Charities and Voluntary Organisations: Statements

This extra item on the Order of Business is a very important issue, concerning charitable organisations and their regulation. I refer not only to charitable or voluntary organisations set up to deal with the problems of the Third World but also to community and voluntary organisations here. This important item on the Order of Business was raised by Fianna Fáil. The regulation of charitable organisations is an important issue and I recognise the work they do here and abroad.

I thank our colleagues in Fianna Fáil for raising this matter. As someone who comes from the voluntary sector, I believe it is a very important issue. Charitable organisations have a number of aspects. We must acknowledge the role charitable organisations - a term I do not particularly like because it is probably more correct to call them voluntary organisations - play in the public domain. There is a significant number of charitable organisations which play a very significant role in the delivery of what would be regarded as fundamental social services, be they in health, education, disability or housing. We should sometimes ask ourselves whether some of the services being delivered by the voluntary sector should be delivered by mainstream bodies. It is certainly something which came to a head at the Committee of Public Accounts in the context of the Rehab Group when it became clear that block grants were being given to certain organisations with insufficient scrutiny as to how this money was being disbursed. This gives a significant amount of power to the organisations concerned because, in effect, they can spend Government moneys which, if being spent by a Department, would be subject to far more scrutiny and be far more highly regulated.

I agree that we need to regulate the voluntary sector. In that respect, I welcome the code of governance for the voluntary sector that has become the norm for most fully functioning NGOs. Most organisations which work in the public domain, of which I am aware, adhere to the code of conduct for the voluntary sector. The Government also has a responsibility in respect of funding. Many voluntary organisations front-load their activities and find themselves waiting seven, eight, nine or ten months into the year before they are even advised as to what their funding will be for the year in which they have already expended resources. It is very important to note that voluntary organisations, like other organisations, have staff who have families and who are paying mortgages. The idea of moving to multi-annual funding for voluntary organisations is critical and the Government has gone some way in that respect, which is very welcome.

There are three issues I wish to highlight. What do we expect the voluntary sector to do? Do we expect it to deliver mainstream services or do we expect it to fill gaps which are not filled by Government or the State sector? We must also ask ourselves whether it is fair not to fund voluntary organisations appropriately and to have most voluntary organisations highly dependent on charitable resources and forced to raise most of their money privately. Few charities in this country do not get Government funding in some size, shape or form. Therefore, there is an enormous onus on them to be absolutely clear and transparent as to how those resources are spent. As such, it has taken a very long time for Governments to require the type of governance in the voluntary sector that should be best practice. We need to move the voluntary sector into the 21st century in a number of ways, with governance being chief among them.

I thank the Leader for facilitating this debate. I was taken by surprise when I suggested it be included on the Order of Business and the Leader very graciously allocated us the time for it this evening. The point I was making on the Order of Business was that Christmas, as we all know, is a time of celebration and goodwill for most people but that there are many people who will not benefit from that mood of celebration. I am thinking of families, some of whom do not even have a home they can call their own. Other families are facing eviction because of their mortgage repayments. There are thousands of families who are making ends meet against all the odds with a pittance of an income each week. We see heroic parents who are almost shielding their children from the ravages of poverty and all the disadvantages that go with it. If one puts oneself in the position of vulnerable people at any time of the year but particularly at this time of the year when radio, newspapers and television feature glitter and excitement, one can see that money is required to be able to engage with that. If one puts oneself in the position of people who are barely making ends meet, where does one turn if one needs assistance? I am talking about assistance just to survive - food and heat. One must turn to the charities.

I am very impressed by some charities, particularly the Simon Community. The more I listen to it, the more I engage with it and the more of its work I see, the more I see that it is exceptional. I feel the same about the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. I cannot remember the name of the brother in the charity which provides hot meals for people every day but every time I see him on television, he comes across as an example of what a good Christian should be. The numbers availing of those meals are increasing. One is talking about thousands. When the television cameras go in, we see all the volunteers. There is no sense of charity about it. It is a sense of responding to a community need. We see the volunteers preparing and serving the meals and there is a dignity for the people who come in. We will never have to do this. We are pretty well-off. It is charities like these which are doing the outstanding work.

I look at the young volunteers of the Simon Community who go out on the streets at night trying to find people who have gone off the radar of society. Nobody really knows about them and nobody engages with them. They are just there. If one walks the streets and comes across those people, one wonders how human nature allowed such a thing to develop. These people are human beings and are entitled to dignity in the very same way as the rest of us. We do not know their stories but whenever we hear an individual's story, it is usually about a person who came from a very good home and a very good family but something just went wrong. Something happened that put him or her in that position. When one thinks about it, it could be any of us. When one sees them there, one only thinks of them as a statistic.

