Dáil Éireann - Volume 632 - 27 February, 2007

Adjournment Debate. - Youth Diversion Projects.

  Mr. M. Higgins: I welcome the opportunity of raising this scandalous matter. It is an issue I raised on the Adjournment almost two years ago on Thursday, 23 June 2005. On that occasion, the project in question, a Bris project under the Garda’s youth diversion programme, had just been suspended peremptorily without explanation. Matters have worsened since then. I know I only have five minutes and I am anxious to give the basis for my raising the matter.

The Bris project was located in the deprived Westside area of Galway city. One day gardaí arrived and took the equipment from the project, without explaining why, casting a shadow over the project and the community worker who was running it. After that, an internal inquiry was conducted. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stated he would not publish the results and that it was being examined by the Garda Síochána.

The local organisation, Le Chéile, funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, was sued before a rights commissioner for the difference between the minimum statutory redundancy and what was a reasonable payment to the community worker. The Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform refused to pay up. I raised this issue as recently as yesterday with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Ministers of State, and was told recently that for several weeks the file was on the [805] desk of the Secretary General of the Department. I received a letter suggesting the Department was taking legal opinion as to whether or not it would pay the community worker. I sought legal opinion which stated the Department has a clear duty to pay and should have done so.

The letters that have been sent by the Department in the course of this matter are incredible. A letter dated 18 August 2006 stated:

Dear Deputy,

In the absence of the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, I wish to refer further to your correspondence in relation to Parliamentary Question No. 538 of 6 July 2006.

The Bris project has been the subject of an independent evaluation report. It is not proposed to publish this report. The report is currently being examined by the Garda Authorities and will be forwarded to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform together with recommendations.

Until the Minister has received and examined the final report and recommendations of the Garda authorities, it would be inappropriate for him to comment further.

The reason for ending the project has not been explained and shadows have been left hanging over it. In addition, a report was commissioned almost two years ago and it has been suggested that report will not be published. Furthermore, an evaluation was to be carried out and a tender process established for a replacement project.

Cutting to the chase, this project involved the VEC and voluntary workers and involved organising a football tournament, all of which was suddenly ended without explanation. It was initially suggested that another group might take over from the group originally engaged by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

It is interesting and most shameful that after Ms Janet Hughes, the rights commissioner, had given an award to John Middleton, the former community worker, the Garda Síochána wrote to say it had no responsibility in this matter as it was not the employer, pointing out that it was a matter for the agency, Le Chéile. The Garda Síochána sought to wash its hands of the matter. Le Chéile wrote to the union who represented Mr. Middleton stating:

Further to our telephone conversation, I am writing to confirm that Le Chéile Westside Limited has referred the recommendation of the rights commissioner, Janet Hughes, in this matter to the Department of Justice through Galway Gardaí.

As you are aware, Le Chéile facilitated the Department by putting Mr. Middleton on its payroll to keep PAYE and PRSI in order but at all times the Gardaí controlled the finances. [806] Le Chéile is a voluntary community group with no assets.

I trust this clarifies the situation for you.

The Department and the Minister have left the project unfunded, the people of the Westside without a project, the community worker without satisfaction and now refuse to pay an award made against them by a rights commissioner. What a shameful performance by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

  Mr. Fahey: I thank Deputy Michael D. Higgins for raising this issue on the Adjournment.

Garda youth diversion projects are a vital and integral part of our youth justice system and operate as community-based, multi-agency crime prevention initiatives. They seek to divert young people from becoming involved, or further involved, in anti-social or criminal behaviour. The projects provide activities to facilitate personal development, promote civic responsibility and improve the prospects of employment for the participants. Apart from the direct benefits to the participants, the projects also contribute to improving the quality of life within communities and enhancing the relationship between the Garda Síochána and local communities.

The projects are funded by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Their overall administration is the responsibility of the community relations section of the Garda Síochána. The individual projects are run by a number of service providers which directly employ the project co-ordinator and are responsible for programming, staffing and day-to-day operation of their project.

