Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Community Services Programme

I recently attended the annual general meeting of a local community centre. I would like to outline some of the serious situations facing not only this centre but many other community centres and projects in the coming months and, more important, in 2021. This community centre has eight staff members and a co-ordinator and it receives a grant from Pobal of approximately €184,000 in respect of those staff. The funding has not been increased since 2013 and thus it has not kept up with inflation. The current funding provides for a wage of €9.39 per hour. As the Minister of State will be aware, the national minimum wage is €10.10. This means the voluntary management committee and the centre manager have to raise funding to cover the shortfall of 71 cent per hour per member of staff. They do this by running a café, which offers affordable food to the many people who use it not just for a cup of coffee or tea and a breakfast or a lunch but to connect with other people in the community. This is an important facility for people who may have nobody else to speak to on a particular day. The manager has told me that a number of people come into the café every day not just for coffee or food but to connect with people.

The centre has several rooms that are in constant use all day every day. The price and structure is kept deliberately low and affordable for the many community groups that use them because they also do not have sufficient funding. The centre receives funding from Foróige, which provides an amazing space for young people in the community and it has a brilliant crèche which caters for young parents in the Huntstown community. When they desperately need funding for repairs and maintenance, the community always rallies round. They are constantly drafting funding submissions for a couple of thousand euro here and there from Fingal County Council or some other organisation.

The time and energy taken up constantly worrying about how they will pay the wages, keep the café open and pay for essential maintenance and upkeep of what is now an old building can be overwhelming for many community groups. It should not have to be this way. They are providing a service that the State should be providing yet they have to struggle day in, day out. This was the case before Covid. With the onset of Covid, everything changed not only for this community centre but for every other community centre and community project throughout the State. Many of them are in the ownership of a local authority and this means they are somewhat protected. Centres outside of that remit are not protected and they rely very much on the local community and the resources they have.

Many of the rooms in this centre cannot be used because of the need for social distancing. The café is losing business because it cannot use all of its tables and thus the number of people that can use the facility is reduced. Fundraising will be affected because so many people have been badly hit by the pandemic. I have been involved in many community projects in the past number of months and during the lockdown. The amount of funding being raised by communities is astonishing but that well is starting to dry up as people are really struggling.

We know these community centres will either close or continue to struggle. They need the safety net of Government funding to meet the cost of the living wage but at the very least, the minimum wage. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister of State that the stimulus package will make provision for local community centres and projects such that they will not be adversely affected. While some of them will be okay for the remainder of 2019, the fear is that come 2021, the cumulative effect of all of the social distancing measures will have a detrimental effect on them.

I thank the Deputy for his input. We shared a different chamber not so long ago and I recall him passionately defending his community there. There are not too many speeches I remember from that chamber but that was one of them. I thank him for doing that and for defending a crucial community resource in this case.

There are two halves to the answer to the question, the first of which relates to the structural funding issue. I understand that the Department provided some funding in that regard at the beginning of this year for the upkeep of the structures. In essence, the Deputy is talking about the community services programme, CSP, of the Department, which supports more than 400 organisations such as the Deputy described to provide crucial services throughout the country through a social enterprise model. It is an essential programme that provides a variety of community, business and social enterprises to deliver a range of local services and employment opportunities, such as community centres, Meals on Wheels, like in my area of Balbriggan, and the Skerries Mills café. They are crucial community focal points.

Services are being delivered in marginalised and isolated communities that would not be delivered were it not for the CSP, which supports more than 2,000 real jobs in various parts of the country. CSP funding is provided as a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time equivalent, FTE, positions, including that of manager where warranted. A total of €32,000 per annum is provided towards costs for the manager position and €19,033 per annum towards the cost of an FTE position. These positions are permanent jobs, not activation programme positions, which last only for a defined period. The CSP is a contribution towards the salaries. The jobs are not on the direct payroll of the Department, which is an important distinction.

The funding is a fixed annual contribution that must be co-funded by the organisations concerned from other sources, such as from income generated from the use of facilities and services provided. I acknowledge the Deputy's outlining of the difficulty of providing that part of the funding in the current circumstances. Supported organisations are obliged under the CSP to pay their employees at least the minimum wage level. I am aware that a number of CSP-supported organisations are paying their staff the living wage rate of €12.30 per hour. That said, during the Covid-19 crisis a significant number of CSP-supported services were unable to open or operate for a lengthy period, thereby reducing their ability to generate the required income.

To address this, the Department has a fund to assist CSP-supported organisations to retain their staff on the payroll during the Covid-19 restrictions when normal trading or other revenue-raising activities have been ceased or curtailed. The fund is providing additional funding to CSP-supported organisations that are most in need to enable them to pay their full-time CSP-supported employees €350 net per week, with a proportionate sum for part-time CSP-supported employees. It is important to make the distinction that the Department is supporting the decisions but they are not payrolled by the Department. That is why the full wage is not covered. As I know, coming from where I do, it is wise to have several income streams if these crucial jobs are to be protected. In 2019, the Department appointed Indecon Economic Consultants to conduct an independent review of the programme. I will examine that in the weeks ahead to determine how we can progress and grow the programme.

