Statement by Minister Cowen on motion on Emigration, Dáil Éireann (Part II)
I have set out in detail the resources being provided by my Department for services to emigrants this year. However, it would be misleading to conclude that this is the extent of the Government's support for the Irish abroad. Other Government Departments are also providing valuable assistance, particularly in relation to the provision of pre-emigrant information and advice, and assistance to returning emigrants.
The Department of Social and Family Affairs is this year providing €427,000 for the coordination and delivery of pre-departure services and services for returning emigrants. They work closely with the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain and the Coalition of Irish Emigrant Centres in the USA providing support and information to both groups.
Up to 2000, people who had paid Social Insurance contributions prior to 1953 could not use these for calculating entitlement to a Contributory Pension. However, in 2000, the Government introduced a half rate contributory pension for people with pre 1953 contributions who otherwise might not qualify. Roughly 60% of those who qualify under this scheme are people living abroad, mostly in the U.K., who worked in Ireland prior to 1953 and therefore made the necessary qualifying contributions. This means that of the estimated expenditure this year of €132.7 million under this pension scheme, approximately €80 million will go to Irish people living abroad, the majority of whom live in Britain
Another area where work is being done to improve the situation for emigrants relates to pre-departure services. There can be some misconceptions about the nature and purpose of pre-departure services. They are not designed to encourage emigration but rather to equip people with the skills they need to cope with the challenges of living abroad. As an aside, I recall, as Minister for Labour in the early 1990s, setting up an innovative FÁS scheme designed to identify job opportunities for those who intended to work abroad commensurate to their skills. It also sought to encourage those who had not the necessary work skills to acquire them before they travelled. Information packs and a video were distributed to Youth Centres, Citizens and Emigrants Advice Centres and other relevant agencies. Four FÁS job placement officers were based in the offices of the Public Employment Services in Britain, the Netherlands and Germany to identify suitable employment opportunities for Irish applicants for subsequent interview in Ireland. It was unique within the EU at that time to have job placement officials from one EU country operating in another EU country.
The Department of Environment, Heritage, and Local Government has provided a total of €100,000 in grant-in-aid to the Safe Home organisation over the past two years. This funding goes towards the general administrative and running costs involved in carrying out Safe Home's role in relation to the provision of accommodation for elderly returning emigrants. The then Minister of State, Bobby Molloy, also amended the terms of the Voluntary Housing Capital Assistance Scheme in November 2001 which provided up to 25% of accommodation in new projects undertaken by approved voluntary housing bodies throughout the country with assistance under the scheme allocated to elderly emigrants returning to this country who satisfied eligibility criteria drawn up in connection with the Safe Home programme.
Under this Scheme accommodation has been provided for 153 returned emigrants in 82 Units. This scheme permitted, for the first time, applicants for such housing to be assessed abroad rather than, as in the past, being required to have returned and be resident here before even being able to apply for such accommodation here. I believe greater use can be made of this scheme for emigrants who wish to return by increasing liaison between local authorities and voluntary housing groups here and front line services in the UK, including Irish voluntary agencies, who become aware of the conditions of eligible emigrants.
A Cheann Chomhairle
One of the recommendations made by the Task Force which has been highlighted in the Motion before the House is the proposal to establish an Agency for the Irish Abroad, to coordinate the provision of services for Irish emigrants and Irish communities abroad.
I would not exclude the establishment of such an agency in the future. However, it has always been my view that the best and most effective way of using scarce funds is through the recognised and experienced voluntary agencies in the front line. They are in the best position to direct these resources to where they can have the greatest effect for those who are most in need. The Task Force itself estimated that the annual cost of such an Agency would be in the region of €2 million. I do not think that many members of this House would thank me if, in the context of a significantly increased budget for support for emigrants of €4 million this year, the majority of it were to be expended on administrative structures at this time.
In my view we need to build up the level of financial support for front line services as a priority. In the meantime, during the course of the year, I intend to establish a dedicated Unit in the Department of Foreign Affairs to work with the voluntary agencies at home and abroad to maximise the impact of our collective efforts. Further consideration can be given to change in administrative structures after we have dealt with the necessary priority work in the first instance.
A Cheann Chomhairle
None of us in this House can claim to have done enough for our emigrants. Indeed, I do not believe we will ever be able to say that we have done enough. But with the Task Force report and the process of actively implementing it, I believe that we have quantifiably changed the nature of our approach. The task ahead is to build on this as quickly as possible. I am determined to focus on priorities such as building the capacities of voluntary organisations, working closely with voluntary agencies and host Governments to assist returning emigrants and those who require special support while they are abroad. For these reasons, I commend to the House the amended Motion tabled by the Government.