The projects are established by the Garda Síochána, following a process of consultation with local community interests and youth service providers, in response to local crime problems. They have the objective of giving local communities some degree of ownership of a solution to the problems facing their areas. The management committees, therefore, seek to represent the various interests involved, including the community. Participation in the projects is voluntary.

Guidelines for the operation of the projects deal with their establishment, their ongoing operation, setting up of management structures, administration procedures, financial controls and accountability mechanisms, and the monitoring and evaluation process and must be adhered to in all cases.

Since 1991 when they were first established, the number of projects has grown to 84, with the announcement of ten new projects on 4 January. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform is committed to the development and expansion of the diversion programme and has [807] set a target of 100 projects by the end of this year. A demonstration of the commitment of this Government to the diversion projects is the fact that the total amount of funding for them in 2007 is €9.8 million. This represents an increase of 48% over funding allocated to the projects in 2006. This funding is part of an overall funding of €120 million which has been secured under the National Development Plan 2007-2013 for the development and expansion of the diversion programme. This funding will allow for the expansion of the number of projects to 130 during the lifetime of the plan.

Alongside the expansion process, a system of evaluation will be developed and implemented by the youth justice service of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, to measure the effectiveness of the programme. The remit of the service is the management and development of all services relating to young people who offend.

Turning to the specific issue that is the subject of the Deputy’s request, it is important to outline some of the history of the project in question. The project was established on 14 May 2001. The voluntary organisation referred to by the Deputy agreed to become the employer of the project staff. As such, it was responsible for all issues regarding contract of employment, salary and supervisory management.

  Mr. M. Higgins: I quoted Le Chéile stating that the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform controlled the finances at all stages.

  Mr. Fahey: The activities of the project were overseen by a committee comprising representatives of the employing organisation, the Garda Síochána, Galway City Council, local clergy and the local VEC. The individual to whom the Deputy refers was employed by the voluntary organisation as project co-ordinator.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform was informed by the Garda authorities that the employing organisation had written to them on 25 April 2005 stating that, as a result of a number of operational and staffing difficulties which they detailed, they effectively had to withdraw from the project. The project was terminated on 31 May 2005. It was the understanding of the Garda authorities that the project co-ordinator had been offered a severance package by the employing organisation.

  Mr. M. Higgins: Which, of course, he was not.

  Mr. Fahey: The Minister further understands that, following the termination of the project, the former project co-ordinator raised the amount of the redundancy sum paid to him by the employing organisation with the Labour Relations Commission and the matter was heard [808] by the rights commissioner in February 2006. It is important to point out that the Minister, the Department and the Garda authorities were not parties to this hearing. A copy of the determination of the rights commissioner had not been forwarded to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform or to the Garda Síochána at that time.

  Mr. J. Higgins: I have respect for the Minister of State but I doubt this. It was available if the Minister wanted to consult the ruling.

  Mr. Fahey: Upon becoming aware of this determination, a copy of it was sought and was received in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in late June 2006. That determination recommended that the former project co-ordinator receive a redundancy payment above the statutory redundancy payment he received from the employing agency. The recommendation clearly stated that this payment should be made by the employing agency itself.

The Minister is unaware of what, if any, correspondence or dealings the former co-ordinator has had since then with the employing agency to secure this enhanced redundancy payment but it is apparent from representations made on behalf of the former co-ordinator that, to date, no such payment has been made.

The Minister obtained preliminary legal advice on this matter today to which he will give his urgent consideration and he will keep the Deputy informed of any developments in this regard.

  Mr. M. Higgins: It has taken two years so far.

  Mr. Fahey: The value of these projects to the participants and the local community is without question. The Minister has recently received the recommendation of the Garda Commissioner about the need for a new project in the area. The Minister, in conjunction with the Garda Commissioner, will consider the establishment of an alternative project in the Galway area as part of the next phase of expansion of the projects. This is due to be announced within the next two months.

I concur with Deputy Higgins that a project is required in the area. I am anxious that we secure approval to commence a new project in Westside and would be delighted to have the Deputy’s co-operation in the establishment of this project.