I welcome the additional funding for Covid-19 and the Covid payment that was provided. The crux of the discussion is that CSP funding is a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time positions, including that of manager. Unfortunately, it does not bring up the payment to the level of the minimum wage. The cost is €9.38 per member of staff, whereas the minimum wage is €10.10, and it has not increased in a long time. There is a structural and fundamental issue with the CSP. My belief, and that of many community organisations, is that at the very least, the minimum wage should be covered. That, however, was prior to Covid. Post Covid, we are in completely different circumstances.

I accept that the Minister of State is genuine in respect of supporting communities and I look forward to his analysis of the report and of how we can move forward in supporting communities. At the end of the day, he and I know that such organisations are the heart and soul of our communities, both of the people who provide the service and of those who use the service. If we do not have them, that person who goes in for a tea or coffee does not get to speak to somebody that day, while a young person might wish to use the centre but it will not be there. He or she will be on the street corner. It is really important, when we are considering how we can fund our community, that we seek to make it as supportive as possible.

I assure the Deputy that on my watch, these services will be there and I will do everything to ensure they will continue to be there. It is a requirement of receiving support under the programme that organisations are obliged to pay at least the minimum wage. CSP funding is for social enterprises that are in a position to generate income to match the CSP contribution, which is a minimum requirement under the programme. If the programme were to increase the funding contribution to align it to the minimum wage, it could cost an additional €4 million per annum. It would be necessary to close the programme to new applicants and would limit any potential changes to the scheme that may be considered in light of the Indecon review.

I am conscious that in the current crisis, organisations are struggling to generate income, which is why approximately €1 million is being provided to the organisations currently being supported by the programme through additional funding. The fund was established for an initial 12-week period for all organisations in financial need but the Department has extended it on an exceptional case-by-case basis in line with the roadmap for reopening. It is targeted at those organisations most in need.

I reiterate my commitment to the Deputy that I will do everything I can to ensure that these crucial services, focal points and outlets for the community, where people can organise and feel part of the place they are from, will not only survive but grow in their reach.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I thank my colleague, the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, for appearing in the Chamber to take this Topical Issue matter. I begin with a quote: "He's been an outstanding doctor and the best dad we could have asked for." So said Dr. Samar Fatima Ali, daughter of Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali, in paying tribute to her father this evening. The Minister will be aware that Dr. Ali, who worked at Tallaght Hospital in my constituency and at the Mater Hospital, died today following a battle with Covid-19. Dr. Syed Waqqar Ali passed away after spending three months in ICU. It is clear that he put up an incredible battle and that he was attended in that struggle by very dedicated healthcare workers. It is hard to avoid clichés but it is a timely reminder of the deadliness of the virus. It is particularly poignant that a front-line healthcare worker, involved in trying to save other people's lives and give them hope, succumbed to it himself.

As the Mater Hospital stated earlier, Dr. Ali was a front-line healthcare worker who provided selfless emergency care to Covid-19 patients at a number of hospitals, including Tallaght Hospital in my constituency. It also stated he had been due to begin a shift at the Mater Hospital in April when he felt unwell.

That was at the height of the pandemic. He asked to be seen as a patient and was admitted immediately because he had contracted the Covid-19 illness.

His colleagues today remember him as a hard worker and diligent doctor with a humble and down-to-earth personality. However, the Irish Medical Organisation has also stated that this tragedy reminds us, as I mentioned, of the risk faced and sacrifices made by health professionals in the fight against Covid-19. I know the Minister is very familiar with the fact that approximately one in three cases of Covid-19 involves healthcare workers. In recent weeks, as the disease became less common in the community, the proportion of cases involving healthcare workers increased.

As the Minister knows, Dr. Ali is the eighth healthcare worker to die of Covid-19 in this State. Dr. Ali was a locum, although I do not know if any of the other healthcare workers who succumbed to the virus were playing a locum role. I understand from one of his colleagues that he was the father to five children. I do not claim to know anything about his financial position and I do not want to put forward any suggestions around it. However, in this pandemic when locums working in the public health service help to fight Covid-19 but fall victim to the virus, the State should consider providing some form of financial support for the bereaved families. He was working on the public health front line without the entitlements that full-time staff have with pensions and leave, for example. I ask that the Minister consider what could be done for the families left behind when locum doctors like Dr. Ali lose their lives to this awful disease.

I start by thanking Deputy Lahart for raising this matter. I join him in offering my sincere condolences to the family of Dr. Waqqar Ali, as well as the doctor's friends and colleagues, some of who were in touch with me today to share very kind words about their colleague and what an extraordinary man and dedicated doctor he was.

