Deputy Thomas P. Broughan – The 2017 annual report of Caranua’s appeals officer highlights some very serious concerns about the administration of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Board, Caranua, which was established under the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act 2012. Some of the decisions and procedural issues in Caranua raise many questions, with the continuing reports from survivors of abuse on how they have been and are being treated in their interactions with the organisation. On the “Today with Sean O’Rourke” programme last week we again heard some of the human stories behind the fund and the reasons for its establishment. Of particular concern in the annual report is the lack of information given to applicants on their statutory right to appeal.
Of the €110 million pledged by the religious congregations, €103 million has been received and €80 million expended. Caranua received 6,109 applications, but 1,195 applicants did not receive support on making an application. Of most concern is the fact that in the appeals process, of those who appealed, 66% were successful, with 43% of appeals upheld, with others being referred back to Caranua or partially allowed. There is real concern about the time it took during 2017 to process appeals. Some 39% took over 52 weeks to process, with only 7% being completed in less than 13 weeks. Some 23% were completed in 13 to 26 weeks; 20% in 26 to 39 weeks and 10% in 39 to 52 weeks.
These are unsatisfactory timeframes – there were two working appeals officers – and they are very likely to increase now that the second appeals officer has refused to renew their contract and has not yet been replaced.
The sample appeals are particularly shocking and some of the decisions seem to have been plucked out of thin air. Where are the written guidelines which state only external doors are included? How are applicants expected to provide the requisite information when they are not even being informed of what the parameters are in decision-making?
Deputy Clare Daly – This is another Caranua appeals officer’s annual report and another crushing exposé of the severe dysfunction in an organisation which was set up supposedly to administer a fund for the survivors of institutional abuse and which has, in and of itself, become a vehicle for causing further distress to people who applied for supports such as healthcare and house improvements. It is a system which has been revealed yet again to be totally arbitrary, inconsistent and bureaucratic when it could involve a simple application form. It has been adversarial, with a lack of empathy and sympathy being shown.
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy McHugh, on his new job but he is the fourth Minister for Education and Skills with whom we have had to raise this issue. Year after year the reports point out the patterns and the problems with the administration of the fund and with the way survivors are treated. As Deputy Broughan said, a clear majority of the refusals by Caranua were subsequently upheld on appeal. We have to take into account that they are elderly and sick people and time is not on their side. In almost 40% of the cases, the waiting time for the appeal, which ultimately becomes successful, is more than a year. That is shocking. In addition, the failure on behalf of Caranua to implement the reports of previous appeals officers and to deal with the successful appeals is frightening because cases which were successfully appealed as far back as 2014 are waiting on the services that they applied for almost four years ago.
The question is when this is going to stop and when there will be an end to barriers being put in the way. People have a statutory right to this fund. Today, there are still 2,449 applications in the system awaiting a decision. Are they going to go into the backlog as well? We need a second appeals officer straight away and we need some action on the reports.
Minister for Education and Skills (Deputy Joe McHugh) – I thank the two Deputies for raising the matter. It is a broad one relating to Caranua’s 2017 annual report and the appeals process, so I have a fairly broad answer, but there are statistics and bits of information that might be relevant to the discussion.
Caranua is an independent statutory body established in 2013 under the provisions of the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund, RISF, Act 2012 to utilise the €110 million cash contributions pledged by the congregations to support the needs of survivors of residential institutional child abuse. It is entirely funded by those contributions and no Exchequer funding is involved. The board adopted the service name Caranua in October 2013 and set up a website, www.caranua.ie. Section 22 of the RISF Act provides for a right of appeal against decisions made by Caranua. Mr. Pat Whelan, the first appeals officer, was appointed to that position in 2014 with further one-year periods in 2015 and 2016.
Two appeals officers, Ms Geraldine Gleeson and Mr. Brendan O’Leary, were appointed in May 2017 to deal with a backlog of cases that had built up. The 2017 annual report, which is Ms Gleeson’s and Mr. O’Leary’s first report, covers the period 15 May 2017 to 30 April 2018. The report was published on 4 October 2018.
There were 140 cases outstanding when they took up their position and they received an additional 87 appeals between May 2017 and April 2018, giving a total of 227 appeals for consideration. A total of 193 cases were completed during this reporting period, leaving 34 appeals on hand. The report confirms that of the 193 cases completed between May 2017 and April 2018, 83 or 43% were upheld, that is, the original decision on the application was revoked by the appeals officer; 18 cases, which is 9%, were partially upheld; and 26 cases or 14% were referred back to Caranua for reconsideration in accordance with specific directions from the appeals officer. A total of 54 cases, 28%, were not upheld, that is, the original decision was affirmed by the appeals officer; and 12 cases, 6%, were either discontinued or withdrawn.
