News & Events

Topical Issues – 29 March 2017

Below is a Topical Issued asked in the Oireachtas, relating to Caranua

Residential Institutions Statutory Fund

Deputy Clare Daly: The Minister for Education and Skills is aware that I recently tabled legislation to amend the residential institutions statutory fund. The fund was charged with assisting and administering some sort of redress to the people who had experienced abuse in residential institutions. Subsequent to that, there was an explosion in the media, particularly on the radio airwaves, concerning some of these issues when the CEO of the Caranua scheme, Ms Mary Higgins, addressed some of those concerns by survivors in the most derogatory manner possible. She actually succeeded in adding to the victimisation and trauma experienced by already traumatised people. The narrative put forward by the CEO of Caranua was one in which survivors of institutional abuse were called “these people”, that they “will never be happy” and other terms such as that, which are highly inappropriate. It was a distortion of the truth and an unashamed attempt by her to pass the blame for the failings of Caranua onto the victims and survivors themselves. The lack of empathy and the derogatory characterisation is proof of what those survivors have been saying. Rather than helping them, the Caranua process has served to revictimise them.

During the debate on my Bill, the mismanagement of the scheme was highlighted by Deputies from all sides of the House. It is clear from representations that we all receive in our offices from applicants and from the appeal officers’ annual report that there are hundreds if not thousands of applicants who have been affected by delays, arbitrary cut-offs, an inconsistent approach from advisers and rudeness in many instances. For example, people have been told that it is not a sweet shop. When one complainant got on to my office, she said that when she was issued a quote for replacement windows, she was told by the Caranua staff member that he could have had a six-bedroom house done for that amount of money and that he was going to have to go and seriously get that checked out. The woman said she felt like her word was being questioned and that he was making her out to be a liar. Having waited all that time even to make the application, to be treated like that was really hard to take. When survivors brought those stories onto the airwaves, the CEO of Caranua dismissed them. However, we know that what the survivors are saying is true because of what they have said to us and because of the way that our offices have been treated when we have had to try to make representations.

Does the Minister think it is satisfactory for the person who is the public face of Caranua to speak about people like that? What action has the Minister taken to address the situation? I do not believe it is acceptable for anybody to behave like that, but for somebody who got a €10,000 pay increase from the very fund she is supposed to be administering, bringing her salary up to more than €87,000 per annum, to still express views like that is absolutely reprehensible as far as I am concerned. Clearly, what we have here is the sort of continuation of the hard-line approach being adopted by the State to survivors which has been evident in the Magdalen laundries and in the exclusion of the Bethany homes from the mother and baby home inquiries. I do not think it is acceptable for the Minister or for other members of the Government to allow those comments to go unchecked. If he does not challenge it, he is only furthering and adding to the damage.

Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Richard Bruton):  I thank Deputy Daly for raising this issue. I know she has been very persistent in pursuing these issues. As she knows, Caranua is an independent body. It is established under legislation. It has certain purposes and functions that it has to execute. It is funded not by the Exchequer but by a contribution from the religious orders. It has a sum of €110 million to distribute. At this stage, more than 5,500 applications have been made. Payment of around 55% of the fund has been dispersed at this stage to approximately 4,200 applicants. Those applicants are people who were granted awards under the redress scheme. The Deputy is right in that there have been a number of public criticisms of Caranua aired in the media by survivors of abuse. I myself have met some of the survivors. I am very conscious of the concerns that they have raised about the administration of the fund. The CEO and the board have attempted to respond to those criticisms. They have publicly acknowledged many difficulties that arose, especially in the early period when the system was being set up. Many difficulties were acknowledged as having occurred. Last year, additional procedures were changed to try to make things better.

As we have expressed here in the Dáil, I believe it is the view of all sides in the House that it is absolutely necessary that we continue to improve those procedures. It is vital that in all of our dealings with people who have been the victims of appalling abuse at a time when the State stood by and did not meet its responsibilities we have to be sure that the systems are sensitive, fair and compassionate to those who were affected. I believe survivors must be dealt with in such a fashion. The comments made were unfortunate and could be misconstrued. My belief is that the whole process has to be designed for the survivors. I am very conscious that in meeting the obligations under the Act, there are purposes that have to be met, application procedures, accountability procedures to the Committee of Public Accounts and all the rest of it. There are also complaints procedures, appeal procedures and recourse to the Ombudsman designed to protect people. I can well understand, and I know directly from speaking to people, that some of these procedures, which from an administrative point of view may seem fair and necessary, can seem very irksome to people who have suffered a sustained period of abuse and who, as the Deputy has described, can feel that these are obstacles that are being put in their way that are prolonging their suffering.

