Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 11 Mar 2014

Adjournment Matters

Leader Programmes Funding

I refer to the new Leader programme for the period 2014 to 2020. I wish to ascertain the level of funding that will be available from the State to co-fund the moneys available under the European Commission proposals. It is my understanding the new Leader programme will involve 54% of EU funding which will require 46% of national funding to be secured. That will mean a cut in the region of €87 million to Leader funding. Overall funding has been reduced from €370 million from €283 million under the current Leader programme. That amounts to a cut of approximately 23%. I hope that is not the case and that the Minister will clarify the discussions that are taking place, the level of funding that will be put in place and the efforts that are being made. The funding comes within the remit of the Common Agricultural Policy. While I appreciate that it is a matter for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and that is the Department engaged in the negotiations, the reason I raise the issue isthe Leader programme comes within the remit of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

I refer to the alignment process as a caveat to the funding issue. Concern has been expressed by local development companies around the country at the proposed alignment process by which Leader funding will come under the remit of local authorities. I would like an update from the Minister as to what is happening. The crux of the issue is the funding that will be available. There is currently a stop-gap arrangement as funding under the previous Leader programme has run out and local community development organisations who administer the current scheme are not able to fund new projects. Given the lack of opportunity for community groups to apply for funding, is there a mechanism by which funding can be made available? What level of funding remains to be drawn down in the current Leader programme? The Minister might not have the answers tonight, but I seek clarification on the questions asked.

Ireland has agreed with the European Union funding to the value of €2.1 billion for the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020. The governing EU regulations provide that a minimum allocation of 5% of that funding goes to the Leader programme. The Government has decided to increase that to 7%, which I welcome. Therefore, €153 million in EU funding will be available to Leader during 2014 to 2020 and will be co-financed by Exchequer funding. The Senator is correct that the level of co-financing has yet to be determined. Discussions are ongoing with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on the matter. Following conclusion of the discussions I will be in a position to announce the overall value of the Leader elements of the programme. The discussions are not yet completed but they are likely to be completed in April.

The second question related to alignment. We have had a number of meetings recently, including last week, on the role of the local community development committee and the role of the community structure. We made substantial progress. Equally, because of the community and local authorities coming together through the local community development company, we have to work out the nuts and bolts of the arrangements as to who will do what in terms of the roles and responsibilities involved. Public accountability is important in the disbursement of the money. The moneys will be paid to local community development committees through the director of finance in local authorities, but the local community sector will be involved in a series of activities which will be the subject of discussion in the coming weeks. We are confident that we will be able to work out arrangements. The level of administrative finance that is required from a community point of view, in addition to the employment and contractual obligations of boards of Leader companies will be less onerous because the responsibility will be taken over by the local authority. I hope that will be helpful to the boards of directors of Leader companies who are worried about these matters on the conclusion of the Leader round of funds.

On the previous occasion coming up to 2007 there was an end to the programme and it took two years for the following programme to commence. I am anxious that there will be a shorter gap before getting the next round of programme funds going in early 2015. Most of the companies will be able to continue in their contractual sense, in particular, the local development companies, up to the end of this year. if companies have enough money administratively to continue to the end of the year they will be able to do so, but I hope the short gap between the end of this programme and the beginning of the new programme will amount to not more than a couple of months.

The Senator is aware that all of the money has been committed at this stage. I have asked Leader companies to tell me if they had projects in 2009, 2010 and 2011 that are not going ahead so that the funding can be reallocated. All of the companies have indicated that the projects are committed and none of them will be discontinued. I must take them at their word because they are private companies. We have no other money to allocate except to roll out all of the moneys that have been committed and to meet those commitments during the course of 2014.

Wind Energy Generation

I welcome the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Pat Rabbitte.

I also welcome the Minister. I am very grateful to him for coming to the House to respond to my question. As he is aware, there is a great deal of anxiety and speculation concerning the status of the intergovernmental agreement between the United Kingdom and the Government on the wind export project.

I have been inundated with contact from communities from Knockmore in Mayo to Kildangan in County Kildare and Ratheniska, Rosenallis and Vicarstown in my native county of Laois. Communities have been living in the shadow of the prospect of the development of what they see as daunting, imposing and unnecessary giant industrial wind farms which were proposed to be constructed by both semi-State and private developers for the purpose of wind energy export. As I understand from previous pronouncements by the Minister in the Seanad, as recently as 19 February the intergovernmental agreement was contingent on the two Governments concluding an agreement and that the wind energy export project was predicated on that basis. That being the case, we are a little taken aback at the pronouncements from some of the companies and agencies in the past 48 hours to the effect that they insist on proceeding with the projects.

I cannot see how this could be the case as they were always intended to be export projects. The market was deemed to be within the United Kingdom, as there is no capacity or demand within the Irish system in terms of energy generation or within the grid.

