Statement by Minister Cowen on motion on Emigration, Dáil Éireann (Part I)
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A Cheann Chomhairle,
I move the amendment to this Motion.
I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this important and sensitive question. Emigration is always a deeply emotive subject, touching as it does, at one time or another, almost every family in the country. Ireland occupies a remarkable place in world emigration terms in that, in recent centuries, very large numbers of our people have emigrated relative to our overall population. It is estimated that, of the 3 million or so Irish citizens abroad, almost 1.2 million were born in Ireland, the equivalent of approximately 30% of the present population.
We must, however, look at the subject of emigration in its proper context.
In statistical terms, the number of people emigrating from Ireland has declined very substantially in recent years. In the past fifty years, there were two periods of substantial emigration, in the 1950s and the 1980s, due mainly to difficult economic and social conditions in Ireland. In the 1950s, the average outflow was 40,000 a year and in the late 1980s the figure was 27,000.
However, as a result of increasing levels of prosperity in more recent times, those days are behind us. While there still some 20,000 people emigrating every year, many of these are young people who are taking a year off to see the world before they return to Ireland to settle down. And, of course there is now net inward migration as a result of the large numbers of people coming here from abroad in recent years, many of them returning emigrants.
We should also look behind the statistics and examine the experience of those who have emigrated. Most of them have created very good lives for themselves and their children and have integrated well into their adopted countries. They have made significant contributions to those countries as well as promoting a positive image of Ireland abroad. We can be proud of their achievements. This was acknowledged by the Task Force in their Report. They argued that emigration should be seen in a more positive light, as part of the process of constructive engagement which has characterised Ireland's interaction with other countries for centuries.
We should therefore view the emigrant experience in this wider context and not automatically see it through a prism of failure, as some commentators on occasion choose to do. Many of our emigrants have maintained the strongest links with Ireland. This has benefited the country greatly, most importantly in the past through remittances sent home. But Irish emigrants, and in particular their descendants, have also over the years made a distinctive contribution to the development of Irish economic interests. The establishment of the Ireland- America Economic Advisory Board is a particularly good example of this. More recently, the acquisition of valuable skills by emigrants who subsequently returned home to live and work here has greatly benefited the modernisation of our economy.
I recognise that the experience of emigration has not been a success for everyone. We cannot but be moved by the plight of those people who gave up so much for their families at home and for their country and who now suffer health and other problems. Even today, some of our emigrants are vulnerable people who are at risk of exclusion and marginalisation and who are unable to manage abroad without special support.
We should not forget also that the primary responsibility for the provision of the proper care and protection for vulnerable people in any society rests with the statutory authorities in those countries. We need to forge a partnership approach, which harnesses the resources and commitment of this Government, of the governments of the host countries and of the voluntary agencies, to provide the best possible support for those of our emigrants who require it.
The Government have for many years been providing financial assistance to voluntary Irish agencies in Britain, the United States and Australia which have been offering welfare services for vulnerable people. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many Irish people abroad who have established and maintained these agencies and who have done so much to help the less fortunate of their fellow citizens. They have worked tirelessly and selflessly and deserve our heartfelt thanks and appreciation.
In 1984, the then Minister for Labour (Deputy Ruairi Quinn) established the Díon Fund for the provision of assistance to voluntary Irish agencies in Britain. A total of over €18 million has been disbursed from the Díon Fund since it was established. Since the early 1990s, assistance has been provided by my Department to voluntary agencies in the United States. Almost €4 million has been allocated to services for Irish emigrants in the U.S. since then.
I want to emphasise at this stage that the particular problems of elderly and isolated Irish emigrants in Britain have received special consideration and will be a higher priority for us. The Díon Committee takes particular account of this in the allocation of grants to voluntary Irish organisations in Britain which cater to the needs of elderly members of the Irish community.
Over half the Díon Fund - €1.3 million approximately - went to vulnerable groups last year - €873,000 for projects for the elderly, €119,000 for repatriation projects and €332,000 for traveller projects.
In the 1980s we worked closely with our friends in the U.S. Congress, notably Congressmen Morrisson and Donnelly who were spearheading efforts to help the undocumented Irish in the U.S. Those efforts brought substantial benefits but did not entirely solve the problem and there continues to be an unknown number of undocumented Irish in the U.S. I welcome the recent initiative announced by President Bush to try and regularise the situation of the undocumented in the United States by the introduction of a new temporary work permit scheme.
The President's proposals will have to be approved by the U.S. Congress and it is too early to say what amendments may be made in the course of their passage through the Congress. Nevertheless, I believe that this initiative represents an important first step in addressing the situation of undocumented foreign workers in a pragmatic and compassionate way.
I do not claim that everything we did was a sufficient response. On the contrary, it was precisely because the Government recognised that more should be done that it agreed, after consultation with the Social Partners, to establish the Task Force on Policy regarding Emigrants.
The background to this was the Harvey Report, commissioned by the Irish Episcopal Commission for Emigrants and the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas in 1999. That Report assessed the current pattern of Irish emigration; reviewed the policy responses and services provided by the Government, the Catholic Church and other voluntary agencies; and set out the main policy challenges that would arise over the ten year period ahead. It concluded that there was a need for a Government commitment to a partnership approach to the subject of emigration and the development of a coherent and effective policy, funding and service infrastructure and recommended the establishment of a Task Force. As a result of discussions leading to the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness, it was agreed that a Task Force on Emigration should be established.
The principal purpose of the Task Force was to advise on the development of a coherent long-term policy approach to meeting the needs of our emigrants. As Minister for Foreign Affairs I instructed that the Task Force be established and it held its first meeting in December 2001.