The only real, human contact these people have is with volunteers from the Simon Community who go out, talk, engage and bring a hot drink and food to them. These young volunteers do that all the time and one can only believe those people on the street have a slight glimmer of hope left. It beggars belief that anybody can sleep in a doorway on the street at the height of winter. When I requested the opportunity to discuss this matter, it was to acknowledge the work of the charities and to also show support. I presume Senators talk to these people and get messages from them. They will tell Senators of their experience. Where would one get a better survey of an impoverished situation than from those who are dealing with it at the coalface? The volunteers will also talk about their concerns, which are exceptionally serious. They are able to point us, as legislators, in the right direction to do the right thing at the right time and to do it with a degree of generosity.

The other important issue is that of resources which may have been touched on just before I came into the Chamber. My understanding is that most charities depend on voluntary contributions - a few euro here and there. If the money does not come, the services they provide cannot be provided and the recipients of those services are once again ignored and left to one side. As a legislator, I say to all legislators, particularly those at decision-making level, we should engage with those who provide hot meals, visit the homeless on the streets and work with people who are living in homes. It is our duty as legislators. Much can be done through legislation and finance but one has to engage with the people who give the best value for money. The volunteers I know of are young, personable, educated and doing well in life. They have a spirit which says they have done well such that they will give some of their time to the vulnerable who have problems, for whatever reason. They give more than just time and compassion - a sense of camaraderie is created. Surely, if a volunteer gives their services for free, they are the people who should get resources from the State. I would hate to think that hot dinners were no longer available. That is just an example. Who else will provide them?

I am not saying we will set the world on fire here this evening, but I feel for once that this House is ideally suited to discuss this issue. I thank the Leader for making it possible. I would like to think the Simon Community and all such bodies will become aware that we stopped for a moment in the midst of all the work on legislation and all the frenzy and reflected on how lucky we are to have such organisations. It is really part of our heritage and tradition because of our own history to look after people who are not well looked after. Every time I watch television on Christmas Day and see people coming in for a lunch organised by a charity, I see the smiles on the faces of those people and the sense that they are a valuable part of society. They should be considered when we are planning budgets and looking at how to distribute the finances of the State.

I am not making this into a partisan issue because it is not that type of issue. I am talking about the future. We should stop for one moment and acknowledge that we are lucky there are hundreds of people providing this service on a voluntary basis, a service that nobody else is giving. We are giving dignity back to people. We never know when there will be a good outcome. We all know of good stories. Christmas is a giving time; it is a time when somebody came along and helped someone who seemed to be absolutely gone in society. I have read many stories and received many personal letters from people who, because of one act of kindness, got the courage to take the next step and the one after that. Many of the people concerned eventually become part of the charity that helped them by volunteering with it. One never knows where a good deed will lead. It is not right that, when all that good will, voluntary service and commitment exist, they may not have sufficient resources to keep it going or bring it to fruition.

I selected this time of the year because it is an emotional time. It is a time that we all look forward to, for example because people are visiting or returning from other lands. There is that kind of spirit. I hope it continues beyond Christmas and that we might some day seriously consider, when talking about funding, asking the representatives of those charities to come in and meet us here or at an Oireachtas committee. It would be better if they came in here. I would love to hear from the brother I mentioned earlier because he seems like a lovely character. He got the freedom of Dublin City recently and I would love to have him come in and tell us of his experiences. One will find he has no bitterness or recriminations. It would be great to engage with him. I would also love to hear from some of the young people who go out on the street and meet those living rough. They are the people at the coalface and it would be wonderful to create the opportunity here to listen to them. It would be good for Senators, the Seanad and the democratic system because the people coming in would appreciate the fact that we gave them the time and opportunity.

This can only be for the good. It is a first step in the right direction. There is not a single Senator here who does not contribute to the concept of engagement with charities which do such good work. We should not engage with them in a patronising manner but help and support them and enter into a partnership with them in their work in tackling extreme poverty.

I thank the Senator for raising the issue this morning on the Order of Business and acknowledge and thank the Leader for acceding to the request to have a discussion this evening on the role charitable organisations play. It is appropriate at this time of year to acknowledge the huge amount of voluntary work being done by so many people throughout the country who are helping to make a better life for the less fortunate in their communities. It is a time of year when we focus on those who are underprivileged and in need.