I am determined that we continue to improve the operation of Caranua. I believe it is fair to say that many people have got good service from it. It handles thousands and thousands of applications. There is no doubt that there has been good service, but there have also been instances in which people feel that did not occur. Not only were procedures changed last year, but that is also why we now have a review of the whole system under way. I know that the Deputy is extremely anxious that there be changes in the way that system works. I will be examining her request for quicker handling of cases, broadening the coverage and so on. My belief is we have to ensure that we still have substantial sums in the fund. We have to ensure this system works fairly but that it still meets the standards that are set out in that legislation. It is a balance that has to be struck. My concern is to make sure that people are treated fairly and compassionately.

Deputy Clare Daly: I appreciate the Minister taking the Topical Issue matter and I very much appreciate his comments in publicly acknowledging on the floor of the House the problems that exist with the scheme. I also appreciate his very clear utterances that any scheme that deals with the victims of abuse of the State or while the State stood by must be carried out in a sensitive, fair and compassionate manner. I totally echo those points. What the Minister was saying without saying it was that the behaviour and utterances of the CEO were not acceptable.

The Minister referred to them as unfortunate and said that they could possibly be misconstrued. They were most unfortunate for the victims of abuse and caused extreme hurt. They represent the exact scenario that the Minister said he did not want to see. They showed insensitivity, a lack of fairness and a total lack of compassion. We have to spell that out and I believe the Minister can do so. The comments of the chief executive could not have been misconstrued. They reflected what she said.

In an interview in The Irish Times, Mary Higgins mentioned 19 suspected cases of fraud. Why throw in something like that? If fraud was alleged, why did she not go to the Garda? Inferring fraud in an application process involving thousands amounts to an inference that everyone was out to scam the scheme.

At the same time, residents or survivors feel aggrieved by the fact that Caranua tried to impose a cap on the scheme retrospectively for applicants whose applications were never processed in the first place. If we are to talk about scams, then let us talk about that one.

We need to see the Minister stepping in to ensure Caranua fulfils its obligations. I know the Minister has said that he is looking for submissions on the review to devise the terms of reference for the review. That seems to me to be a review about a review. Moreover, statutorily, the review should have been carried out some years ago. It is beyond its sell-by date in that sense.

I am pleased the Minister has publically acknowledged the problems in a round-about way in terms of the chief executive. The Minister was probably hard enough in some ways but I believe the message has to go out loud and clear. Has the Minister discussed the issue with the chief executive of Caranua? Does the Minister have any plans to meet her in the foreseeable future?

Deputy Richard Bruton: I assure the Deputy that I will be meeting the board and the chairman in the context of the ongoing review. I believe it is important to use this review as an opportunity to ensure we make the system the best that it can be.

There will always be problems in the way any official body operates in respect of obligations to meet criteria, receipt of applications and meeting the obligations of the Committee of Public Accounts and so on. We need to try to design processes that are easier to use. I know there have been frustrations around the appeal and complaint mechanisms. However, cases of recourse to the ombudsman have been few enough. Obviously, that is a port of call. We should try to make it as seamless as we can.

To be fair to Caranua, the fund has been doing good work. It has tried to improve its procedures consistently. Those involved have sought to broaden the scope of the fund.

I can understand how the concept of putting in place a cap came about. There was a concern that additional applications were coming and that the cupboard would effectively be bare for some of the applications if the expenditure continued on some of the trends. Obviously, that approach can be considered in the course of the review in respect of whether that was an appropriate way to proceed.

We are trying to ensure that people are supported in the best way possible through the fund. Legislative obligations must be met and Caranua has to balance that as well as being sensitive to the hurt that people have suffered and the obligations that we all have to those people.

I hope that through this review we can bring about a system that responds more effectively. To be fair, Caranua has been trying to improve the system progressively from a difficult start. That is something everyone acknowledges.