Saincheisteanna Tráthúla (Atógáil) - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Women's Resource Centres

At 11.30 a.m. today the Tralee Women's Resource Centre closed after 32 years. For the past 32 years the centre has provided a tremendous service to women in Tralee and indeed women from outside of Tralee, including many areas out towards north and east Kerry. I pay tribute to the staff who worked there and voluntarily gave of their time to the women of Tralee. The centre made a tremendous contribution to women most in need down through the years. I find it very difficult to comprehend how after all these years and the tremendous service the centre has provided, it has now been closed as of today. A review was conducted by the board of the Tralee Women's Resource Centre, TWRC, which has sadly concluded that the organisation is no longer as relevant as it once was when it was founded three decades and two years ago. I often wonder, how does one define "relevant"? Does it mean that the centre does not have the same numbers coming through the door? Does it mean that the people coming through the door have different problems from those they have had over the past 32 years? The reality is that in the past 12 months, 2,500 people used the Tralee Women's Resource Centre. I cannot understand for the life of me how someone with the stroke of a pen can decide it is no longer relevant and that the work can be taken up by other bodies. In the review carried out over six weeks ago, perhaps ten weeks ago, it was suggested that when the centre moved from the centre of the town to its current address, Áras an Phobail, it was probably the wrong move, yet 2,500 people have been to the centre in the past 12 months. Its relevance and importance is not lost on the women of Tralee and the surrounding areas; its value and importance is embraced by them. The people who worked in the centre and who have contributed to maintaining it for the women must be highly commended for their tremendous work and what they have done.

I do not know what answer the Minister of State will give me - I will hear it in a minute or so - but for the life of me I cannot understand how the HSE or any other section of Government can justify this action. It is terribly wrong. Today women came to the protest to voice their support for the centre and their anger at its closing down. Perhaps some of them had been through the centre and got tremendous service there. There were others who have been supportive of it and the service it has given to women in Tralee and Kerry in general.

What will the Government tell these women, the people who have worked at the centre and kept it open and the people who were using it? Will the Government try to give us some reason as to how what has happened can be justified? I would appreciate the Minister of State's answers and I thank him.

I thank Deputy Ferris for raising this very important issue. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne.

The Tralee Women's Resource Centre is a drop-in centre funded by the HSE, Tusla and the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It had a dedicated support worker for violence against women. The brief for the centre is to support and inform women of their entitlements and lobby and campaign on issues affecting women while also establishing networks between the existing women's groups in the area. The centre has made an important contribution to the provision of services for women in Tralee and the surrounding areas. It has also supported the development of groups which work on behalf of women. Its services have included counselling in situations of crisis pregnancy, support for women affected by domestic and gender-based violence and support for migrant and refugee women.

I understand that the Tralee Women's Resource Centre has decided to cease its services. The board of the centre carried out a review of its operations and concluded that the organisation is no longer as relevant as it once was, so the board made this decision. Increased availability of a range of services provided by other organisations and increased demands and challenges have resulted in the decision to wind down the services of the women's resource centre. The move from the town centre to a new premises may also have been a factor in the fall in the number of clients using the centre. This is the second reason. I understand that the centre is endeavouring to make alternative arrangements for its users. The HSE has funded the centre to provide a confidential service to women in crisis, involving support, information and listening. The HSE has advised the Department of Health that the decision to close the centre was a matter for the board of the centre, and the HSE fully supports its decision.

The HSE is linking with the organisation to explore alternative arrangements for users of the centre. It can be traumatic and emotional when a centre closes, especially one in existence for over 30 years. I take the Deputy's point on that. It can, however, also be the right decision when taking account of all the circumstances. On behalf of the HSE and the many users of the centre over the years, I pay tribute to the work carried out by the centre. In particular, the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, would like to acknowledge the contribution of the voluntary board of directors of the centre and the staff employed there. I will bring all of the Deputy's concerns back to the Minister of State.

Much of the Minister of State's reply is part of the review I have with me. It is important to note the services that the centre provided. They included counselling in situations of crisis pregnancy. We have just spent days and weeks debating the Bill on abortion here. The centre also supported women affected by domestic and gender-based violence, which is increasing in many areas, as well as migrant and refugee women. We have a sizeable number of migrants and people seeking refugee status in Tralee. The Minister of State said that the board of the centre carried out a review and as a consequence of that the centre has closed down. I dispute that.

I do not believe for one minute the suggestion that the board voluntarily decided to cease functioning. I would like to know if the closure related to funding. It is not easy to get answers. I put questions to the Minister in regard to the funding that was provided through the Tralee Women's Resource Centre and where that funding has now been redirected. The Minister of State stated that a group of concerned women may be willing to reconstitute the organisation with a view to reopening the centre as soon as possible. I do not think that this decision was one taken by the board after a review. I am certain that if a board is told funding is going to dry up, that may well be the reason behind the closure. It is such a small amount of funding for such a tremendous service.

It is a service to people in situations of crisis pregnancy, gender-based violence and domestic violence as well migrants and refugee women in a town that is growing. There are more than 20,000 people now in Tralee. It has been said that the centre was no longer relevant because not enough people were using it. I dispute that. There were 2,500 people who used the centre in the last year. That is a significant number of women and many of them are victims of the issues to which both the Deputy and I have referred. I want to know where that money is going and whether it is being redirected. Was that funding withdrawn? Is that funding still available if a new Tralee resource centre was set up?

I thank Deputy Ferris for raising this important issue and I do not doubt for one minute his sincerity. I value the work voluntary organisations do. I know this myself as I came into politics through the voluntary sector. Voluntary organisations play a key role in the provision of health and social care services. It includes the areas Deputy Ferris mentioned, as well as the elderly, care of people with disabilities and supports for homeless people, domestic violence victims and migrants. As a society, we owe a debt of gratitude to those who work in the voluntary sector.

In recognition of this role, the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, has established an independent review group to consider the strengths and weaknesses of this model of service provision and the issues that arise from the public services perspective. This is where there is light at the end of the tunnel. This group is to make recommendations on how the relationship between the State and voluntary organisations should evolve in future. The Tralee Women's Resource Centre received about €600,000 since it opened in 2013. The closure of the centre highlights the relevance of this review. The Minister for Health will consider the report of the independent group when it completes its deliberations. In the meantime, the Department of Health is committed to working with voluntary organisations to improving health and social care outcomes for the vulnerable in society. I will, of course, bring the genuine concerns raised by Deputy Ferris back to the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and examine if there is any other way of helping if another group emerges on the scene to develop those services.