I would like to thank you for the invitation to speak with you this morning. This session is primarily about us engaging on the issues which are of most concern for community and voluntary organisations at the moment so I will try to keep these opening remarks relatively short.
I would like to start with a few general comments about how Fianna Fáil sees the role of this sector within Irish society and follow that with more specific comments about some important national issues and also what I believe is the need for a more urgent and comprehensive approach to community development.
Ireland stands out internationally for the breadth and importance of its non-commercial, non-governmental organisations. For many reasons, both historical and practical, the role of these organisations in advocacy and service provision is enormous. I believe it is also very valuable. Membership-based and community-rooted organisations can play an innovative and empowering role which large state organisations often find it difficult to fulfil.
However, while important progress has been made in recent decades, we haven’t yet found the right balance in terms of respecting the distinct nature of NGOs and treating them fairly when it comes particularly to service funding.
The major reforms to overall regulation which were set in train by Pat Carey have been implemented. They are a very important part of ensuring that this is a sector which is seen by the public to operate to high standards. Accountability is not an option and it has been significantly enhanced.
However with this increase in regulation has come a very significant increase in compliance costs. Organisations which are relatively small and which work to reduce administration costs as much as possible are clearly struggling. Throughout the country I have met organisations who say that the time and money necessary to comply with new oversight regulations is having an impact on them. This is something which needs to be addressed.
Probably the best way of doing this would be in the context of a new financial compact between the state and the NGO sector. The first part of this should be an acknowledgement that compliance and administrative costs arise when services are provided. It is common practice in relation to most business contracts or research contracts both here and internationally that along with the direct costs of providing the service there are payments for both the general running of the organisation and compliance. For example, EU research grants provide a fixed-rate payment for non-project overheads and a full-cost reimbursement of audit costs.
I think we need to move away from the ad-hoc and incomplete approach of the moment and have a new funding model which ends the unreasonable position where providing funding for specific purposes to community and voluntary organisations can actually force them to take money away from other activity.
The second part of this new financial compact is that the state needs to stop short changing the voluntary sector and its staff when it comes to pay agreements. The current issue relating to Section 39 organisations in the health sector is one which I have raised repeatedly with government – and as recently as on Tuesday in the Dáil. It simply can’t be right that government can insist on pushing salaries downwards but denies any responsibility to fund increases driven by its own policies.
This is of course primarily about fairness – why should two people with the same qualifications, experience and responsibilities and who are providing a state-funded, public service be paid differently because one is directly employed by the state and the other by a voluntary organisation? The answer is that they shouldn’t. And this isn’t about inflexible or unreasonable relativities – something which has caused serious issues for public pay in the past. It’s the same jobs, operating to the same standards and funded by the same source.
On top of fairness is the issue of sustainability. If the state is to continue working with voluntary organisations to provide services then it has to offer the staff in the voluntary sector a proper reward structure. Pay inequality such as the current policy has produced can only serve to undermine the voluntary sector – and the state itself will be the big loser if this happens.
The final element of a new financial compact needs to be a move towards a more comprehensive multi-annual funding model. This is not about feather-bedding anyone, it’s about proper management and planning.
As has been seen time and again in recent years, the absence of multi-annual budgets linked to credible plans lies at the core of failures to deliver and to the need for supplementary budgets. Where the programmes being funded are needed either permanently or for at least a number of years, the automatic assumption should be that a multi-annual funding model should be used.
As I’ve said, I think we need much greater clarity and certainty in the state’s financial relationship with NGOs of all type and core to this has to be a formal strategy setting out its commitments and policies. These have to deliver fairness, certainty and transparency. This is how we can use the great people working in the sector to their best ability and deliver the most for the people we are all committed to serving.
Obviously the fact that there are thousands of organisation in this sector, many of whom cover similar concerns, means that there has to be an opportunity to build greater impact by building more integrated organisations. Something as simple as a much greater use of shared services can significantly improve the working of organisations and maximise the money going directly to activity.
