Thursday, 27 May 2021

Questions (3)

Kathleen Funchion


3. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth the actions he is taking to address the shortfall in volunteers in the youth sector given that the sector relies heavily on volunteer hours and that many services are now facing closure due to a serious shortfall in properly trained volunteers. [28589/21]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

This question is on the youth sector. There has been a shortfall in the number of volunteers in the sector. It relies heavily on volunteer hours. Many services are now facing closure due to a serious shortfall of properly trained volunteers.

I cannot overstate the significance and value of the contributions made by volunteers to the community life of our country and to supporting our most vulnerable. In the youth sector, the work of some 40,000 volunteers was key to maintaining the ability of youth work organisations to function effectively prior to the pandemic.

I provided an increase of €5 million in funding for youth services in 2021, bringing the total from my Department to €66.8 million this year. In 2020, I provided once-off funding of more than €1.3 million to assist youth services with Covid and ICT-related costs.

Each year, my Department funds universally focused volunteer-led youth work through the youth service grant scheme. A number of national youth organisations will benefit from over €12 million in funding under this scheme in 2021. This represents a 6% increase on the funding provided in 2020. I really believe the youth work carried out by these volunteer groups is transformative for young people.

In addition, the local youth club grant scheme supports volunteer-led youth work activities at a local level. The funding for this scheme increased by 7% to €2.3 million in 2021. This scheme supports 1,400 clubs or groups nationwide.

I have consistently recognised the significant role the youth sector plays in the lives of young people today and the highly valuable role that volunteers play. Given the strong commitment of our volunteers, I am hopeful that as public health matters improve, more people are vaccinated and youth organisations are better positioned to support volunteers again, we will see volunteers returning.

The Deputy will be aware that youth funding was maintained through the Covid-19 restrictions and many supports were provided. As Ireland's phased reopening progresses, it is of the utmost importance that youth work organisations are supported to restore their volunteer positions. My officials are considering proposals to redistribute some time-related savings in the youth budget to assist services on a once-off basis in this financial year.

I welcome the increase made last year, which everyone in the youth sector also welcomed. The Minister is relatively new in his role. The people in the sector maintain that funding has been significantly reduced since 2008 and they have not seen any increase since then. Much of the money provided is simply to play catch-up and the sector has not yet caught up. I had meetings recently with some of the youth organisations, including the National Youth Council of Ireland and Foróige. The representatives I met made the point that they need acknowledgement of the cuts made over many years and the need for additional funding to play catch-up.

I was surprised to find out that these organisations are struggling to attract volunteers. Given the situation with the pandemic and everything that has happened, it is really important that they are given every help and opportunity. I fully agree that this is an important sector and those involved play a vital role in many aspects of the lives of young people. The work they do often goes unnoticed or under the radar. It is only when a service is gone that people say what an excellent service it was. It is important that we can sustain all these services for young people.

I assure Deputy Funchion that the extraordinary role of this sector does not go unnoticed by me or my Department. We feel passionately about supporting youth services.

The Deputy is right. During the economic crisis, funding was cut back dramatically and this had a major impact. I know we are playing catch-up. This year, I was able to show my good faith and that of my Department by giving a substantial increase in funding. It was more than the organisations involved were looking for. I will do my best in future budgets to continue to increase the amount of funding. I cannot say that will happen at every stage but it is certainly my intention.

Like Deputy Funchion, I have met regularly with the national advocacy groups, individual groups and local groups in my area. I met our local Foróige group only last Friday. There is good engagement between the Department and the sector. I expect the groups in question recognise that as well. We have continued to support them during Covid-19 and we will also support them coming out of Covid-19.

I acknowledge that work has been done. It is about getting a word in for the groups at this stage because budget negotiations are upcoming. I understand the Minister and others acknowledge the work these groups do but it is important that we keep a focus on this.

One thing I love about the various youth groups is the range of activities they undertake. They are involved in sport and many other areas. I speak regularly to representatives of the Young Irish Film Makers programme, for which I am a great advocate. It is an excellent group, which provides a wide range of activities for young people. Some people would be a little lost in their communities if these groups did not offer the activities that are so important for young people. I like that there is a wide range of activities. I know sport is important but these groups do not only focus on that area. This makes their role inclusive and makes it feel as if there is something for everyone. That is important. I would love to see all of that continue. Obviously, the groups are under pressure so any extra money they can get is catch-up money. It is important that we continue that.

We did research with last year, which indicated that those young people who were engaging with youth services during the pandemic did better and their mental health and optimism were increased. I am aware of that and we have the research to prove the impact.

For many of these groups, fundraising, fees and capitation have been badly impacted. Even though we have been putting in more, they have been getting less from other areas. We have a small amount of money that was unspent in the Department for time-related reasons. We are looking to see if we can give, on a once-off basis, a little additional support to some of these groups in recognition of the major role they play. Although it is a once-off arrangement for this year, it is further acknowledgement by me and my Department of the major role these groups play and the importance of supporting them. It is not simply a matter of saying it but of delivering important resources as well.