSE needs to be considered. I suggest all this is evidence of a lack of scrutiny and a lack of accountability. As I understand it, the flag of concern was first raised by the National Office for Suicide Prevention as far back as 2009 and the question has to be asked, once the flag was raised, why this was allowed to continue.

Will the Minister join me in calling on the HSE to make available immediately to the Committee of Public Accounts a copy of its audit report and the service level agreements with Console? Will he also join me in insisting that the HSE presents itself before the committee next week? This issue, this story and this scandal cannot be allowed to fester. I appreciate other agencies have tasks to fulfil in investigation but the buck stops with us, and the turning over of stones in the previous Dáil was largely done by the Committee of Public Accounts. It is entirely appropriately that the HSE be called and that its officials present themselves, and it is absolutely necessary that the Government insists that this happen immediately, with the committee meeting next week to deal with this.

I fully agree with the Deputy that this is an appalling situation. I also agree we have a right to ensure the oversight bodies and their activities are fully accounted for before the Oireachtas. I am sure HSE representatives will make themselves available to appear before the Committee of Public Accounts or the Committee on Health.

It is correct that issues arose previously which were identified by the National Office for Suicide Prevention. That resulted in control actions being taken then. It was when the 2013 accounts became available to that body, which oversees this work, that irregularities were identified and that resulted in the HSE undertaking the audit. This information resulted from direct action. The audit was completed earlier this year and that has resulted in the appointment of external accountants who are in place now. Clearly, the House is entitled to scrutinise the HSE on the way it oversaw this, but there is no doubt that there is a trail of activity. It is not one of ignoring the issues that were identified in 2009. HSE staff have been watching closely. The irregularities that were identified resulted in the audit. Of course, they will have to be investigated, and if further action needs to be taken by appropriate bodies such as the ODCE or the Garda, there must be due process for everyone involved in pursuing the steps that might follow from the findings of the audit. The House must respect that as well.

There will be follow-up in those various agencies where there has to be due process. I share the Deputy's view that the HSE should appear and account for its activities as it is obliged to do.

There is no question of anybody querying the necessity of due process but let us cut to the chase on this. People who have had the tragedy and trauma of a death by suicide in their family or in their close circle or community or people who have had suicidal thoughts themselves and who deal with situations of utter despair and rely on agencies such as Console as literally a lifeline for them have to know that they are properly governed and that their bona fides is sound. Anything less than that is not acceptable. The taxpayer who funds, in large measure, agencies such as this, of which there are thousands, needs to know that taxpayers' money is not being used for Ralph Lauren, Rugby World Cup tickets, fancy cars or big consultancy fees. Certainly those who fund-raise need that reassurance too.

I ask the Minister not to be sure or not to speculate. I want him today, on behalf of the Government, to tell the HSE to provide that documentation to the Committee of Public Accounts and to make itself available next week because it is only through that process that we can establish if the HSE was vigilant or if the State again was asleep at the wheel while a scandal like this in a charitable organisation unfolded.

I have absolute confidence. The Committee of Public Accounts is an independent committee. It has its own authority. The HSE will respond to requests that come from the Committee of Public Accounts. It is obliged to do so. I have no doubt about that. The Committee of Public Accounts does not rely on suggestions or directions from me. It is an independent powerful committee of this House. Its independence and capacity to call people is absolutely established and I am sure the HSE will respond.

Why would the Minister not call on it?

To be fair to the HSE, it is important to understand that this has followed its close scrutiny of irregularities that were identified. The audit has come from one undertaken by the HSE. It has pursued that audit and acted to make sure that in this case we are seeing the results of its overturning the stones, so to speak. It is also important for the House to be aware that the HSE has a revised governance framework for all organisations of that nature, for which it provides funding.

A Cheann Comhairle, I asked the Minister to call-----

People can be assured that the HSE does oversee the bodies referred to. To go back to Deputy MacSharry's point-----

No, I do not want the Minister to go back to anything. I want him-----

Deputy, please resume your seat.

-----it is very clear that the charities regulator will also have a role to play in overseeing all charities.

-----to call on the HSE to provide the documentation and to come before the committee. That was my question to the Minister.

The Deputy's question is finished now.

No, my question has not been answered.

No. Please, Deputy.

I do not know what conclusion we can draw from the Minister's prevarication on this issue.

Will the Deputy resume her seat?

Could you ask the Minister to answer my question?

I cannot. I am not empowered to ask the Minister-----

For God's sake, I thought we had new politics.

We have old politics from Sinn Féin.

Can we move on, please? I call Deputy Michael Lowry on behalf of the rural independent group.

As the Minister will be aware, the membership of An Garda Síochána is at its lowest level in modern times. This is due to a wave of retirements following a change in the treatment of taxation on pensions, and this was compounded by the cessation of recruitment. How does the Minister for Justice and Equality propose to achieve the objective of keeping pace with retirements while restoring Garda numbers to 14,500? How does she intend to accelerate recruitment? How many recruitments will be made to Templemore College? How many will enter the college this September? Has the Minister secured funding to underpin that recruitment programme?

