Adjournment Debate. - Mayo Rape Crisis Centre.

Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me to raise this matter. The crisis of funding has substantially curtailed, from today, the level and quality of service offered by the professional, trained staff of the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre, located in Castlebar, County Mayo. It services the county and provides telephone support to adjoining counties which have no service at present, namely Roscommon, Leitrim and parts of Donegal.

The centre, which was set up in 1994, received a grant of £15,000 from the Department of Health and was well supported by the community. The volunteer staff had more time at their disposal to undertake voluntary fund-raising activities to the extent that £10,000 was raised in 1994. As the centre was open for only five months that year, it expended a total of £13,000 and, accordingly, had a surplus of funds at the beginning of 1995 when it received £20,000 from the Department of Health, which delegated future responsibility for funding to the Western Health Board that year.

The range of services offered continued to expand in 1995 as did the necessity to engage extra staff to cope with the huge demands placed on the service. Throughout that year, at several meetings with health board officials, the staff of the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre stated that they were conscious of a fall off in voluntary fund-raising, which is normal for any service which has been up and running for a few years, and informed the health board that unless the annual subvention was increased, services would be cut back.

Throughout 1995 the full-time and volunteer staff of the centre could barely keep up with the demand placed on their services. In early 1996, there was a waiting list. Funding of £20,000 was received from the Western Health Board but if the level of service was to meet demand then being experienced, there would also be a shortfall in the region of £20,000.

Because of this financial crisis one part-time paid counsellor, who did ten hours per week was laid off at the end of March. A second counsellor who did 25 hours per week, was laid off yesterday leaving only one counsellor, who up to yesterday did up to 30 hours per week, running the service for a reduced 25 hours per week. In effect, 65 hours service is now reduced to 25 hours paid service per week.

The centre is fortunate in also having three volunteer counsellors with a further three in training at present. However, experience has shown that volunteer counsellors burn out quickly as the work involved demands great commitment. Furthermore, finishing the training of these volunteer counsellors and giving ongoing training will be difficult and, accordingly, skills will not be kept up to date.

Operating from rented premises comprising four rooms and supported by People in Need, the annual overheads amount to approximately £8,000 leaving only £12,000 for salaries. There is so much commitment involved in the provision of such a service as that provided by the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre that volunteers cannot be expected to do it without full-time support staff. There is much talk of caring for children and victims of abuse but the only way to care is to provide a quality service, for which we must pay, which meets the needs and begins the healing. There is a growing awareness of rape and sexual abuse and people have begun to look for help. They have no place to go in County Mayo now or, at best, the service is operating at a third of its 1994 and 1995 levels.

Other rape crisis centres comparable in size of catchment area, such as Tralee, County Kerry, Clonmel, County Tipperary and Waterford City receive £40,000 per year. County Galway, our adjoining neighbour which I admit has a larger population, receives £60,000 per annum. A county the size of County Mayo does not have a service to meet its needs. County Mayo deserves the best — a good counselling service. Why should County Mayo have any less of a service than that provided to any other part of the country?

Are counsellors expected to be highly trained and then expected to provide that service for nothing? As and from today neither present volunteers nor the sole paid counsellor will take any further clients. Some 60 new cases were dealt with in 1995. Accordingly, help in situations of recent rape, support through medical investigation, crisis intervention counselling, support through statement procedures with gardaí and court accompaniment will come to a standstill from 1 May. All school workshops, education and public seminars, public awareness and preventative work in the areas of rape, child sexual abuse, incest and abuse within marriage will be suspended until such time as funding allows.

Voluntary fund-raising keep the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre going with the addition of statutory State support but unfortunately those fund-raising efforts have fallen off as can be expected in any service that is no longer novel. I implore the Minister to look at the situation. I appreciate that he may say it is a matter for the Western Health Board but I ask him to have a look at the overall situation because it is a very valuable service which is now expanding. Those in the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre are sharing their skills with adjoining counties.

,Limerick East): I thank Deputy Hughes for raising this important matter and for giving me the opportunity to reply.

The awareness of rape and sexual abuse in our society has increased in recent years. The trauma of rape and sexual abuse and the need to support the victims through the provision of adequate facilities has underpinned my Department's policy in relation to the development of services for the victims. The role of the rape crisis centres is an issue which must be looked at in the context of this policy.

There are 14 rape crisis and sexual abuse counselling centres in Ireland. Services provided by these centres include counselling for adult victims of child sexual abuse, crisis services for all rape victims and education and training for volunteer counsellors. There has been an increasing recognition in the health services of the complementary role of the work of the rape crisis centres with that of the statutory health services in providing a comprehensive service to victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Prior to 1991, funding for rape crisis centres came from a number of sources, with funding being uncertain from year to year. The unsatisfactory nature of these arrangements was recognised and following a Government decision in July 1991 funding for the centres was channelled through the health boards from my Department's allocation of discretionary national lottery funding. The Second Commission on the Status of Women in its report published in 1993 recommended that existing rape crisis centres be given secure multi-annual funding on a contractual basis such as health boards already provide to voluntary bodies for some community and family planning services; that where a regional rape crisis centre did not exist the health boards in question should establish one staffed by persons with appropriate expertise; and that all rape crisis centres and health boards should maintain regular close liaison with a view to implementing the most appropriate and sympathetic policies for the victims of sexual assault. It was also important that rape crisis centres should network with each other.

In 1994 funding to the rape crisis and counselling services was provided from the Department's allocation of discretionary national lottery funding. The total amount allocated in 1994 was approximately £670,000. In 1995 I made £907,000 available to the centres nation-wide, an increase of £250,000 or 38 per cent on the level of funding provided in 1994. Part of this funding was in line with a recommendation of the Second Commission on the Status of Women to assist with the establishment, where none existed, of centres in some health board areas. I am pleased to say that this level of funding has been maintained in 1996 with an appropriate adjustment for inflation. Arrangements were also put in place to ensure that secure funding, in line with the recommendation of the Second Commission on the Status of Women, would be available to the centres on an annual basis through the health boards. I have said that by way of background to put the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre in context.

I understand that the Western Health Board, which is responsible for the delivery of health services in its functional area, made statutory funding to the amount of £20,000 available to the Mayo Rape Crisis Centre this year towards the provision of its services. It is perhaps worth pointing out that the board has also supported the centre by addressing a serious accommodation problem which it had encountered. This I believe is an indication of the good working relationship which exists between the two bodies. The centre has, I understand, recently applied to the board for funding totalling approximately £48,836 in the current year. The board is in discussion with representatives of the centre regarding this application and has asked the centre to provide it with additional information to enable it fully to consider the application. I am confident that when this information is provided the centre and the board will reach an agreement on the appropriate level of funding necessary for the centre to continue its service.