The volunteers and organisations that run these charities are working around the clock, 365 days of the year; therefore, it is appropriate to acknowledge the work being done and encourage everybody in the country who can afford a little to give a little more, particularly at this time of year. During the year, when we get all those requests through the post that we sometimes ignore, we should look at the work being done by these organisations and see our way to contributing to their incredible work. In many cases where there is deprivation and poverty, it is not always because there is not sufficient income going into the house from the State but because it is poorly managed. There are also other issues and it is then that organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul step in to make a difference to the lives of the people concerned. I am aware of many situations where people have been given a helping hand that has meant much and turned their lives around.

They, in turn, have made huge contributions to the organisation that helped them and, indeed, to other organisations in the community. I wonder sometimes whether the State becomes too reliant on charitable organisations to run services. That is probably a debate for another day but, in many cases, people's lives would be much the poorer if not for the tremendous work done by these organisations. Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú mentioned the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Simon Community. In my home town, the Simon Community now has a presence and I have visited its volunteers on a number of occasions to witness the difference they are making to people's lives. Other organisations such as COPE are based in Galway as well and they help people with serious housing issues.

The recession of the past number of years has caused added hardship for many people. People who would never have been dependent on charitable organisations have had occasion to look for help and that has not been easy for them, but the discreet way their requests have been handled by the organisations has been important for people to maintain their dignity. I hope, when they get over the crisis, they will turn their lives around again and will experience better times.

I recognise all the good work done by these organisations while also thinking of the tremendous work done by Irish volunteers abroad and the contributions they made to organisations such as Trócaire, Concern and GOAL, which are helping the most deprived people in the world to get the basics in life. Through Irish Aid, the people through their taxes, which are managed by government, are helping them. The significant voluntary contributions we make to those organisations are a major factor in improving the lives of the poorest people in the world. As a people, we are generous. However, a number of scandals unfolded in recent years relating to charities and some people used the difficulties that arose as reason not to give as much as they once did. The improvements made and the tightening of legislation to regulate the charitable sector are critical to restoring people's confidence. There has to be total openness and transparency in how charitable organisations are run. This works well at local level through organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul which manages its finances tightly and exhibits good accountability.

It is probably a matter for another debate, but I wonder sometimes whether too many organisations are fulfilling the same role. Perhaps we should have a debate on the streamlining or merger of some of them. In addition, significant resources are expended on chief executive officers and high powered staff and I wonder whether rationalisation would give a better outcome. Generally, the charitable sector does an amazing job. The volunteers, including those who have been mentioned such as Fr. Kevin in the Peter McVerry Trust and all the Fr. Kevins in other parts of the country, will make a big difference to the lives of many people this Christmas. I encourage everyone to think about this and I encourage those of us who can afford a little more to give a little more this Christmas and make a difference to the lives of those who depend on additional support over and above what the State can afford to give.

I thank Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú for asking for this debate and acknowledge the Leader for facilitating it. All the organisations that have been mentioned such as the Simon Community and the Peter McVerry Trust should be commended for the work they do. I cannot understand how people can motivate themselves on a wet winter's night to go out knocking on doors on behalf of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul to hand over cheques without asking questions while accepting the humanity of those who are in these homes and the poverty in which they may be living. I am particularly struck by centres that take in mothers and children who have been subject to domestic violence. Unfortunately, there are not enough of those facilities.

I would like to focus on the micro-charitable work that is being done. Senators Michael Mullins and Labhrás Ó Murchú have both referred to the volunteers from organisations who go out at night onto the streets. I have had experience of dealing with alcoholics and it is pretty harrowing to see people so dehumanised that all they crave is the next drink and to try to find humanity in oneself to understand that. That is difficult to do with somebody one loves. I cannot understand how young kids volunteering on behalf of these organisations go out every night with soup, sleeping bags and blankets. When I walk down Grafton Street or another street in Dublin and I see somebody curled up in a doorway, I think for one moment, "My God, is that not awful?" and then I turn my head the other way because I am so petrified that one day I could end up there because there is a thin line between what keeps us comfortable in our lives and what drives us over the edge.

Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú eloquently described how when families break down, hopelessness creeps in where once there was happiness and hope. It is difficult to look at a guy lying on a street corner somewhere in a wet sleeping bag, probably after defecating himself, without any hope and with nothing to think of but drink or drugs the following morning. These lovely young volunteers then come along and give them tea and bread.

I compliment the Government parties in so far as they have tried to provide accommodation but, sadly, we need to find a way of giving these people rooms which they can lock overnight and which make them feel secure. Fr. Peter McVerry says every time he speaks to me that many of the young homeless people feel safer on the street than in a hostel. I do not know how to tackle this.

