I welcome this opportunity to update the House on the outcome of the Indecon report and the context within which it was drawn up and on my work on as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and international development on diaspora issues.
My work as Minister of State is guided by the Government's diaspora policy, Global Irish. Published in 2015, this was the first clear Government policy on the diaspora and it recognises that Ireland has a unique and important relationship with its diaspora that must be nurtured and developed. I am particularly guided by the vision of the diaspora policy which states, "Our vision is a vibrant, diverse global Irish community, connected to Ireland and to each other." This is a vision I wholeheartedly ascribe to and during my time as Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, it is a vision that I have seen lived in Irish communities across the globe, whether in the oldest and most established communities of America or in the newest and fastest-growing community in the Gulf States.
We have a huge global Irish family, one that is diverse and increasingly so in terms of where Irish people abroad are making their home and what Irish ancestry looks like. The reason they need to feel a strong affinity with Ireland is changing and evolving all the time, which means we must evolve alongside it.
Our engagement with our global Irish family is underpinned by an attitude of care and respect and this is articulated through the Government’s emigrant support programme. This programme has been in operation since 2004 and has an emphasis on supporting culturally sensitive front-line welfare services targeted at the most vulnerable members of our overseas Irish communities. In addition, support is provided to a number of community and heritage projects which foster a greater sense of Irish identity, as well as strategic capital projects for these Irish communities. Funding is also provided for projects which support business or other networks. In recent years the emigrant support programme has also facilitated a wider geographic engagement with Irish communities.
In addition to the traditional areas of emigration such as Britain, US, Canada and Australia, funding in recent years has been granted to Irish community organisations in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Gulf states. Since its establishment, €160 million has been disbursed through the programme to Irish organisations worldwide. The allocation for the emigrant support programme in 2018 is €11.59 million and I am pleased to note that this level of Exchequer support was maintained in recent years, even during the recession. This year alone, there are applications in respect of 490 projects from 319 organisations, with requests for funding far outstripping our budget. I have seen at first hand the significant impact that the emigrant support programme can have on Irish communities and organisations around the world. Funding made available to Irish organisations unlocks a whole new world of engagement and supports the continued flourishing of Irish culture, heritage, sport and identity far beyond our shores. Through a programme like this, we are able to articulate the Government’s position that our diaspora is a group that we cherish and seek to support as part of a long-term, multifaceted relationship rather than a resource which can be mined or harnessed. Only in this way can we develop a genuine two-way engagement and live up to the constitutional ideal which holds that the Irish nation "cherishes its special affinity with people of Irish ancestry living abroad who share its cultural identity and heritage". Thankfully, we now live in a world where that cherished relationship with our diaspora can be further developed in a very powerful way through the use of technology.
Our special affinity with our diaspora has grown and evolved as we have developed our diaspora engagement in recent years. The diaspora policy itself sets out a role for evolving engagement and commits the Government to meet changing needs in changing times. One of the ways we are evolving is in exploring new ways to increase practical engagement with and meet the expectations of our diaspora. In recent times, this has taken the form of examining the potential to extend voting rights in presidential elections to citizens resident outside the State. I am pleased that we have been able to make progress on this issue and colleagues will recall the Government decision this time last year which approved, in principle, the holding of a referendum to amend the Constitution to extend the franchise at presidential elections to include Irish citizens resident outside the State, including citizens resident in Northern Ireland. Subsequently and following on from that decision, an options paper was published by the Departments of Housing, Planning and Local Government and Foreign Affairs and Trade to inform public debate around this significant policy issue. This document was the subject of detailed discussions at a dedicated session of the global Irish civic forum held on 5 May 2017. In response to the question as to which citizens should have the right to vote at presidential elections, the almost unanimous view of those attending the civic forum was that the franchise should be extended to all citizens abroad. The legislative and constitutional issues involved in extending voting rights to citizens outside the State are complex and far reaching. I am sure Deputies will agree that we need to proceed sensitively and with an intention to develop a clear and consensus based platform. Ideally, we will have a referendum campaign on this important diaspora issue which will provide another opportunity to bring together Irish communities at home and abroad.
As for the next steps, the Government has announced its intention that this referendum will take place on the same day in June 2019 as the European parliamentary elections. This is the timeline to which I am working along with my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government with special responsibility for local government and electoral reform, Deputy Phelan. In the coming weeks and months, officers from our two Departments will continue their work of examining all of the issues and teasing out the many complexities before a report is brought to Government with a view to identifying a preferred option to be put to the people in a referendum.
Facilitating, supporting and engaging Irish emigrants who are seeking to return home after a period spent living abroad is another key priority for me as Minister of State. Yesterday, I was pleased to publish an independent economic report by Indecon on addressing the challenges faced by returning Irish emigrants. Building on the work at the interdepartmental committee on the Irish abroad, which I chair, I commissioned this report with the goal of identifying solutions to disproportionate or unnecessary administrative burdens affecting Irish emigrants wishing to return to live in Ireland. In a world of increased international mobility and an increasingly global labour market, it is imperative that the Government facilitates the mobility of our citizens, enables them to travel abroad, continues to engage with them while they are living abroad and, most importantly, makes it as easy as possible for them to return home. Our citizens and the Government have worked hard to ensure the economic recovery has deepened, creating the conditions so that those who had to leave for economic reasons can now return. It is good to see that these emigrants are starting to return in large numbers, with some 26,000 people - just over 500 per week - coming back in 2016. This means families are being reunited and local communities are being replenished. From an economic and competitiveness point of view, the country also needs the skills and the very unique and valuable international experience that returning Irish emigrants are bringing back home. The Indecon report will prove invaluable in informing the response across Departments to assist our returning emigrants and those who are thinking of returning home. This is simply about making moving back to Ireland as easy as possible for our citizens. However, we cannot forget that even when moving home, moving one’s life from one country to another will always require some administration and present other challenges unique to every person and every family.
