Youth Services

I thank the Minister of State for attending. I raise the issue of the current status and the perceived goals and aims of youth councils, specifically the youth council in Donegal which was one of the pilot zones. I declare an interest in that I am president of the youth and sport committee of the Council of Europe. Nationally and internationally, we spend a lot of time talking about getting young people involved in politics and getting them familiar with the democratic process. We initiated a lot of work in the Oireachtas through outreach programmes in schools and we initiated the youth council. The feedback and the annual reports have been very impressive. The issues prioritised by them were spot-on from any perspective. They have been a massive success.

Other counties do not have a youth council but the youth council in Donegal is under serious threat at the moment. Its work was suspended ten days ago because a co-ordinating post did not continue. Some light is visible at the end of the tunnel because the co-ordinator will remain in place until March. That is only a few months away, however, and from my perspective we need to give a clear signal if we are creating these posts. If they are to be in existence for the long term, there should be ring-fencing of the support in order that the posts can operate at the intended level. Brief respite has been granted in respect of this problem but I presume the official answer is that it is a matter for the county manager.

The Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs was at the helm of youth work and youth enthusiasm in respect of politics and in respect of a range of issues connected with youth. I am pleased, therefore, that he is responding to this matter. The signal we give is, ultimately, the signal that will be taken back as our true intention. If we say it is not our responsibility and is a matter for someone else, we will be abdicating our responsibility on this issue. The youth council can be tied into a larger problem in terms of staffing, and the county manager needs to deal with this with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

In driving the great work being done and giving confidence to the young people involved who come from many parts of Donegal and work together on the national scene, and I commend the people who have been doing this work until now, I would be distraught if I thought we were not in a position to provide for the survival of the youth council in Donegal beyond March. I hope the Minister of State can make an intervention to give effect to the long-term goal of this Government. When this was set up, it was not to be a short-term project but would one that would last from here on out. We need to give certainty to the youth council in Donegal and we need to expand the work being done there to ensure other youth councils coming on board are not faced with this serious instability. The word "suspension" was used last week and while we believe it is back in action for a while, that is insufficient and unacceptable.

I hope the Minister of State will have good news for me about the expansion and development of youth councils and the maintenance of staffing levels in order that they can continue their work. If we were to get rid of staff here in the same way as has happened in youth councils, this House would not be effective, just as a youth council is not effective when the co-ordinator does not have security of tenure.

I am fully committed to the effective development of Comhairle na nÓg in all 34 city and county development board areas. The effective development of Comhairle na nÓg is named as a Government priority in Towards 2016. My office has the lead role under the national children's strategy to ensure children and young people have a voice in the design, delivery and monitoring of services and policies that affect their lives at national and local level.

Comhairle na nÓg was set up under the national children's strategy in the 34 city and county development board areas throughout the country to give children and young people a voice in the development of local services and policies. An independent review of Comhairle na nÓg carried out in 2005, commissioned by the then National Children's Office, noted that many of the 34 Comhairle na nÓg were not engaging effectively with children and young people and were in need of significant improvement. Based on the findings of the review, the then National Children's Office established the Comhairle na nÓg implementation group in June 2006 to support the operation of effective Comhairle na nÓg. The group comprised representatives of Departments, city and county development boards, local authorities, the HSE, the VECs, young people and the youth sector.

In response to the recommendations made in the Comhairle na nÓg implementation group report in 2007, my office established a funding programme aimed at improving the operation of Comhairle na nÓg and providing additional opportunities for young people to be involved in decision-making. In addition, in March 2008, my office funded two national youth organisations to appoint three regional participation officers to provide training, advice and support for organisers of Comhairle na nÓg. Funding has been secured for the work of the participation officer up to March 2012.

Under the Comhairle na nÓg development fund, local authorities may apply for up to €20,000 per annum under funding criteria that ensure meaningful participation by children and young people in decision-making at local level. Uptake of funding has been very strong; my office's expenditure on Comhairle na nÓg was €680,000 in 2009-10. Funding for Comhairle na nÓg has been secured for 2011. My office has entered into a service level agreement with Pobal which will handle administration and monitoring of the fund from January 2011. Pobal will work in partnership with my office and the office's regional participation officers in managing and evaluating the fund.

Since its inception in 2007, the fund has been independently evaluated. The work of the evaluator has included getting feedback from young participants, staff in local authorities and other stakeholders and making recommendations on good practice. The three reports on the Comhairle na nÓg development fund for 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 highlight that significant improvements in the operation of many Comhairle na nÓg have resulted from the fund and the support of my office's regional participation officers.

The Comhairle na nÓg implementation group completed its work in 2008 and was replaced by my office's children and young people's participation partnership committee. The National Youth Council of Ireland jointly chairs and supports the committee with my office. The committee comprises representatives of Departments, statutory bodies, non-government organisations and young people. It supported the development and implementation of the Comhairle na nÓg development plan 2009-11 which has successfully met all targets and will be fully implemented by mid-2011.

A five year strategic plan for Comhairle na nÓg will be developed as part of the new national children's strategy. Work on the strategic plan has begun.

I accept a lot of money is being spent, but I would like to receive a commitment from the Minister of State that he will investigate the difficulties being encountered by Donegal Youth Council because there are significant problems that are putting its future in jeopardy. As there is feedback from participants, local authority staff and other stakeholders, the Minister of State might be able to discover the cause of the difficulty for the council and attempt to address it.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 17 December 2010.