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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 2 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Child Abuse

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this important matter. As the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, may recall, it is not the first time I have raised this particular issue and the concerns I have around St. John Ambulance Ireland in the Dáil.

Most people will be familiar with the positive image this organisation aims to promote. When we see them at a wide range of sporting events, including GAA, soccer and rugby games in the RDS and at various community events, it is important to remember that the organisation gets funding from the State, albeit indirectly through the national governing bodies.

However, the dark and deeply disturbing actions of some of its personnel during the 1990s seldom gets the coverage it should. One journalist, Mr. Jack Power, has done a great deal of strong work in bringing this particular issue to the fore.

The child and adult sexual abuse carried out over a number of years by senior members of St. John Ambulance Ireland is deeply disturbing. I commend the bravery of three survivors, Mr. Mick Finnegan, Mr. Paul Mulholland and Mr. Martin Hoey, who have spoken out publicly of the horrific sexual abuse they experienced when they were members of the organisation. Mr. Finnegan was only a young cadet when the abuse started. Some of his testimony is harrowing. It is distressing.

Previously, in this Chamber I have raised my deep concern that the organisation is closing ranks to protect rapists and sexual abusers who may or may not still be active members of St. John Ambulance Ireland. Now, once again, I am here raising my deeply-held concerns that St. John Ambulance Ireland is, once again, closing ranks.

Survivors of that horrific abuse are deeply concerned that the review by Dr. Shannon will not be made public and will not be shared with survivors. If this is the case, it would be an absolute disgrace. It would be an insult to the bravery of the people and survivors who have come forward with their horrific abuse stories. It will be highlighted in Dr. Shannon's report and his review.

It is not easy for survivors to come forward and to have to give a detailed account of the horrors of sexual abuse. It takes great bravery and commitment and a sense of justice to step forward.

I ask the Minister directly to liaise with Dr. Shannon and with St. John Ambulance Ireland to ensure that the review is made available to the public, and particularly to the survivors of this sexual abuse. We need to see organisations such as St. John Ambulance Ireland using the review as a learning tool to ensure best practice when it comes to child protection.

I certainly commend the Minister for the work he has done for and the support he has provided to survivors. It does not sit well with me to know that State funds, via national governing bodies, NGBs, of sporting organisations, are ending up in an organisation that has closed ranks in the face of a review into sex abuse and now, possibly, will prevent the publication of this report.

Week in, week out St. John Ambulance Ireland continues to provide a service for various sporting and national governing bodies and communities. We need to see the Government standing firm and ensuring that St. John Ambulance Ireland is not allowed to hide anything here.

I thank the Deputy. First, I want to recognise the Deputy's consistent advocacy on this issue. The Deputy and Senator Ruane in the Seanad have both been strongly vocal on this issue.

I know reports of historical sexual abuse in St. John Ambulance Ireland have been highlighted over recent years. As the Deputy states, the case initially concerned three men who made allegations against one named adult. Two of these individuals were under 18 at the time of the abuse and all three people and the accused were volunteers with the St. John Ambulance organisation. A fourth man came forward in November 2020 and a fifth came forward in the latter part of 2021. Recent media reports state that at least two further people have come forward.

As I am sure the Deputy is aware, the Charities Regulator, under the aegis of the Department of Rural and Community Development, is Ireland's statutory regulator for charitable organisations, including St. John Ambulance, so my Department does not have a role in the governance of that body. Of course, child sexual abuse is not consigned to the past and it is my role and that of my Department, in collaboration with Tusla, to protect children now.

I met the board of St. John Ambulance in late 2020. I understand the organisation has worked with Tusla to ensure compliance with obligations under Children First and has accepted the recommendations of Tusla to arrange an independent review of the issues raised. Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, senior counsel, an internationally recognised expert in child protection, was subsequently commissioned by the board of St. John Ambulance in March 2021 to conduct the independent review into the handling of historical child sexual abuse within St. John Ambulance. The findings will be presented to the board of St. John Ambulance in the first instance but it is my expectation that St. John Ambulance will ensure publication of the report. The terms of reference of the review, as fully agreed by Dr. Shannon, set out that he will examine how St. John Ambulance handled past allegations of child sexual abuse relating to the individual in question and any other allegations made. The review is also tasked with examining the current standard of child safeguarding at the organisation.

