I am glad the Minister is attending the House personally. He has taken a concerned and humane interest in this matter — the establishment of a dedicated phone line for the families of missing persons in this State. Initially, the Minister was impressed by this heartbreaking situation for many people and made a grant available to establish a helpline in conjunction with Victim Support. The latter group, however, folded its tent and moved away and since then nothing much has happened. There was an offer of €25,000 to the group that is involved in this matter. I wish to pay tribute in particular to the work of Mr. Tom Brown whose sister has been missing for some time. That offer appears to have fizzled out, however.
In a reply to questions in the Dáil, the Minister indicated that a report had been commissioned at the end of 2003 from the department of social sciences at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He pointed out that only 100 phone calls were received and suggested that this tends to influence the view of his Department that, despite this great human tragedy, a stand-alone phone service is perhaps not the most efficient way of doing things. I disagree with that view, however, and would draw the Minister's attention to the report's administrative summary. The distinguished authors state:
The single most disappointing aspect of the helpline has been the small number of calls that it has received. Of these calls, only a very small proportion — 13 out of 100 — were generated by the gardaí giving out the brochure, which was initially intended as the main form of generating calls to the helpline. A significant failed objective of the project to date, therefore, has been the delay in distributing the helpline number to Garda stations nationally. At the present time, the majority of Garda sergeants have heard of the national missing persons' helpline. However, of a sample of 20 stations contacted nationwide, only 65% had the national missing persons' brochure on public display.
The business of letting people know about the service is the first significant phase, as the report indicated. Therefore, the figure of 100 phone calls may be an unrealistic figure.
The report's first principal recommendation is that the helpline funding should be continued, although this has not happened. I ask the Minister to reconsider the situation and perhaps open negotiations between himself or his officials and Mr. Brown, who is an extremely decent man and knows about the situation from the inside. Mr. Brown has spent a lot of his own money on this project. He gave out his own telephone number and was deluged with calls because he managed to have it announced on the radio.
The group recommended that an advertising budget be identified for the helpline because that information must be provided. It is considering purchasing newspaper and television slots. A budget of €25,000 would be completely unrealistic for such a purpose, so a sum would have to be negotiated between the parties involved. The range of services for missing persons should be extended to include counselling and a support network. Another recommendation is that the helpline should be operated as a free-call service as opposed to a lo-call one. In that way people, who quite often are in difficult circumstances, would not have to pay for such calls.
Another recommendation is that the Garda Síochána be actively and vigorously encouraged to promote this helpline. Under the Minister's regime, we have some good outreach services for the immigrant and gay communities. It is a remarkable initiative which is beginning to work. We should put some muscle behind this helpline and actively encourage the Garda Síochána to advertise it. A specific budget should be provided for the helpline instead of leaving it to people like Mr. Tom Brown who have suffered in this respect while working on a small budget. It is important for us to provide such assistance.
I wish to quote a couple of responses to the helpline which were published in the report. One response stated, "The helpline is a great service as it is difficult for us to talk to families when we have decided not to prioritise a case, even though every case is a priority for the family directly affected". Another response stated, "Up until now, there has been nothing for these families, unlike Victim Support, for example".
I ask the Minister to take action on this helpline in light of the serious situation concerning missing persons. A significant number of people are affected, some of them well known. Recently, there was a case of a young student who disappeared. He was a bank employee and had gone out for the night. He was caught on CCTV cameras but then nothing further was heard of him. The young man's family agonised over his disappearance and put up posters all over central Dublin with his photograph and the family's contact details. There were other well known cases such as that of Ms Jo-Jo Dollard.
Such families need support because they have had no closure. If they were able to talk to people who identified with and understood the situation, they would be able to obtain some degree of resolution. At the moment, however, they are dependent on the United Kingdom's missing persons' helpline. Admittedly, the matter affects only a small number of people but it is a significant number nonetheless. It is a real pity that, yet again, when faced with a critical human situation, we must depend on a service offered in the neighbouring island.
Given the Minister's goodwill in this regard, would he be prepared to revisit this situation and adopt some of the report's recommendations for establishing a consistent service? At the moment there is nothing.