Tuesday, 19 October 2004

Questions (19)

Jerry Cowley

Question:

160 Dr. Cowley asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the progress made to date on the implementation of the recommendations made in the task force on policy regarding Emigrants Ireland and the Irish Abroad document; the recommendations on which progress has already been made; if he intends to make progress on recommendation 515, namely, the opportunity for EU citizens, particularly Irish pensioners who are residing abroad, to have free travel on the holidays here, especially in view of the Good Friday Agreement, Article 2 of the Constitution and the facility afforded under this Agreement for reciprocal travel arrangements, particularly for persons with pre-1953 pensions who are already in the Irish system; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25485/04]

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Oral answers (3 contributions) (Question to Minister for Foreign)

The report of the task force on policy regarding emigrants is being implemented progressively. As my predecessor noted in welcoming the report, it contained many detailed recommendations that are wide-ranging and whose implementation can only come about on a phased basis over several years.

Already there has been considerable progress, with action initiated on a large number of the recommendations. I am particularly pleased to say that a dedicated unit, the Irish abroad unit, has now been established within the Department of Foreign Affairs and is fully functioning. The unit is charged with co-ordinating the provision of assistance to our emigrants and advancing effective and coherent strategies in that important area of national policy. The officials assigned to the unit are working in close consultation with Departments and voluntary agencies engaged in the delivery of services to emigrants. Since it became operational, members of the unit have already had productive meetings with a range of voluntary agencies that provide front-line support to our emigrants in both the United States and Britain. I am convinced the unit will ensure that our emigrants have an effective channel of communication to the Government and that our response to their needs will become quickly and progressively more focused and effective.

Key recommendations of the task force called for a strategic and integrated approach to meeting the needs of the Irish abroad under three headings: pre-departure services intended to ensure, as far as possible, that people who emigrate do so voluntarily and on the basis of informed choice, and are properly prepared to live independently in a different society; services to Irish people abroad, particularly those who have emigrated involuntarily and find themselves vulnerable or at risk of social exclusion; and services to returning emigrants, especially the reintegration into Irish society of elderly emigrants who wish to come home.

I am happy to report that progress is being made in all three of those key areas. The Department of Social and Family Affairs actively supports organisations that provide pre-departure services and services to returning emigrants. This year, for instance, it has provided grants to ÉAN, the umbrella group that provides support for emigration and return migration information providers, and to Emigrant Advice.

Additional information

My Department will also grant €50,000 towards a conference organised by ÉAN to take place at the end of November.

As regards funding, my predecessor announced in July an additional €1 million, on top of the significant increase in funding already provided for emigrant services in 2004, bringing the total to some €5 million. That money will be disbursed before the end of the year, the bulk of it going directly to front-line service providers in Britain. The DION committee, which considers applications for funding in Britain, has also been asked to give a higher priority to providing assistance to older Irish emigrants in Britain who may wish to return to Ireland. To date, €1.2 million has been allocated to services for the elderly Irish in Britain. In addition, €182,000 has been allocated to projects aimed at assisting people who wish to return home to Ireland.

With regard to the recommendation on free travel within Ireland for our pensioners living abroad, this is a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Social and Family Affairs, who set out the position in reply to a question on 6 October.

The Deputy can be assured that the Government's commitment in the entire area is strong, growing and long-term.

I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him every success.

I hope, though I am not sure, that in his reply the Minister mentioned the emigrants in Britain who have done such great work for us. However, I will not go into that. Perhaps the Minister might address recommendation 515 of the task force report on travel, which was mentioned in the question. He said that, for many elderly Irish, the issue is not simply one of free travel, since they are not being given their due recognition as full citizens of their own country. The task force recommended that measures be introduced as a matter of urgency to enable Irish pensioners living overseas to enjoy free travel on public transport when they visit Ireland from abroad. It is usual to say that it is too difficult to do this, and that the privilege would have to be afforded to every other EU citizen if it were not to be discriminatory. The point I made was that people in receipt of their pre-1953 pension are already in the system, having been assessed. For them to be recognised as a special group and given free travel does not mean that such travel must be given to all older people in the EU.

The London-Irish Elders Forum has campaigned for many years for free travel for Irish pensioners when they come home to Ireland. I attended a meeting of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body yesterday and the Home Secretary, Mr. Murphy, made much of the common travel area between Ireland and the UK. The only recognition in law of this area was in the Amsterdam treaty, from which Ireland sought a derogation. Neither Ireland nor England incorporated the Schengen Agreement because of the common travel area arrangements. Will the Minister consider the matter? Does he agree that a successful legal challenge could be brought by an Irish pensioner in Britain asserting that the denial of travel concessions discriminates against and could be a breach of an Irish citizen's constitutional rights?

I thank the Deputy for his kind remarks. I have some knowledge of this matter as a result of my five years as Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs and during my tenure in that Department I sought to see if we could give some help to Irish pensioners returning to Ireland and wishing to avail of free travel. The Deputy may say this is the usual bureaucratic response but it was not possible to take action unless there was an EU-wide agreement to such free travel. That is true regardless of who stands on what side of the House. I recall that when Deputy John Bruton was Taoiseach, and afterwards, he was to the fore in promoting the concerns of Irish emigrants, particularly those in the UK.

Some three or four years ago, while Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, I introduced the pre-1953 pension, for which €72 million has been awarded this year. Some 77% of that figure, €56 million, is being spent on Irish emigrant pensioners who had the pre-1953 stamps. That is one of the best responses ever to Irish emigrants. The free transport issue for Irish pensioner emigrants is difficult and we would love to find a solution. I welcome the moves regarding free transport North and South for pensioners but the other issue is larger.