I know of two Tipperary gardaí who recently retired, both at the age of 53, both of whom had served 30 years. That is an example of trained, qualified, experienced members being allowed to retire. Would the Minister consider giving members such as those access to their gratuity entitlement as an incentive to remain serving in the force? Has any consideration been given to the idea of harnessing the skills and expertise of the numerous gardaí of every rank who have retired in recent years?

What progress has been made on the plans to refurbish, extend and maximise the current capacity of Templemore Garda training college? Is there a definite long-term plan to address the future capacity and training facilities at Templemore and also in relation to the lands in the possession of the Department at Clonmore?

In recent years, a block has been imposed on legitimate transfer requests due to the reduction of Garda numbers. Many members have failed to get a positive response for a transfer despite the fact they have compelling, substantiated grounds for such a move. There are 430 members of the Garda Representative Association, GRA, awaiting a transfer in stations for more than two years. In addition, there is a logjam and no transparency in how transfer rules are applied. The system is too rigid and unresponsive. Transfer decisions must be open and transparent and I ask the Minister to commit to replacing the current structure with a new, fair and equal transfer system for members.

The Minister is as aware as the rest of us of the current crisis in housing. Many gardaí are caught in this housing trap. The Department of Justice and Equality and the Office of Public Works could contribute to addressing this issue by restoring the many vacant houses in the possession of the Department. In my county of Tipperary, there are numerous neglected and vacant housing properties in need of restoration or refurbishment. For example, such properties exist in Templemore, Cashel, Emly and Mullinahone. It is unacceptable, indeed outrageous, to see these houses in prime locations left to rot while young gardaí clamour in vain for housing opportunities. The Department of Justice and Equality should, as a matter of priority, allocate funds to bring these properties back into the housing stock.

What is the Government's position on the Garda Representative Association? Today is the deadline and we have been met at the gates of the Houses of the Oireachtas by members of the GRA. Does the Government intend to reopen negotiations to address outstanding issues?

I thank the Deputy. There were a number of questions. I assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to the target of 15,000 gardaí, which is in the programme for Government. That means there will be accelerated recruitment to the Garda College. We recently provided additional funding to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality to supplement the original 2016 Estimate in order that the expansion of Garda activities could proceed. There is no doubt that there will be additional requirements at Templemore to meet the additional work, and I understand the Tánaiste expects to hear back from the Garda as to the precise requirements. The force is preparing a detailed recruitment plan to deliver gardaí. That will have to be in the context of the forthcoming budget. I am not aware of whether gratuities or encouragement to remain in the force has been considered. I will alert the Tánaiste to the Deputy's concerns in that regard. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, will be dealing in the first 100 days as Minister with a comprehensive housing strategy. I will alert him to the Deputy's point about available resources.

On the wider issue of the industrial relations situation, the Lansdowne Road agreement is the context within which the Government has provided for the gradual restoration of public pay. Over the working out of the Lansdowne Road agreement, €884 million will be provided in increased public pay. Certain organisations have opted out of the Lansdowne Road agreement to date, of which the GRA is one. The Tánaiste continues to be open to discussion with the GRA, and it is her hope that the GRA, as I hope in respect of the ASTI, will comply with the Lansdowne Road agreement. It is only through such collective agreements that we can balance the need the Deputy outlined for extra resources for policing and housing with the legitimate expectation of people to see pay restored. The Lansdowne Road agreement offers that balance and it is very important.

It is accepted that the strength of the force is crucial, but what is also very important is to motivate existing members and have them fully committed. To be a member of An Garda Síochána is an onerous and responsible task.

It has its dangers and risks. The pay, terms and conditions of gardaí have been diminished. Many are under financial pressure and struggling to survive. They feel vulnerable because of their financial insecurity. Their anxiety is a significant distraction and impacts on productivity. If one is not happy in one's job, it has consequences for one's energy, enthusiasm and output. Many members of the force are demoralised and, as a result, less effective.

The State needs to remunerate gardaí adequately and allow them to concentrate on their jobs. The difficult role of a garda should be acknowledged in practical terms. The service of gardaí to society should be properly valued and appreciated. I urge the Minister to resolve outstanding issues in respect of pay and conditions and, in particular, to review the pay of new recruits. How can we expect young and enthusiastic recruits to survive on €23,000 per year? A new recruit leaving Tipperary could be posted in any Garda station from Cork to Donegal without a rental or subsistence allowance. This level of salary is derisory, unfair and unjust and should be remedied by the Government.

I agree with Deputy Lowry. Entrants' pay is an issue across the public service and is not confined to the Garda. All new entrants took a reduction in pay. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform has committed to establishing a public pay commission. One of the priority issues that it will examine is entrants' pay. This will provide a vehicle through which the matter can be addressed. I understand that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality's discussions with the GRA have addressed issues such as the rental allowance.

