I propose to take Questions Nos. 1063 and 1070 together.
Addressing the issue of social inclusion and isolation in communities is central to many of my Department’s policies and funding programmes which deliver targeted supports to benefit vulnerable individuals. Policy in my Department is informed, during its development, by extensive consultation with a wide range of stakeholders including Government Departments, State Agencies, rural stakeholder groups, young people and the wider public.
This engagement process has been important in identifying areas relevant to the work of the Department where interventions such as supports or funding are required and the most appropriate remedial or proactive measures that can be taken in response. The policies and programmes developed to address isolation and promote social inclusion include the following:
The Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP) is Ireland’s primary social inclusion funding intervention, delivered locally by Local Development Companies (LDCs) to help those in the greatest need access supports to enable participation in communities. SICAP workers have extensive local connections and in-depth knowledge of available resources and supports and are continuing to work to ensure the emerging needs of their localities are responded to.
- Local Development Companies (LDCs) have put in place various measures to ensure SICAP supports continue to be delivered and that vulnerable people continue to be supported throughout the COVID-19 crises, examples as follows:
- Online supports are delivered via telephone, email, Zoom, etc., with LDCs providing additional support to individuals with limited access to technology, in the form providing them with laptops/tablets and upskilling them in their usage.
- LDCs that operate a “friendly call” service to elderly people saw an increase in demand for the service with some LDCs mobilizing local community groups to become involved in making regular contact with older, vulnerable isolated people during the COVID-19 crises.
- LDCs supported an increase in demand for Meals on Wheels services and foodbanks, particularly for those not able to travel to shops and those experiencing food poverty.
- Other responses included Pharmacy & Shopping Services; Employment and Self-Employment Supports; Supports to Community Groups; Online Training; Health, Well-Being and Social Prescribing; Mental Health Supports.
- My Department offered every flexibility to the LDCs which freed up SICAP workers to focus on a community response to the crisis. Given their presence in local communities, the LDC response to the crisis was rapid and widespread with many of their 170,000 service users reached in the early days and weeks of the crisis.
- There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on certain communities those already suffering from disadvantage would be more vulnerable to an interruption of services. Measures were put in place to support LDCs who continued to work under the SICAP programme with disadvantaged individuals. My Department offered flexibility to the LDCs to redeploy SICAP staff to work as part of the response to COVID-19. This Programme of flexibility will also continue into 2021 with additional areas of flexibility considered where required. In light of challenges faced by LDCs in engaging with beneficiaries the opportunity to reduce their targets was offered in 2020 and again in 2021.
- Thematic support workshops will be delivered remotely by the Department and Pobal to LDCs in 2021. The purpose of these is to provide a platform to share experiences and learning from new ways of delivering supports during COVID-19.
Isolation of people of all ages is a significant risk during the pandemic, particularly during periods of tight restrictions on movement and social interaction. The Community Call programme was introduced last year to provide local helplines through Local Authorities for practical supports, information sharing and befriending. As part of the “Keep Well” campaign, and in particular, the ‘Staying Connected’ strand, this has been significantly expanded to be proactive with outreach to potentially isolated persons, as the main aim. My Department is represented on the oversight committee for this initiative.
Physical and social isolation can have a significant impact on people living in rural areas. My Department is finalising a new rural development policy for the next five years, which will build on the progress achieved through the Action Plan for Rural Development, which concluded in 2019. The policy will seek to strengthen and build resilience in our rural communities and will identify policy measures for delivery, in order to achieve these objectives.
The National Social Enterprise Policy aims to enable social enterprises increase their social, environmental and economic impact. Many social enterprises are based in rural or isolated areas and provide services to communities that may not otherwise be available. They also operate in our cities and other urban areas, often providing services to disadvantaged communities.
Other key interventions include funding the Seniors Alert Scheme, which enables older people to live securely, with peace of mind, in their homes through the provision of personal monitored alarms, ensuring contact is maintained with those who are vulnerable.
In addition, as part of the Department’s COVID-19 Action Plan, increased support was provided for older people through our funding partnership with ALONE for their crisis telephone support line and follow-on practical supports for those who need it.
Volunteering is also very much at the forefront of initiatives of this nature and the Department will continue to support volunteering both by the provision of funding and other supports, and the implementation of the recently published National Volunteering Strategy.
Broadband Connection Points (BCPs) funding will ensure that remote areas, particularly those that are likely to wait longest for connections, are provided with access to high-speed broadband in their communities while waiting for the National Broadband Plan roll-out to reach them.
The CLÁR programme provides funding for small scale infrastructural projects in rural areas that have suffered significant levels of population decline. In 2020 the programme placed a particular focus on supporting CLÁR communities to deal with the impact of COVID-19 in rural areas through the addition of a new funding measure - Meals on Wheels and Linked Services. This measure was open to established organisations and groups involved in the provision of meals on wheels with linked services. Funding of €340,000 was announced on 20th November 2020 for 45 projects under this Measure. The programme also supports voluntary organisations who provide transport for service users in rural areas under the Mobility and Cancer Care Measure. On 11th December 2020, funding of almost €1.3 million was announced for 26 organisations under this measure.
The issue of isolation in rural and urban communities cuts across the work of a number of Departments, and this is reflected in ongoing work on community policing, rural transport and social inclusion, among other areas. I will continue to collaborate with my Government colleagues to monitor the adequacy of these supports to address isolation and to work to deliver sustainable outcomes that positively impact the quality of life of those living and working in our communities.