Second, I ask the Minister to bring absolute clarity to the situation for families across the country and for the various developers involved so that they can know where they stand and not be left in limbo wondering about the status of the intergovernmental agreement. Was today the day the agreement was to be signed between the Irish and British Governments - since the Taoiseach is in London as we speak with the British Prime Minister, David Cameron? There is also a question of the implications of this latest development for our entire energy policy and strategy as it impacts on EirGrid, Bord na Móna and Coillte and in terms of the energy strategy being pursued by Sustainable Energy Ireland, all agencies which fall within the remit of the Department.

I am grateful the Minister has come into the House for this matter and hope he can bring some clarity and finality to this issue.

Ireland is fortunate to have very rich wind resources. We can now exploit those renewable resources to generate electricity, reduce our import bills for gas and oil and contribute to decarbonising our energy systems. Thanks to technology, we now have the technical capacity to create a new traded sector in green energy. Last year I signed a memorandum of understanding with my UK counterpart, Ed Davey, and our two Departments have since been working towards an intergovernmental agreement, as required by the EU renewables directive, to facilitate trade in green energy between Ireland and Britain.

The contemplated midlands wind export project has been greatly misrepresented, often wilfully and sometimes dishonestly. When the plan to build out and modernise the grid was settled in 2006, the midlands export project was not even a beam in the eye of its originators. It is a private sector project that can only proceed as permitted by an intergovernmental agreement. Otherwise, the British side cannot count the imported power as coming from renewable sources and include it in meeting its own renewables targets. Nor can the project proceed except in compliance with a national policy and development framework, after a strategic environmental assessment that identifies the areas not suitable for wind farms.

We have done a cost benefit analysis, which shows significant economic benefit for both countries. On our side, we estimate approximately 6,000 job years at construction stage, revenue streams to local authorities and local communities and, most importantly, an annual dividend from trading to the Irish Exchequer. In addition, from discussion we have had, Ireland would be in a strong position to develop a supply sector for the industry. Furthermore, the midlands export project would offer new business opportunities to Bord na Móna, because it is difficult to see the development of any such project without taking into account the tens of thousands of acres of cutaway bog in the ownership of that company.

All of this must be settled within a very tight framework, both because of European Union requirements and because the private sector developers must, before they invest, know that they will benefit from the UK support systems. However, key policy and regulatory design decisions remain to be taken by the UK Government, which means that we are still a considerable distance from settling on the specifics of what the Irish Government and the renewable generators believe must be the basic components of any intergovernmental agreement. I repeat what I said in this House on 20 February 2014, namely, that without us seeing a considerable dividend in terms of revenue and employment for Ireland's benefit, there will be no such agreement.

Against that standard and following my meeting last week with Secretary of State for Climate Change and Energy, Ed Davey, I find it difficult to see how, within the timeframe, it is possible to deliver the project as envisaged. I take the opportunity to repeat what I said on 20 February, namely, that whether the midlands export project goes ahead, this country will still need a grid that is fit for purpose. The plans to develop the grid do not have, and never did have, anything to do with the midlands export project. The midlands export project remains a novel one which, if realised, will bring jobs and wealth to Ireland. It does not appear that it can be realised at this time.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and agree with him on one issue, namely, that there has been a great deal of dishonesty surrounding much of the information concerning these projects, not least from those who, at some stage or other, claimed they would bring in 60,000 jobs. This has now been diluted to a projection of 6,000 jobs. Was it not the case that when this policy was devised in 2006, his predecessor, former Minister, Eamon Ryan, said the grid expansion was to facilitate renewables? Therefore, I put it to the Minister that this does have implications for EirGrid. I see nothing categoric in his answer to refute the fact that communities are being left in limbo as to whether these export projects will proceed. It seems they are merely being deferred.

Forgive me, but I must be in the other House in two minutes to deal with the ESB Bill. The midlands wind export project was not even contemplated in 2006. The refurbishment of the grid has nothing to do with the wind export project, which is a separate, stand alone ring-fenced project with a different technology sub-sea DC cable and so on. It would be helpful if there was less agitation based on misrepresentation, especially in the midlands.

Sex Offenders Treatment Programme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, and thank him for coming to the House to respond on this issue on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality.

The issue I wish to raise concerns the treatment of sexual offenders in prisons and communities after release. This issue was brought to my attention again last week when we had the deplorable case of two little girls of six and nine years of age in Westmeath who had been raped. This case highlighted the issue concerning sexual offenders and how we deal with them. I have been in contact with victims' groups here who believe we do not focus our attention on the rehabilitation of offenders. At any given time, there are approximately 300 sexual offenders in our prisons and we release 100 of them each year into our communities.

I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Alan Shatter, has made considerable progress in this area with the introduction of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill 2012, which deals with the mandatory reporting of child abuse, but we need to go further. We need to ensure sexual offenders are properly managed within communities. We should also provide mandatory programmes in prisons as part of the wider approach to managing these offenders. All my comments are based on the need to protect children. This is a child protection issue and children, rather than the offender, should be to the fore in all of our discussions on ensuring offenders do not reoffend.