There is scope for these matters to be addressed under the Lansdowne Road agreement. A number of unions, for example, the TUI and AGSI, have sat down, engaged in discussions and reached agreements within that collective framework. I hope that the GRA and ASTI will do likewise so that we can meet their legitimate needs in an orderly framework.

This time three years ago, a young man from Finglas had just done his leaving certificate and was thinking of going to Spain - Magaluf or wherever - with his friends. We all know this type of scenario. Instead, he accompanied his sisters to Egypt. They went there on a regular basis because they had cousins in Egypt. They got caught up in the protests of the time. My 17 year old son would probably have got involved. At that age, one stands up for democracy.

In the middle of the protests, the young man and his sisters sought refuge in a Mosque. People know what happened then - the mosque was surrounded, shots were exchanged and everyone inside, including Ibrahim Halawa and his three sisters, were arrested. Ibrahim has been imprisoned for three years. He has been brought to court on 13 occasions, but there has been no trial. No evidence has been presented and there have been no proper procedures. Amnesty International has decreed him a prisoner of conscience and is campaigning for his release.

On 16 August three years ago when his parents first realised that their son and daughters might be in difficulty in Cairo, they immediately rang the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In fairness, its officials stated that they would do everything that they could. However, it is now clear that whatever the Government has been doing is not working. Others have been pardoned and released, for example, Mr. Peter Greste. On Tuesday, the trial was yet again postponed until October by when, we are told, the judge will have had time to review video evidence. Two people were released, but Ibrahim Halawa was not.

What is the Government planning to do in addition? Many Deputies on this side of the House have an interest in the case and have followed it. We have held our counsel, as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has regularly stated that we should not say anything because it had the matter in hand, the case would be dealt with this week and it believed it could manage the situation. That has not worked.

It is important that we get this right. It is important that we send the message that every citizen of this country, no matter his or her creed, is treated in the same way and that we stand up for the rights of our people when they are caught in circumstances in which their rights are clearly being abused.

We must be brave and take radical, strong action internationally where needed. Standing up for that one young boy is standing up for every young boy in the country. It says something about ourselves and what we stand for.

Considering that the trial was postponed again until October and that the young man has for three years been in prison conditions that we increasingly hear are deeply worrying, given the concerns about torture and other forms of abuse, what does the Government intend to do?

I share the Deputy's deep disappointment that there is a further delay in the trial of Mr. Halawa. The courts had indicated in advance of the latest hearing that there would be significant developments. Therefore, this latest adjournment is a real source of concern and frustration for Mr. Halawa and his family. I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, met members of the family earlier this week. The Government is continuing to pursue every route it can to offer consular support to the family and, more important, secure the release of Mr. Halawa by the Egyptian authorities.

The Government is continuing to keep its approach under close review. As recently as 16 June, as part of that approach, the Minister, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, met the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr. Shoukry, during his visit to the Middle East. Our Minister discussed the case of Mr. Ibrahim Halawa during that meeting and underlined our concerns. He clearly restated our objective of ensuring Mr. Halawa is returned to Ireland as soon as possible. The Minister also made clear that everything possible should be done to ensure Mr. Halawa's welfare and well-being while in custody.

There is no doubt that the Government has been extremely active on this issue. If the Deputy has suggestions for further initiatives that could be taken, I have no doubt the Minister and his team will consider them. Considerable effort is being made and it is disappointing to see the court case adjourned again. I will convey to the Minister the Deputy's continuing concerns and his hope that further initiatives can be taken.

What I hear from the Minister's response is that he has no new initiatives. He has no different plan, even three or four days after this latest setback. In the interim, we have still been doing trade deals with Egypt, as if there were no problem. I suggest that we start to raise this at a higher level, at European level. This is the sort of issue in respect of which we should be putting pressure on Egypt not only as Irish citizens but also as European citizens. We should be operating at a far greater scale than before.

I suggest that the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade bring in the legal team for the likes of Mr. Peter Greste, who was successfully extricated from similar circumstances. How was it that the Australians were able to achieve something in this regard while we have not been able to? At some stage, it will be asked why the Government is not exerting sufficient political pressure, including in respect of trade and other matters, with the Egyptian State because the latter is treating us with contempt in the way it is dealing with an Irish citizen. We have held back to allow due process, but there is no due process. That is what the Minister needs to raise at a much higher level than it has been raised to date.

I understand the Government did examine closely those other cases to determine whether there were lessons to be drawn from them that could be applied in this case. They were found to be different in their approach. The Government supported Mr. Ibrahim Halawa's own legal team in 2015 when it sought an application under presidential decree 140, which was for the release.

A number of legal avenues have been pursued. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will take every opportunity open to him to highlight this case. I will bring to his attention the Deputy's view that an additional role could be played by the European institutions to support the Irish Government in this.