Like the Deputy, I have met one of the individuals who has come forward. I commend that person and all others who have often at immense personal cost come forward to take cases and, in particular, shared their experiences publicly. I strongly encourage anybody who has knowledge of these matters to come forward and speak with Dr. Shannon.

Dr. Shannon has provided a dedicated website to support his review that can be accessed at The site enables people to make direct contact with Dr. Shannon and more details of the review are available on the site. It is important that we give Dr. Shannon the opportunity to progress his work independently and form his conclusions. I look forward to seeing the findings. Everybody recognises the major depth of expertise that Dr. Shannon brings to this matter. Again, I urge anyone with relevant information to contact Dr. Shannon and bring this information to light.

To answer the Deputy's specific question, I have no direct power of compulsion in terms of the publication of the report. I state unequivocally, however, that I want to see the report published at the end of the process.

I acknowledge and appreciate that the Minister has been very engaged with the process and has met survivors. They have all spoken very highly of the Minister's role in this. I accept that he does not have a direct role in the report and its publication but when does the Minister think the Shannon report will be published? It is essential that it be made public and that survivors have access to the report. If, for some reason, it is not made public, will the Minister commit to having his own investigation carried out and a report compiled? It is important that the State would show there is no place where sex abusers can hide and there would not be another carpet under which abuse could be brushed. When does the Minister expect the Shannon report to be published? If it is not put into the public domain, will he commit to carrying out his own investigation and issuing report?

I cannot answer the first question. Dr. Shannon is an extremely thorough individual, as demonstrated by the reports he has done in the past and the quality of the work. It is important that we give him time to do this work. He made it very clear that he wants to engage with victims face to face. He did not want to do this through Zoom or online but in person. That is why it took some time at the start and why the interviews did not take place as soon as the review was initiated. He also wanted to get a very clear understanding of the operating conditions of the review and wanted those to be very clear with St. John Ambulance.

I am reluctant to pressure Dr. Shannon on when the report will be published. He must be given the time to do this properly. I am confident, in looking at his track record, that it will be done properly. We should give him the time to continue to work. I know he is very good in getting back to survivors and updating them, to the best of his ability.

If we have had a report undertaken over a period, I would be reluctant to commit to initiating another report. We need this report published. What I will commit to is doing everything in my power - it is not a legal power - to ensure that at the end of this process, the report can be published. It will not be published immediately and the organisation needs time to look at it and respond. Nonetheless, it is my view that the report must be published at the end of this process. I will do whatever I can to achieve that.

Home Help Service

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the matter of home help services. In my region of Cork and Kerry, we have had a major issue with getting home help for people. This has manifested itself in a number of ways for people coming out of acute hospitals and going home. They are not able to return home unless some form of home care is provided for them for a number of hours. Going back three, four or five years ago, we may have raised the question of home help but the problem then was that there was no funding for it. There has been a large increase in funding but it has not led to an increase in the amount of home help hours available for patients and families.

Policies have changed over years to provide people with support and facilities within communities so they can live for the longest possible period in their homes. Every family benefits enormously from home help services and my family is no different; the practitioners of home help involved with my family's care are second to none. They have been absolutely excellent. Every family is seeking home care, but some people have been waiting a long number of weeks, leading to a delay in discharge from an acute hospital, which causes more problems for the health services. Any cost-benefit analysis of the home care packages or home help services indicates it is extremely good value for money. It is a win-win for everybody.

How are we getting from a position where funding is available to ensuring there is a service on the ground? That is about delivery of service, and it is very important we get to the bottom of that. I have spoken on a daily and weekly basis with the people who provide home care assistance, and they do excellent work. Some have told me they are contracted for 15 or 16 hours and would gladly take more but they are not getting them.

What is causing the blockage in the system? If new staff cannot be recruited to provide the care, why does the Government not look at the home care assistance that is already in place to see whether additional hours can be accommodated? Some of the providers have told me they would be delighted to provide more hours. In some instances, where families are trying to expedite the process, they are looking to people locally who are already working as home care assistants and might be able to provide the service. However, they are being told that although the local providers would love to take on the additional work, they are given only a certain number of hours and do not have the capacity to offer any more.