I welcome the Wheel’s proposals concerning possible mergers. Ultimately these can only be successful if driven by the organisations themselves. However there is a role for the state in helping through some financial support for mergers. Financial support for mergers had a very big impact for trades unions in the past and it is something which we would support for the voluntary sector.
In terms of regulation, I know that for a number of your organisations the operation of the Electoral Acts is a concern. There is a balance to be struck. A strong and vocal civic society sector is vital to a healthy democracy. Equally we have to protect our democratic discourse from being distorted in the sort of way we can see all the time in other countries – or indeed the non-transparently funded campaigns which have appeared here overnight especially during European Referendums.
Ireland’s regulation of political donations and spending is amongst the toughest in the world and it has been dramatically successful in removing large, and potentially influential, donations from our national politics. Elections are now funded by a much larger number of small donations, spending is limited and there is genuine transparency.
I have sympathy for the complaint that a too restrictive view of the Electoral Acts can have an unreasonable impact on legitimate non-electoral advocacy. We are open to supporting amendments in this area if they can protect the core principle of electoral limits and are fair to all parts of our civic and political society.
One of the greatest strengths of the voluntary sector has always been its direct community links. When efforts to implement ambitious community development they have always involved a deep partnership between the state and voluntary organisations.
I believe that there are very serious issues with the current approach to community development and that there is almost no hope that we can tackle concentrated disadvantage in particular unless we move away from an increasingly centralised and politicised model of planning and development.
National approaches to economic and social development are the core of policies to tackle disadvantage and to promote shared progress. However experience also shows that you need to be address the fact that communities need to be empowered if we are to have any change of overcoming many cycles of disadvantage and exclusion.
Fianna Fáil’s policy in government was to try and build a targeted and inclusive model of community development. The RAPID programme, for example, was intended to be far more direct in helping specific communities which were identified through a transparent and expert process. The intention, not always realised but there nonetheless, was to bring together all elements of public services and the local communities. Where it was most effective it was a mechanism for enabling responses which were systematic and responsive – they didn’t need to get to the minister’s desk before anything could be done.
The decision in mid-2011 to abolish the Department and structures which oversaw community development and send it all to the Department of Local Government was a mistake and it has been highly damaging.
Support is spread too thinly and has been swallowed up within a local government sector which has many pressures and very little ability to get national bodies to pay attention to individual community needs. The new North-East Inner City initiative is a good example of how building a community development agenda which involves state agencies is now an exception rather than the rule.
Important and necessary work is being done in the Task Force’s area – but should it really require the sort of violence seen in early 2016 for the state to recognise concentrated disadvantage as an issue for the community? Is this really the only part of the state which requires priority attention?
Which leads to an important overall point about social policy in terms of community development and also support for other causes – the growing repoliticisation of funding.
Particularly over the past year and a half there has been in operation a cross-government policy of writing ministers into funding procedures where previously it would have been expected that an independent process would determine everything. For the first time in two decades funding in important parts of the education sector is to include a political element. Equally, there appears to be a near embargo across government agencies on the announcement of anything without a political element. The decision to brand everything the public pays for as coming from the government and to downplay the role of state bodies and institutions is even clearer.
This is a major step backwards. It needs to be abandoned if we are to get to a stage where everyone who works to provide a public service or undertake a publicly-beneficial activity can have faith that funding will be fair and consistent.
I absolutely believe that the scale of many local development challenges, the need for more urgent cross-governmental on tackling drugs and other community issues requires a much stronger Department of Community and Rural Affairs. The Department should deliver a renewed approach to targeted development which ensures that every element of the state plays a full part. Equally we need it to deliver a new financial compact for a voluntary sector which is central to so many social and economic policies. This will not be done if it is left to each Department – there are core issues which have to be addressed irrespective of the sector involved.
I believe that our voluntary sector is something we should celebrate as a country. To do this we have to value it and treat it fairly. Without any dramatic change in funding levels there is a lot which can and should be done immediately to deliver a more consist and sustainable future for voluntary organisations.