Of the 87 additional appeals received during the period covered by this report, 26 related to home improvements or repairs, 22 related to personal well-being and health matters, 15 related to household and personal items, eight were for funeral expenses, seven were for education, four for eligibility, four for travel or transport, and one for financial assistance.
The two appeals officers were appointed in May 2017 for a one-year term. For personal reasons, one of the appeals officers decided not to accept reappointment to the position. Given that the number of appeals on hand is manageable by one appeals officer, I do not intend to appoint a second appeals officer at this time but the situation will be monitored. I take on board what was said here tonight in that regard.
To date, costs amounting to €82,200 have been incurred in relation to the work of the appeals officers. Administrative support is provided by a Department official. The annual report addresses a number of specific policy issues, including issues raised in previous annual reports. The perception that Caranua made an administrative decision to refuse to process further applications from applicants, on the basis that they had received support and services, in favour of those who had not yet applied or received support was a core issue of previous annual reports. Caranua’s position is that it must manage the fund so that it can be shared fairly among all people who can apply to it. This policy issue is primarily a matter for the board of Caranua. Decisions of the appeals officer may be appealed to the High Court on a point of law. One such appeal was initiated in 2017 by the board of Caranua. The case centred on the personal allocation limit introduced by Caranua in the revised guidelines published in June 2016. Based on the legal advice received, the case was settled by the appeals officers. There is ongoing litigation in the High Court, with seven cases being taken against the appeals officers on the grounds that the personal allocation limit of €15,000 should not be applied retrospectively where the applicant has received funding for services from Caranua.
Deputy Thomas P. Broughan – Given the lack of intervention on these worrying reports by the Minister’s predecessors, including the previous Minister, Deputy Bruton, it is very disappointing that the Minister has said he does not intend to appoint a second appeals officer now. That is the least that might have been expected.
There are reports that these vulnerable people, whom the State let down horribly – I am sure the Minister agrees – are being retraumatised by their treatment by an agency that was set up by the State to pay reparations. Mr. Tom Cronin and Dr. Mary Lodato, both survivors of institutional abuse, resigned from the board of Caranua, citing their concerns over the treatment of survivors. What training have the staff of Caranua received to help them deal with this cohort of vulnerable citizens? When will the independent survivor consultation forum be established? What is the situation concerning the CEO? What contingency fund is in place for those cases that are before the High Court? Many questions need to be answered and the Minister needs to read himself into his brief. I wished the Minister well last Tuesday when he was appointed but he needs to start dealing with the Caranua issues as a matter of urgency.
Deputy Clare Daly – I know the Minister only started in the job this week but I beg him not to provide just the standard answer other Ministers have given us on the issue. Time is not on the side of the survivors of institutional abuse. The reply given by the Minister is simply not accurate. A total of 39% of the cases took more than a year to process. There are 2,449 applications awaiting a decision. How many of them will go on to the appeals process. One appeals officer is not enough. We urgently need two.
As Deputy Broughan said, what is of critical concern is how many of the survivors will be dragged into the courts to get their claims settled. There are cases going through the courts where Caranua has failed outright to implement the decision of the appeals officer. The approximate cost of each of those cases is €200,000 and the costs are taken from the survivor fund, which is shameful. We need an efficient scheme, a review and for the Minister to take some notice of what is going on and to consider some of the suggestions we have put forward over the years. To be honest, I think we have taken a more active interest in the matter than the Department has and we have made some practical suggestions, which I appeal to the Minister to consider.
Deputy Joe McHugh – I take those contributions seriously, whether we are talking about length of time, lack of information or the system being too bureaucratic, given the ordeal of institutional abuse the survivors have gone through and the stage of life they are at. I take on board the suggestion that there will possibly be a need for a second appeals officer. I will monitor the situation and speak to my officials after this debate to see if there are ways in which we can make it easier for this most vulnerable group of elderly people who have gone through such an ordeal. Words such as empathy and sympathy were used, as was the importance of avoiding any form of adversarial approach in the State’s dealings with the survivors. I am supportive of working with Members on that. I take on board what has been said and also the fact that Members are affording me the opportunity to get into my brief. I will speak to my officials and get a comprehensive update from them.
Deputy Clare Daly – We will not be so nice the next time.
Deputy Joe McHugh – You are always nice, Clare.
Deputy Clare Daly – I am.