I join colleagues in commending the work being done by these charitable groups. Perhaps Senator Michael Mullins is correct that there are one or two too many and that money going on the salaries of the chief executive officers would be better spent on the ground. That is a debate for another day but, as we approach Christmas, we should remember a few things. The first is the excitement in children's eyes as they walk through shopping centres looking at toys and so on. Can people imagine what it must be like to be the mother or father of children who cannot do this or who, if they can, have nothing to look forward to? I agree with Senators Michael Mullins and Labhrás Ó Murchú that we should, if we can, send a few bob that way over the Christmas. It is not just for Christmas; it will go on forever more.

I thank Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú for raising this matter. I also thank the Leader for allowing the debate. It is important that we give recognition to people who work in voluntary organisations. The great change that has occurred in recessionary times was the swing back to voluntary organisations. It is important as the economy picks up that we do not lose that and that we encourage people as much as possible to make a contribution, either financially or by giving their time. It is easy to give a financial contribution; it is more difficult to give up time, but it is important that we give time because it brings us all back down to ground level to see how the other half of society lives.

An organisation which I assist a little in sourcing funds provides, through 65 volunteers, education services every day for over 45 young people who have dropped out of school. Some of the volunteers are retired teachers who want to give something back. Others are students who are studying for the higher diploma in social science and so on. They give freely of their time to assist the organisation in providing one-to-one education for these 45 young people who otherwise would be out on the streets. Some of them are as young as ten years old and have no real support at home. As I said, my involvement in the group is in the context of sourcing funding. It was set up by the Christian Brothers and, like a number of similar organisations, is now part of the system.

The current health budget is €13.2 billion, of which over €3.25 billion is paid to 2,600 organisations across a wide spectrum of services. All of these organisations, including hospitals such as the Mercy and South Infirmary hospitals in Cork, were set up many years ago on a voluntary basis and are now very much dependent on State funding. It is important that all voluntary organisations are given recognition. As I said, there are 2,600 organisations in operation, each of which was established many years ago on a voluntary basis and has since become part of the system. It is important that they are supported.

It is important in the context of our discussion of this issue that, as stated by Senator Michael Mullins, we ensure, where there is duplication, organisations are encouraged to work together. It is only by working together that we can bring about improvements in service provision. While organisations such as Simon and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have made a huge contribution during the years, particularly in the past six to seven years, it is important that the work being done on a voluntary basis by people involved in sports such as the GAA, soccer, rugby, camogie and basketball is not forgotten. During my time as Lord Mayor I visited one such club one Saturday when there were more than 40 volunteers caring for and training young people in their chosen sport. Another centre that I visited during my time as Lord Mayor which, again, was being supported by volunteers was providing meals for up to 75 people who had no family or other support. It is important that in the run-up to Christmas, particularly on Christmas day, that we all play our part and do not simply adopt the view that it is somebody else's problem. It is important we ensure everyone makes it through Christmas and that we remain mindful of the need for voluntary care after Christmas also.

There has been much talk about our economic recovery. It is important that we do not make the same mistakes made during the boom times and that we realise there are people who find it difficult to address the problems they are experiencing and need support in dealing with them. We should provide that support, where possible. We all have a part to play in that regard, even if only for two or three hours a week. We must all contribute at some stage every week.

I thank Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú for raising this matter. It is important that we have this discussion and that we look to the future in terms of how we will encourage more people to become involved in the voluntary sector, be it through sport, social activities or assisting people who are living on the streets. We need to plan for how we are going to encourage people, particularly young people, to become involved.

I, too, thank Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú for proposing we have this discussion in the Seanad. Seanad Éireann should be about promoting the meitheal, as in the case of the organisation Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú leads which has spread its wings throughout the world. Those involved in the charity and voluntary sector have done likewise. Our missionaries have travelled all over the world, including to the poorest areas. A nun from County Clare initiated the Aborigine revolution in Australia many years ago. The meitheal tradition of Irish people is profound.

The charity sector experienced a difficult period for a couple of years following the worthwhile and important investigation carried out by the Committee of Public Accounts. It is now stronger as a result of that experience. There must be accountability in it and all elements of society, including politics. Last Friday I had the great privilege of officially opening a research centre in the University of Limerick, the SOLA project, which offers modules and training courses to develop excellence in the community, voluntary and charity sectors. Many charities are doing phenomenal work, but they do not necessarily have the required administrative structures, training or expertise to be used to full advantage in the areas in which they are engaged. What the SOLA project has already achieved in this regard is phenomenal. One person has completed a PhD on the Garda vetting process. The recommendations made in that thesis could be used to advise on how the Garda vetting process could be improved to ensure it will achieve what it has set out to achieve from all perspectives, including from that of safety in the community and voluntary sectors.

