Missing Persons.

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.

I thank Senator Norris for raising this matter. I assure him that I share his concern, and that of many members of the public, about missing persons.

The national missing persons helpline was established in October 2002, shortly after I came into office. Initially, funding of €65,000, to include set up costs, was provided by my Department to establish the helpline, to be operated and administered by Victim Support. Further funding of €45,000, net of set-up costs, was provided to the helpline in 2003. Senator Norris should bear in mind that this funding was provided subject to the conditions that no funding beyond the year 2003 should be necessarily implied, and audited accounts should be provided to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I regret to state that to date, no audited accounts for that total of €110,000 have been furnished to the Department. Perhaps that can be remedied, but it has not happened.

The conditions under which my Department provided funding did not include any requirements concerning the operational activities of the helpline. Any decisions relating to the operation of the helpline were made by Victim Support, which was an independent, non-governmental organisation with charitable status, which managed the operation of the helpline, in conjunction with the helpline itself.

In March 2005, and after an independent review, I decided that continued funding of the organisation could not be justified due to serious concerns about governance, accountability for public funds and poor service levels after a lengthy period of instability within the organisation. I understand that Victim Support Limited closed down its headquarters during 2005 and a number of staff were made redundant, including the person employed to operate the missing persons helpline. My Department had no role in the decision of Victim Support Limited to make its staff redundant, other than to insist that full statutory requirements such as notice and holiday pay be met and that the interests of the staff be protected.

Also in March 2005, I established a new Commission for the Support of Victims of Crime to devise an appropriate support framework for victims of crime in the future and to disburse funding for victim support measures. The commission is entirely independent in its decision making and it examines each application on its merits. Its members are Mr. Jim McHugh, a retired assistant commissioner of the Garda Síochána, Ms Nora Owen, a former Minister for Justice, Mr. Seán Lowry, a former head of the probation and welfare service, Mr. Michael Whelan of Gemini Consulting, and Ms Marian Finucane, the well-known broadcaster.

The commission received an application from the Missing In Ireland Support Service for €7I,600 to establish, staff and operate a helpline for missing persons. After careful consideration of the application, the commission decided to offer funding of €25,000. However, as the Senator implied, this offer was rejected by the Missing in Ireland Support Service on the basis that it would accept only the full amount sought. It should be borne in mind in this context that the commission is charged with funding support services for victims of crime, and that while some persons who are missing are almost certainly crime victims, most are not. Other than the request to the independent commission for funding, no request has been made by the helpline to my Department. It remains open to the Missing In Ireland Support Service to make an application directly to my Department for assistance if it so wishes. It will be carefully considered on its merits.

The missing persons bureau in Garda headquarters is responsible for maintaining data relating to missing persons. All cases of a person reported missing in suspicious circumstances remain open and under ongoing review and investigation until the person is located or, in the case of a missing person who is presumed drowned, a decision to that effect is given by the coroner.

At present, local Garda management takes direct responsibility for missing person cases and special investigation teams are appointed as necessary. All missing persons are recorded on the PULSE system. When a person is reported missing, the local Garda superintendent takes direct responsibility for the investigation and appoints an investigation team to include any specialised unit deemed necessary, such as the national bureau of criminal investigation or the technical bureau.

The systems put in place by the Garda Síochána to manage and deal with reports of missing persons are in line with best international police practice, and Garda management is satisfied, and has assured me, that the systems in place are adequate to deal with any reported case of a missing person. The Garda Síochána interacts fully and appropriately with all media outlets, including print, radio and TV, in highlighting cases involving missing persons. The services of other external agencies such as Europol and Interpol are also available to assist in the investigation. In addition, every Garda district has a specially trained search team familiar with the locality. The investigation of missing persons is a dedicated subject on the curriculum at the Garda College in Templemore, and is also covered in in-service training.

The establishment of a national missing persons unit has been suggested from time to time and the matter is kept under ongoing review by the Garda authorities. Arguments for and against such a proposal can be made. The view of the Garda Síochána, gained through experience, is that while specialist units prove extremely useful in investigating certain types of crime, missing person cases, by their nature, require specific local knowledge both about the area where they occur and the circumstances and background of the person who is missing. Having a national unit that would descend on County Kerry to investigate a case could be counter-productive.

Research regarding missing person investigations has been conducted by the police authorities in the United States of America. Garda authorities maintain close links with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. My Department functions as the central authority for implementing the Hague and Luxembourg Conventions, which operate to secure the speedy return of an abducted child where that is at issue.

The Garda authorities continually monitor international developments on investigations of missing persons to ensure that best practice is followed. If their professional judgment is that some change in the existing legislation or protocols would be of assistance in improving investigations, this will be considered positively by my Department.

I share the view of Senator Norris that a helpline of this kind is best established on an independent basis and therefore by a non-official, voluntary organisation. I do not believe having a group of gardaí waiting to receive telephone calls is a good idea. I reiterate that if a proposal is made for funding separate from victim support, as victimhood and missing persons are not the same issue except for a small degree of overlap, I and my Department will carefully consider it to see what we can do.

The Senator made the point that two thirds of Garda stations had leaflets and that 100 telephone calls were generated. Even if the other third of Garda stations had leaflets, would that number of calls have risen to 130 and if so, would it justify spending the €100,000 sought? That would amount to €1,000 or €700 per telephone call. We must ask whether it is an effective use of public moneys. If the Department is approached with a good business case and tight financing we will examine it. I will remind the Senator of the failure to produce audited accounts. Simply signing a cheque is not a politically responsible action for me to take.

I thank the Minister for his considered and positive approach. I agree with him that what is often involved is the social issue of dealing with the trauma of the relatives and not a police matter. I accept the point made on the non-production of audited accounts. It is partly the whirlpool created by the collapse of Victim Support. These are well-motivated amateurs who are genuinely affected. There is no suggestion that they made away with money.

I did not suggest it.

The Minister did not do so. Mr. Brown made a considerable amount of his own money available. I thank the Minister for suggesting that a new proposal with a tight business plan and a clear strategy would be considered by his officials. I welcome that.