Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Questions (9)

James Browne


9. Deputy James Browne asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the actions he will take to combat rural and urban isolation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2918/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Rural)

What actions will the Minister take to combat rural and urban isolation? Will he make a statement on the matter?

Addressing the issue of isolation in rural and urban areas requires a combination of policy initiatives and actions to improve both economic development and to address gaps in meeting social needs in these areas. Many of the initiatives form part of the Government’s published Action Plan for Rural Development and framework policy for local and community development which include a range of measures which will contribute significantly to addressing isolation and social inclusion in communities. As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I will continue to advocate for a cross-Government approach to ensuring the rural and community voice is heard in matters of policy. My Department is committed to the successful delivery of a number of programmes which provide financial and other supports for organisations throughout the country to assist in combating rural and urban isolation. They include the seniors alert scheme, the social inclusion and community activation programme, the LEADER programme and the community services programme. In addition, groups can input into the policy-making process through the local structures established by my Department, the public participation networks and local community development committees.

On volunteering, the call for an input paper is a first step in developing a new national volunteering strategy. We want to hear from stakeholders as we draft the new strategy and there will be further opportunities to have an input via public consultation later in the process.

I have raised the issue of isolation in rural and urban settings which is closely linked with loneliness. Since I became my party's spokesperson on mental health and engaged on various issues, there has been one issue that has consistently exacerbated any mental health issue and that is loneliness which results largely from isolation and affects both physical and mental health. Whether in the urban centres of Gorey, Wexford, Enniscorthy and New Ross and the surrounding rural areas or Dublin city or Cork where I meet various groups, isolation is consistently raised as an issue when discussing loneliness and its effect on mental health. There is much we could do. Many of the traditional structures that helped to prevent isolation and loneliness are no more. The State could do a lot to develop new structures where people could meet, interact and engage to combat this epidemic.

The Deputy is correct. It is why some of the schemes in my Department such as the seniors alert scheme have worked very well. In 2018 we spent €6.984 million in supporting 19,000 new participants. There is a new initiative which I will introduce and for which I would like to receive the Deputy's support and that of everybody else in the House.

It is the national community weekend event we intend to run in May. We have announced some details, but we will have a national launch shortly. We will try to get communities to host events to allow people to get to know their neighbours to reduce isolation which is one of the issues at which we are looking. There are many people who would be prepared to visit on a voluntary basis neighbours, friends and others who need visitors. The scheme commenced in September and will shortly be the subject of a national launch during the weekend event in May. I hope it will encourage people to get to know their neighbours.

I note our other schemes. We have provided for investment of €190 million under SICAP between 2018 and 2022. To date, over 25,000 individuals have received assistance. The men's shed movement is working in that regard also. Another scheme people do not consider in the context of rural isolation is the local improvement scheme, under which funding is available to help people to get into and out of their homes.

Supports must be provided for voluntary and community groups in both urban and rural settings, in particular, the groups that are already active. Some villages are strong in that regard, but they tend to be the ones with schools and shops. There are many small villages in rural Ireland that do not have that centre and we must find ways to encourage greater interconnectivity in them. Obviously, people with disabilities and older people are vulnerable, but there are many young and healthy people, in particular, farmers, who are being isolated also. The creamery man collects milk without talking to the farmer, while the postman leaves post in a little green box at the bottom of a lane. Farmers can go days without speaking to anyone, which is a serious issue. Equally, there is an issue in urban settings, including large cities. Sometimes the loneliest place someone can be is where he or she is surrounded by people, especially if he or she is elderly. I ask the Minister to do whatever he can to combat this epidemic.

I also have the community services programme which works very well. In 2019, €46 million has been allocated for that programme to support more than 400 organisations to deal with many of the issues raised by the Deputy. We also have social enterprises and voluntary groups targeting disadvantage, albeit sometimes they do not fit in with the schemes I have set out. I am carrying out a review of the community services programme and want to protect its community aspect, in particular. At €46 million, the programme receives very significant funding and the 400 organisations and groups it supports do a tremendous job for their communities. I hope some of them might look at the issue of loneliness raised by the Deputy to determine what they could do to support elderly persons.