An increasing body of research shows that simply imprisoning offenders is not effective in reducing the risk of reoffending on release. It has been shown that well designed evidence based rehabilitative approaches in prisons can reduce reoffending rates among sexual offenders. That is the kernel of the issue. I do not believe we will cure sexual offenders, but mandatory programmes while they are in prison are essential, as are rehabilitative programmes on their release into communities.

The act of committing a sexual offence against a child is a heinous crime and the Legislature is morally obliged to protect children against it.

I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. He apologises that he is unavoidably absent for this important issue.

In the management of sex offenders the focus of the work is multifaceted and involves both the assessment of the risk of reoffending and the monitoring of compliance with relevant court supervision orders. While in prison, a convicted sex offender can avail of relevant treatment to address his or her offending behaviour. The treatment of sex offenders is centred in Arbour Hill Prison where the Building Better Lives programme is undertaken. The programme comprises group interventions in three modules and allows responsive and flexible delivery of rehabilitation services which take account of individual risk, needs and capacity. The Baseline project is a joint initiative between the northside inter-agency project and the Irish Prison Service psychology service which provides group programmes for young offenders with a history of sexually harmful behaviour. It also continues work into the community for those with convictions for sexual offences. The group programmes are rolling programmes with new participants joining and others leaving groups in response to progress.

Not all sex offenders are suited to group programmes and other prison-based therapeutic interventions include one-to-one interventions. Sex offenders also engage with other services to address other related needs such as mental health needs. The Probation Service engages with sex offenders in individual work throughout the course of their sentence. This work primarily focuses on reducing the risk posed by the individual following release and also on any child protection issues which may arise.

Mandatory participation in treatment programmes is a concept that is often mooted which is to some extent understandable. However, mandatory participation in any form of intervention or rehabilitation is not a realistic option. While offenders can be supported and encouraged in their efforts to address their offending behaviour, ultimately experience has shown that successful completion of an intervention programme depends on the willing participation and commitment of appropriately motivated individuals. The challenge, accordingly, is to use a range of channels to motivate and incentivise as many offenders as possible. This includes individual counselling which plays a vital role in the change process.

The Sex Offenders Act 2001 introduced a wide range of measures aimed at reducing the risk to the public from convicted sex offenders. Those measures include notification requirements, often referred to as the sex offenders register, sex offender prohibition orders and post-release supervision. Compliance with these requirements is mandatory and a failure to comply can result in further prosecution for a sex offender. Part 5 of the Act provides for the post-release supervision of a convicted sex offender by the Probation Service. The period of supervision is set by the court and is based on consideration of the offender's rehabilitative needs, as well as the need to protect the public from serious harm. The period of post-release supervision can be subject to additional conditions of counselling or treatment.

Section 99 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 provides that sex offenders can be sentenced to part-suspended sentences. Such sentences involve an offender serving a period in custody followed by a suspended portion in the community. The sentencing judge can impose conditions of Probation Service supervision and treatment to this order. In managing these cases, the Probation Service works closely with the Garda and other partner agencies to ensure the co-operation and compliance by the offender with supervision in the interests of community safety.

The Probation Service co-facilitates Safer Lives, a sex offender treatment programme, in three locations for moderate to high risk offenders and this programme is based on the Building Better Lives programme, a strength-based therapeutic approach. The Probation Service and the Probation Board of Northern Ireland have an all-island approach to working with sex offenders. Both agencies use the same risk assessment tools and undertake joint training. They also have a protocol for the sharing of information on the management of sex offenders.

Much work has been done since 2009 when the detailed discussion document on the management of convicted sex offenders was published on the Department's website. This document, prepared by a high level group involving An Garda Síochána, the Irish Prison Service and the Probation Service, examined the arrangements then in place for the management of sex offenders with a view to strengthening inter-agency co-operation and further enhancing public protection and safety. Its remit included a review of the procedures and legislation relating to the assessment, monitoring and supervision of convicted sex offenders.

I appreciate the opportunity to have outlined for the House, on behalf of the Minister, the structures that are in place. I hope this is helpful in assuring the Senator in that regard and we can all recognise the valuable work being done by the agencies involved to comprehensively manage sex offenders, as well as the issues that arise within prisons and communities.

I would have believed that mandatory participation treatment programmes would have been linked to prison sentences. If an offender refuses to participate in a programme, his or her sentence should be extended. Has there been any research into the outcomes for sex offenders who have participated in such programmes?

As I am not the line Minister, I will make sure the Minister for Justice and Equality will respond directly to the Senator’s questions. The management of sex offenders is taken seriously and the Department undertook a wide-ranging review of the law in December 2013. On foot of this review, the Government recently approved the Minister’s proposals for the drafting of a new sexual offenders Bill. It is priority legislation and is being drafted. It will include measures to put risk assessment on a statutory footing, strengthen the current notification requirements, shorten the period for registration from seven to three days, make it easier to apply for a sex offender order and enhance the application of post-release supervision. It will be published in late March or early April. A joint irish Prison Service and Probation Service working group has been established to review sex offender risk and offence related issues.

Will the Bill be published this month?

We can then have further discussions with the Minister on this important area.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 12 March 2014.