The Charities Act was necessary legislation and I would like to see all elements fully implemented. The principle behind a charities regulator is important. Every €1 collected, whether at a cake sale or in another event, should be properly accounted for because, ultimately, it is money from citizens. The millions of hours spent every week and month by decent Irish people who have huge community spirit in the charities and voluntary sectors have had the profound effect of moving towards the creation of a more equal society. We do not yet have an equal society, but it is at least more equal in that people are no longer experiencing hunger. Those who dedicate themselves 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year in and year out, to these sectors are the unsung heroes of the country.

Some do an hour or a day a week, while others operate on a full-time basis. Thousands of fit and healthy retired people are working on a voluntary basis in our charities every week. The meals on wheels service which started in Dublin but which has spread right across the country delivers hot meals to older people. These meals are delivered by decent, caring volunteers who seldom look for recognition. They are just happy to know they have an impact on the lives of others.

As part of the Oireachtas and as we celebrate the decade of commemorations and approach the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising 1916, the Seanad has a role to play. We must partner and support our charities and provide them with a forum for discourse. We have the facility to invite them to the Oireachtas and to engage with and listen to them, let them tell their stories, let them reflect on their experiences and allow us consider how our great state can partner with them in an all-party, non-political way. The Seanad should grasp the opportunity to be involved in these voluntary, community, administrative and cultural areas. Perhaps it will not happen in the lifetime of this Seanad, but it could become a theme for the next term to consider how we can equip, support, engage with and facilitate our charity and voluntary sector.

I commend Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú and all of the Members who cared enough about this issue to come in and speak on it this evening. The topic was not part of our schedule, but there was unanimous agreement that we should have these statements on this extremely important issue.

Tá a fhios agam nach bhfuil mórán ama fágtha againn, ach ba bhreá liom comhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis an Seanadóir Ó Murchú as an ábhar seo a ardú sa Seanad ar maidin. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach go bpléimis é.

It is to Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú's credit that he raised this issue this morning and it is important that we gather and speak on it. Somebody once said that justice alone is never enough to solve the great problems that face mankind. It can be all too fashionable these days to talk and to reduce our public discourse to the language of rights. As important as the issues of equality and people's demands for their rights are, neither justice nor the mere granting of or recognition of rights fulfil our duty to others. Charity often becomes a bad term because it can be portrayed as something patronising or as something that fails to recognise people's rights. In fact, we owe a duty of charity to other people. Charity is but an old word for love. We all know that unless there is love and fraternity between people, we do not have a real society.

It is important that at this time of the year we do not just honour those who are engaged in charitable activities on our behalf but that we step up our individual, personal commitment to involvement with charitable organisations in whatever way possible. In fairness to my colleagues in Leinster House, I believe that politicians, perhaps more than other classes or groups within society, tend to make themselves available to charitable organisations to support their work in different ways.

It is also important to remember that while we have serious problems here at home, people in other countries face far greater difficulties. I think of persecuted minorities from the Middle East and elsewhere who do not have homes this Christmas because they have been driven from them. Christmas has been abolished in some of the places from which they have come. One thinks of people who still suffer from chronic malnutrition, those who are deprived of education and so on. We must maintain our global focus. We are coming out of a difficult recessionary period, but I hope we can recover some of the ground that has been lost in terms of Ireland's contribution to overseas development aid.

I will conclude by recalling that on Thursday last the Oireachtas human dignity group presented the human dignity award for this year to Mr. Barney Curley, famous for his exploits at the expense of bookies. However, he is a man who has dedicated himself almost completely in the past 20 years to raising money for schools and hospitals in countries in Africa, particularly Zambia. This is due in part to his encounters with Irish missionaries working in those countries. It was interesting that Mr. Curley was reluctant to receive the award. He was eventually persuaded to do so when he realised that it would be one small way of drawing attention to the important projects Direct Aid for Africa, DAFA, the charity he founded, has under way. Indeed, he concluded his words of thanks last Thursday at the celebratory dinner with an exhortation to all present not to forget their neighbour, the person isolated or alone who might be in need of a visit in the coming weeks. That, he said, is what human dignity is all about. It was a fitting comment from a fitting and worthy recipient of the human dignity award.

When is it proposed to sit again?

At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.

The Seanad adjourned at 6.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 9 December 2015.