The Task Force meet on 9 occasions and invited a number of specialists to make presentations to them. They also sought and received a wide range of submissions from members of the public and interested organisations at home and abroad. Members of the Task Force travelled to Britain, United States and Australia and meet with a wide range of individuals and groups, as well as public representatives with an interest in Irish affairs. The Task Force also commissioned a Research Study to review existing statistical data and literature on Irish emigration in the countries that are or have been the main destinations for Irish emigrants. This study provided much useful information which assisted the Task Force in forming its conclusions and recommendations.
I asked the Task Force to look at all aspects of emigration including pre-departure services for emigrants before they go abroad; services for emigrants after they leave the country; and services to returning emigrants who wished to come back to Ireland. I also asked them to pay particular attention to the needs of young and disadvantaged emigrants, who are at greatest risk of social exclusion and marginalisation when they go abroad, and to the needs of returning emigrants, especially the vulnerable and the elderly. I stressed that what I wanted was a set of pragmatic and practical proposals that would enable concrete improvements to be made over time.
I did not set any limits on the ambition of the Task Force. I gave them a completely free hand to make whatever recommendations they considered appropriate. I believe that they produced an excellent Report and I want to commend them, and in particular their chairman, Mr. Paddy O'Hanlon, for the extraordinarily high level of their contributions and for the speed and efficiency with which they completed their work.
The Report of the Task Force sets the phenomenon of emigration in a modern and forward-looking context. It recognises the achievements of our emigrants and acknowledges their needs. It provides a template for the future that will guide us in trying to meet the needs of the Irish abroad.
I welcomed the Report of the Task Force when it was published in late 2002. This was after the Estimates had been agreed for 2003, therefore it couldn't be taken into account at that stage. I also made clear that the Report contained many wide-ranging and far-reaching proposals and that their implementation would have to be phased over a period of years. I did not believe then, and this remains my view, that it would be possible to implement all of the recommendations at once, even if the level of resources advocated by the Task Force could be provided.
On receiving the Task Force Report, I established an Interdepartmental working group to examine its recommendations and to report back to me.
I received the working group's report before Christmas. Overall, the Task Force made 71 recommendations, some of which overlap somewhat and fall within the remit of a number of Government Departments. I have asked all relevant Government Departments to examine those recommendations to see what progress may already have been made in advancing them, and what further measures might be taken in the short to medium term to do so. Overall, I estimate that action is underway on over 50 of the 71 recommendations.
In particular also, my Department has taken over responsibility for the Díon Fund from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment last year, to give effect to one of the Task Force's recommendations - that the funding for emigrant services abroad should be brought together under the Department of Foreign Affairs.
I was pleased to be able to announce in December that I had secured an additional €1 million in the Vote for the Department of Foreign Affairs for services to emigrants in 2004. This brings the overall expenditure on emigrant services this year to just over €4 million, an increase of one-third on 2003. I hope to be able to find some additional funds through savings in my Department's Vote later in the year. This will enable me to increase this amount even further.
I intend to allocate the bulk of the additional €1 million to the Díon Fund. There is no doubt that Britain is the country with the largest concentration of vulnerable Irish emigrants. Accordingly, I am pleased to announce that a total of €3.57 million will be allocated to the Díon Fund this year. This represents an increase of 30% over the total expended in 2003. It is a significant increase, but I am determined we can and will do better as quickly as possible.
I have also asked that the Díon Committee give priority, in allocating their grants this year, to areas highlighted by the Task Force. I have in mind in particular support for the elderly. I also want to ensure that voluntary Irish agencies are in a position to increase their own capacity to access funding from other sources as well as to improve the effectiveness of their services. Such leverage is obviously of critical importance. In pursuit of this, I allocated an additional €150,000, from savings to the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain to enable them to launch a major five-year capacity-building project. This is crucial if the Federation and its affiliated bodies are going to secure greater access to statutory and voluntary sources of funds in Britain.
I believe that these issues should also be addressed in the wider East-West context between Britain and Ireland. Ministers who take part in discussions with their British counterparts under this umbrella are and should be aware of this dimension. The same applies to Ministerial contacts with other countries where there are large Irish populations.
I should say in passing that it is not the case, as the Labour Party Motion suggests, that the funding for emigrant services in Britain was cut by 5% last year. In fact, the total amount allocated for 2003 was €2.748 million which represented a slight increase on 2002. Funding for emigrant services in Britain, primarily through the Díon Fund will have increased from €592,000 in 1999 to €3.57 million in 2004. This is close to an overall increase of €3 million during that short period. By any standards, however critical, this is a significant achievement.
These figures contrast with Díon funding by the Rainbow Government. The total amount for the three years, (1995, 1996 and 1997) came to just over €2 million. This years allocation alone is double the amount allocated during the 3 years of the Rainbow Government.
In the case of the United States, I propose to allocate a total of €400,000 in 2004, representing an increase of 33% on last year. I also propose to increase the funding to Australia to €48,000, an increase of 25% on 2003.
As in the case of the Díon Fund, I am proposing that, as the circumstances of the emigrant community in each of the countries dictate, a proportion of these increases should be reserved for projects that would give effect to priorities identified by the Task Force. These include capacity-building, assistance for elderly and returning emigrants, and projects to promote more effective networking and information sharing between the voluntary agencies abroad.
I am also determined to help the voluntary agencies in Ireland that provide assistance to intending and returning emigrants to improve the services they offer. To this end, I propose to provide a grant to ÉAN, the umbrella body for Irish voluntary agencies providing services to emigrants, to assist them to provide more effective support to their members. This, I believe, will help to increase the effectiveness of these agencies and will promote greater communication and coordination between voluntary agencies at home and abroad. Top