Along with Deputy Lahart I saw the interviews with the good doctor's children today on RTÉ and it was absolutely heartbreaking. We honour his work, and as Deputy Lahart has said, the work of all front-line workers. We recognise that eight front-line healthcare workers have died during this pandemic because of this awful and vicious disease.

Deputy Lahart raises an excellent question, which is whether a compensation scheme can be put in place for the families of front-line healthcare workers who lose their lives due to Covid-19. The short answer is "Yes it can". The previous Government kicked off the work and this Government will continue that work. I will be bringing a proposal to the Cabinet to that effect. The officials in my Department have been working hard on the scheme. I am not in a position to share the proposed details now, as I am sure the Deputy understands, as they must be discussed by the Government. I have looked at the detail today and much work has been done.

Critically, one of the questions we will rightly be asked is whether the scheme will apply retrospectively. There is really no point in us bringing forward a scheme at some distant point in future if it does not apply to the entire Covid-19 period. My full intention is that this will be the case. There may be details that are to be worked through and barriers that might need to be addressed in order to do that. As we both know, most schemes of this type do not tend to be retrospective. I will be making sure that all those barriers will be dealt with and this will be applied retrospectively with the agreement of the Government.

Many of our healthcare workers are protected by various life assurance schemes. As the Deputy points out, locums are not, and neither are many extraordinary workers in section 38 and section 39 organisations and certain other categories of workers across our system. It is my intention that this scheme will apply to everybody who is a front-line and hands-on worker, putting himself or herself at risk every day to keep the rest of us safe. Sometimes, tragically, as we have seen today, they pay the ultimate price for that.

I thank the Deputy for raising the matter today and I assure him and the House that we will be moving as quickly as possible on this. We will bring this scheme to the Government and I hope to have its agreement that the proposal will be applied retrospectively. It is the least we can do to stand with and support our quite extraordinary front-line workers.

I will not go on at length. I am very grateful for the Minister's response, which is very generous and compassionate on behalf of the Government and the State. He rightly referenced the awful nature of the exposure of front-line workers to the virus. Notwithstanding all the personal protective equipment, PPE, the virus is such an insidious thing that front-line workers are unable in some cases to escape it. In today's awful case, we can see that Dr. Ali succumbed to it after a considerable battle. I thank the Minister for his compassionate response and I expect nothing less from him. He has met the mark in that regard.

Of course, the Minister appreciates that the role of the locum is one of a doctor without roots. They move around different hospitals and in the context of the coronavirus, it exposes them even more. The upside of not putting down substantial roots in different places is there is an opportunity to have an impact on the lives of far more people, including the health personnel in different health settings.

As I said, I do not know the doctor's particular circumstances and I do not want to dwell on them. I know medical personnel who work in the field will be very gratified and delighted to hear of the compassionate and warm response of the Minister to this request. I thank him again.

I thank Deputy Lahart for that. I think we have covered the issue but it is worth repeating that the scheme that will be brought in will be for all front-line workers. It includes section 38 organisations, section 39 organisations and nursing homes. Many people who are working in nursing homes do not have these protections. We will make sure that they have them.

The Deputy referenced the infection rates among healthcare workers of which we need to be very cognisant. I met three of the unions yesterday that represent front-line workers, namely, the Irish Nurses & Midwives Organisation, INMO, the Psychiatric Nurses Association of Ireland, PNA, and SIPTU. I will meet more in the coming days. These issues came up at the meeting. An issue was raised about a very high level of Covid-19 infection rates among our healthcare workers. One of the first things I did when I was appointed was look into that to determine the issue. The figure we were given was the percentage of healthcare workers as a percentage of total cases in Ireland. It is very high, however, that is a function of testing. When we look at the infection rate among our healthcare workers as a percentage of all healthcare workers, it is significantly lower than international standards. While that is good news and reassuring to hear, we must strive to do much more.

I was talking with the HSE today about some of these issues. PPE is available. However, everything that can be done must be done to continue to improve the protection of our healthcare workers but also, as we have discussed, certain other categories of workers across the system in the sections 38 and 39 organisations and in the nursing homes. We will make sure that we continue to do everything we can to that end.

We will go straight to Topical Issue No. 4 because we had one drop-out. Deputy Verona Murphy wishes to discuss the need for investment in Rosslare Europort in preparation for Brexit. I understand the Deputy may be waiting for Topical Issue No. 3 to proceed but that Deputy is not here. If Deputy Murphy is in the precincts, now is the time for her to raise her matter. Otherwise, we will have to close the debate. I apologise to the Minister of State.

To be fair, we have tried to make contact but we have to press on. There is not much sense in waiting indefinitely because the Deputy may have overlooked the fact that she was due to speak now.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.12 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 23 July 2020.