The report was produced by Indecon International Economic Consultants. Following independent research with returned emigrants themselves, consultations with Government Departments and agencies and an analysis of same, the report identifies 30 targeted recommendations which are split across nine thematic areas. The survey analysis featured in the report shows that 43% of respondents indicated that seeking employment was a reason for them leaving Ireland. Monthly unemployment figures continue to fall and there are now over 2.2 million people at work, the highest number since 2008. This means that there are now options here in Ireland for people who wish to return home. The availability of employment was one of the greatest barriers to people wishing to move back in recent years. The report highlights that the perception of barriers was highest in the areas of housing and motor-related issues. Housing issues were viewed as particularly difficult for returning emigrants, with 69.8% of respondents viewing it as difficult or very difficult for returning emigrants to secure mortgages in Ireland and 78.8% viewing purchasing or renting suitable accommodation as difficult or very difficult.
Housing is an issue that affects the wider populace and not just returning emigrants, and the Government has been taking urgent action to deal with the challenges that currently exist in the housing sector In Ireland. The publication of Rebuilding Ireland: An Action Plan on Housing and Homelessness in July 2016 clearly demonstrates the national commitment to ending the current housing shortage and tackling homelessness. The plan sets out a clear roadmap to achieve the Government’s goals to significantly increase and expedite the delivery of social housing units, boost private housing construction, improve the rental market, and deliver on the commitment to significantly ramping up the housing supply. The Government’s mission is to ensure that everyone can access a home, either on their own or with State support. There is a clear determination at the highest level nationally to deal with the under-supply of housing and the problems it generates for families and communities. This commitment is backed up by significant multi-annual funding of more than €6 billion to 2021. As early as 2017, good progress was made on meeting the ambitious targets set out. It is expected that by 2021, the housing needs of almost 140,000 households will be met through the various housing initiatives provided for in Rebuilding Ireland. A number of the specific recommendations in the report are already being progressed in Government Departments.
One of the key issues identified early in the report is the difficulty for returning emigrants in accessing clear information about Government services and returning to Ireland. That was identified by around 60% of survey respondents as creating difficulty. As an immediate response to Indecon’s recommendation, I have already prioritised this area and we now have a new expanded "returning to Ireland" section on the departmental website. We will continue to work to communicate better with our returning citizens so that they get the best information possible to help make their return to Ireland as smooth as possible.
In respect of the health area, a statutory instrument is currently being drafted in the Department of Health to give effect to provisions in the Health Insurance (Amendment) Act, 2017, which includes a specific provision that anybody who has resided outside the State for a period of not less than six months and returns to take up residence in Ireland will have nine months to purchase private health insurance without incurring loadings for the time spent residing outside of the State.
Barriers to driving a car and accessing insurance were seen by emigrants consulted as among the most difficult barriers faced. Some 39% of survey respondents perceived that obtaining an Irish driver's licence was difficult or very difficult. Over 78% of survey respondents perceived that obtaining car insurance, including recognition of their driving record abroad, was difficult or very difficult, with 62.1% indicating that it was very difficult. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the RSA have worked together to reduce the requirement for returning emigrants with non-exchangeable driving licences from 12 mandatory driving lessons to six.
In respect of motor insurance, ultimately the pricing of any individual motor policy is based on an individual assessment of risk and the commercial decision of the private providers of motor insurance in Ireland. That said, the Government has taken forward very important work on the question of the cost of insurance generally given its importance for the wider population and returning emigrants. Late last year, the Department of Finance cost of insurance working group announced the agreement of a new protocol with Insurance Ireland to assist returning emigrants get motoring cover. The protocol provides that, where a person can demonstrate claims-free driving experience in a different country, insurance companies will take that experience into consideration. This move by the Department of Finance and Insurance Ireland is already helping to address the disproportionate cost of car insurance that some people have faced on returning home. Insurance Ireland has noted that the protocol was introduced in the second half of last year and we have already seen a halving in the number of cases referred under the declined cases agreement for drivers from overseas, from 85 in 2016 to 47 in 2017. I expect to see a further decline in 2018.
A clear whole-of-government approach is to be taken in implementing this report. Departments will report back to Government before the summer with an update on progress made in addressing each of the 30 recommendations. In addition to progressing this report, we are already doing much more to assist returning emigrants. We have put in place, for example, a "back for business" initiative, seeking to support returning emigrants who develop the seed of a business idea abroad and want to establish that business in Ireland. We have 46 returning emigrants currently on that programme, supported by volunteer business mentors who have already proven their track record in the Irish business environment.
My work as the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora is broad. The breadth of engagement is something that is ongoing. It is my goal to ensure that each of the recommendations provided for in this report is addressed in a very serious manner by the respective Government Departments and, ultimately, that the message will go out to all of our people internationally that if they are making the decision to return home, they are going to be very welcome and there will be few barriers in their way.