The HSE needs to look at what the stumbling blocks are in terms of delivering this service, which is vitally important and gives huge value for money. Keeping people in their own homes is the most important issue and it can be done by managing the home care assistance scheme in an imaginative way and ensuring there is delivery for people locally.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter, to which I am responding on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. The Government is committed to the development of improved community-based services, shifting care to the home and offering greater choice for older people. In budget 2021, the Minister of State secured additional funding of €150 million to progress the development of a reformed model of service delivery to underpin the statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services and to provide 5 million additional hours of home support. The funding secured in budget 2021 to provide those additional 5 million hours has been maintained for 2022. In 2021, some 20.4 million hours were provided to more than 55,000 people. This is an increase of some 2.9 million hours, or 17%, compared with 2020.

Significant inroads have been achieved in reducing waiting lists for funding approval for new or additional services, from more than 7,800 in January 2020 to 286 in March 2022. This has been achieved through a combination of validation of the waiting list and availability of additional funds to deal with those waiting for care. However, there can be a lag between funding approval and the delivery of home support hours. Certain geographical areas have experienced increased pressures due to staff availability. At the end of March, there were 5,458 people assessed and waiting for a carer to become available. In January 2020, there were approximately 1,300 people in this category. Despite the increase, it is important to note that the total number of people waiting for home support across both categories has reduced from over 9,000 at the start of 2020 to 5,744 at the end of March. At the end of April, 1,553 people in north Cork were receiving home support. During the first four months of this year, almost 130,000 hours of home support were delivered in the area.

The HSE is acutely aware that there are staff resource issues across both direct and indirect provision of home support in north Cork and other areas. Provisional data show that at the end of April, there were 113 people waiting for a carer to provide a new or additional service. At that time, nobody was waiting for funding approval. The HSE continues to advertise on an ongoing basis throughout the region for healthcare support assistants and to recruit as many suitable candidates as possible. Due to the nature of the role, this recruitment is normally conducted at a very localised level. The HSE recently completed a substantial recruitment campaign for healthcare support assistants and successful candidates are currently completing final clearances prior to being assigned to their locations. A total of 13 of these new staff are due to take up positions in the north Cork area this month and will be allocated to clients currently wait-listed for home support. In addition, approved private home support providers continue to recruit home support workers.

The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, is very aware of the strategic workforce challenges in the home support and nursing homes sector. She has established a cross-departmental strategic workforce advisory group to examine issues such as recruitment, retention, training, and the career development of front-line carers in home support and nursing homes into the future in order that solutions can be identified and implemented. It is also expected that pay and conditions for workers will be examined. The group, which is currently engaging with key sectoral stakeholders, is committed to providing the Minister of State with a set of recommendations by September.

I would like to bring a particular case to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, the Department of Health and the HSE. I know of a situation where a member of a family became seriously in February this year. The family looked for care to be provided two or three nights a week. Three nights were allocated because family members were travelling long distances from where they were living to provide the care, day and night, for the person who is ill. The family got a commitment in writing from the HSE to the provision of care three nights per week, but that approval was subsequently withdrawn. It is completely unacceptable that this should happen to families that are trying to make the right decisions for their loved ones. A little bit of help from the State can go a long way for people in this situation.

Public health nurses right across the region have contacted me to say how frustrating it is for them to do an assessment and make a recommendation for home help hours for patients who they clearly see need that service, only for the application to go back into the system and the outcome to be that no service is provided. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, indicated that a cross-departmental working group has been established to examine this issue. Data should be available from within the service as to whether all staff are satisfied with the hours they are getting and whether there is any extra capacity. The first thing on everybody's mind must be to try to keep people in their homes for as long as possible. That is best for everyone.

The reality is that the service locally is grinding to a halt. The Minister indicated that the working group will bring forward recommendations by September, but that is some three months away and we will be facing into winter by then. There should be an urgency applied to this matter. The problems in the service have been ticking along for some time. As I said, in the case of the family to which I referred, the provision of three nights was approved in February before being withdrawn completely at the end of March without ever having been provided. This is totally unacceptable. We need to see a real urgency to address this issue because it will become a major problem over the coming weeks and months.

I completely understand the frustration felt by the public health nurses to whom the Deputy spoke, the frustration and anger, probably, of the family he referred to for whom support was withdrawn, and his own frustration and anger in dealing with these situations. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, sees the urgency of the situation. She met the chief officer of community healthcare organisation, CHO, 9 last week to discuss the issue of home care provision. There is a renewed focus on the advertising of care roles on local radio and social media. It is important to note that funding is not an issue here. The funding is provided; the difficulty is with the process of getting people into those roles.

The number of home support hours in communities is increasing, in line with the enhanced investment the Minister of State has secured. Delivering this enhanced capacity requires substantial recruitment, which has been affected by the strategic workforce challenges in the home support sector. Efforts are ongoing to meet the continuing increased demand. As I said, the Minister of State has established an advisory group, which is looking to identify and remove the specific obstacles to recruitment in order that we can use the money that has been secured to deliver extra staff and additional hours of care to families. In addition, work to progress the development of the new statutory scheme for the financing and regulation of home support services is continuing within the broader context of Sláintecare reform. This work encompasses the development of the regulatory framework for the new scheme, examination of the options for the financing model for the scheme and the development of a reformed model for service delivery.

I will, of course, raise the Deputy's specific concerns with the Minister of State. I thank him for highlighting them in the House today.

Homeless Persons Supports

The homeless housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme is available only in Dublin but, unfortunately, the homeless crisis is not a Dublin-only issue. Rents have been skyrocketing and are now completely out of control across every county in the State. I am dealing with numerous families who are facing eviction. More than 30 of them are facing that prospect between now and October.

I am dealing with one situation involving a lady in her 60s who has received a notice to quit. She has been on the Cork City Council, CCC, housing list for 11 years. Even at this stage, if she could find a property that would accept HAP, she cannot afford to pay the balance. This is the real issue facing people in every city and county. I have another case of a lady, a single parent with one child, who went back to college to become a nurse. Her work is part-time. For this lady to get a property, she will either have to give up college or go back home and live with her family in conditions of severe overcrowding. These are the consequences sky-rocketing rents are having on people on HAP outside of Dublin.

April saw the number of people living in emergency accommodation go above 10,000 for the first time in two years. The most extraordinary figure, however, is that 474 children were living in homeless accommodation in April 2021. In April 2022, some 735 children were living in homeless accommodation. This is an increase in the number of children living in emergency accommodation of 261 in one year. Additionally, between March 2022 and April 2022, the figure in this regard went from 702 to 735, which is an increase of 33 children in one month alone.

There are no properties for a one-child family with a €900 HAP limit, the current limit, in Cork. Homeless HAP will not fix the housing crisis, but it might give these families a chance of a short-term solution. To be honest, I do not believe in HAP. It is a bad support and it is not social housing. It was brought in by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and it is the only support available for many people because of their failures in housing. Any progress made during the pandemic is being eroded. What we are seeing now is a dramatic increase in evictions or notices to quit. Peter McVerry this week said this housing crisis is the worst in 40 years. He said people "are despairing and depressed" and have no hope.

Will the Minister and his Government review the emergency HAP provision for those living outside Dublin? I ask this because we have seen dramatic increases in rents. People are unable to pay the resulting difference. Regarding the first lady I spoke about, she is in her 60s and could never have foreseen herself becoming homeless. Yet she is now facing this prospect. Another case I worked on recently was that of a girl in her early 20s who is a graduate of University College Cork, UCC. She is considering following up on her degree by doing her masters in the autumn. She is working full-time, but had to go into homeless emergency accommodation because her landlord was selling the property. Thankfully, Edel House is providing that young girl with assistance and support. I thank the people involved with that organisation for the brilliant work they do. How, though, can a young lady with a degree and a full-time job end up homeless in this State?

The housing assistance payment, HAP, is a flexible and immediate housing support available to all eligible households throughout the State. At the end of quarter four of 2021, more than 100,000 HAP tenancies had been set up since the scheme commenced, of which more than 61,900 households were actively receiving HAP support.

Under HAP, tenants source their own accommodation in the private-rented market. However, additional supports are available under HAP for homeless households or households at risk of homelessness. While eligible households or individuals may source accommodation for themselves under the homeless HAP scheme, a dedicated resource, the place finder service, has been established nationwide to provide assistance. The place finder service can assist households in emergency accommodation or at risk of homelessness primarily by providing access to deposits and advance rental payments. The operation of the homeless services, including the place finder service, is a matter for each local authority.

The place finder positions are funded by my Department. On foot of a circular, housing 4/2018, the Department has issued approval for 23 place finder positions in local authorities. However, place finder positions were already in place in the four Dublin local authorities prior to the circular being issued. In 2021, there were five HAP place finders in the four Dublin local authorities, in addition to their existing homeless services. Several local authorities indicated they did not wish to seek additional resources to establish a place finder service as they were satisfied with their existing homeless services.

Each local authority has statutory discretion to agree to a HAP payment of up to 20% above the prescribed maximum rent limit to secure appropriate accommodation for a household that requires it, or up to 50% in the case of homeless households in the Dublin region. It is a matter for the local authority to determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether, and to what extent, the application of the flexibility is warranted, although it should be noted that local authorities have a responsibility to ensure that tenancies are sustainable. From available data, at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, some 57% of the total number of households being supported by HAP were benefiting from the additional flexibility, at an average rate of discretion of 24.2% above the relevant limit.

The programme for Government commits to ensuring that HAP levels are adequate to support vulnerable households, while the supply of social housing increases. Under Housing for All, the Department was tasked with undertaking an analytical exercise to examine whether an increase in the level of 20% discretion available to local authorities under HAP is required to maintain adequate levels of HAP support. The Housing Agency undertook this exercise on behalf of the Department and submitted the review to the Department. The review is undergoing analysis in our Department and this will conclude shortly. This is something the Department is considering.

I note the Deputy's comments concerning the spiralling rents. There are also many issues with landlords leaving the market. This is placing an added burden on homeless services and local authorities. Our Department is committed to ensuring we have a full range of services and supports in place for families at risk of homelessness. Homeless HAP has provided a good basis for trying to support families and individuals in these circumstances. The longer-term picture here concerns the supply of social housing, which we are delivering at scale. It will, however, take some time to get to the point where this provision will make a marked impact on the homeless situation, which we acknowledge is difficult now.

The question I asked has not been answered. I refer to an increase in the homeless HAP for living outside the Dublin area. As the Minister of State said, it is possible to avail of a rate 20% above the maximum rate outside the Dublin area, but discretion in this regard is set at 50% inside the Dublin area. I ask that the level of discretion be set at 50% across the State. I think that would be fair. We have seen dramatic increases in rent in every county. What we have now are people struggling. I am talking about people who are entitled to a payment but for whom that payment is not enough to allow them to secure a roof over their head.

I spoke earlier about the number of children in emergency accommodation. Outside Dublin, 735 children will be going to bed tonight in unsuitable and unstable accommodation. Most children are looking forward to the summer and to holidays, summer camps and getting to the beach. The worry for these 735 children is whether they will have a roof over their heads. This is the situation these families are facing. Homelessness in families outside Dublin is increasing. It is a significant increase. From March to April this year, we saw the number of families affected increase from 337 to 352. People are desperate and they need support. Great mistakes were made in Dublin years ago when the homelessness figures skyrocketed. This same problem is now happening outside Dublin. I do not know if the Minister, the Minister of State and the Department understand the number of people now facing homelessness this summer. It took the Government years to act when this kind of problem hit Dublin. This type of tsunami is coming to the rest of the State. The Government must act now.

We have a situation in Cork and other cities where the numbers in homeless accommodation are increasing rapidly. There is also the element of hidden homelessness. It has been estimated by St. Vincent de Paul that 30,000 people are in hidden homelessness. This is on top of the 10,000 people we know of.

That amounts to 40,000 people, one third or 13,000 of whom are children.

A recent report from the Simon Community, Locked Out of the Market, found that there were only 80 properties available under HAP. This is a drastic reduction of 92% on the figure of 906 properties that were available in June 2021. We are in dire straits. The Peter McVerry Trust and other organisations are saying we need to act now.

The Housing for All plan sets out the Government’s commitment to increase the supply of housing to an average of 33,000 per year over the next decade, including an average of 10,000 new build social homes, which we are on track to deliver. As I said, that is where part of the solution lies, but not the entire solution. It is our ambition to reduce dependency on HAP by increasing social housing provision. Notwithstanding that, as I said in my initial response, it is critical that an analytical review be undertaken on increasing the 20% discretionary limit that local authorities have under HAP. On the increase in the discretionary limit of 20%, the Deputy suggested it be raised to 50% as per the Dublin local authorities. The Housing Agency has completed that piece of work and the Department is undertaking its analysis. We should be able to conclude the findings of that process shortly.

I accept the points made by the Deputy. It is an incredibly and increasingly challenging situation across the country, in which all services are stretched. The Department is committed to resolving these issues. The Minister has consistently stated in the House that he is committed to addressing the issue of homelessness. The Government is committed to eliminating homelessness by 2030. These reviews will take place and if discretion is there on the 20% limit for local authorities, it will certainly help to alleviate the situation for the families involved in the cases the Deputy mentioned.