VICTORIA WHITE: Basic needs shouldn’t be serviced by charity, but by state agencies

The Wheel, a resource organisation for charities and voluntary groups, described Section 38 agencies to me as “arms of the State in all but governance”. But shouldn’t all arms of the State be headed by the State? Isn’t governance all important?

YOU’D want to be Scrooge not to support the Government’s decision to put €1 million which remains unspent from the Social Protection budget into the hands of charities. The Vincent de Paul is the main recipient and I suspect most of us are glad of that.

The accounts of our local branch, read out at Mass, gave me a massive wake up call about the desperate need which lies hidden in this leafy suburb. V de P volunteers move with a degree of speed, confidentiality and local knowledge which just would not be available to a State agency.

Thank God for them. Thank God for all the people who dig deep every Christmas and throughout the year. I don’t know where we would be without charity. But charity is not enough on its own because charity does not establish rights.

I do not accept that it is charity to give a Down’s syndrome child speech therapy. It is a basic human right. I do not accept that it is charity to give a brain-damaged adult occupational therapy. It is a basic human right.

A bed in a hospital, a school place.... These are basic human rights in any civilised society. Why do we still dispense them as charity? Why do we continue to license the welfare state out to charities?

The Central Remedial Clinic which has been the focus of the “top-ups” scandal, is governed under Section 38 of the Health Act and is essentially a HSE service which is managed privately.

There are 40 other bodies in the same boat, including such national institutions as Dublin’s three main maternity hospitals, the South Infirmary, the Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital, Cheeverstown disability service, the Cork Dental Hospital, and the many intellectual disability services run by the Brothers of Charity.

The Wheel, a resource organisation for charities and voluntary groups, described Section 38 agencies to me as “arms of the State in all but governance”. But shouldn’t all arms of the State be headed by the State? Isn’t governance all important?

This is the issue at the heart of the charities “top-up” scandal which will impact, in the end, on those in need of care. State-funded agencies providing services to which citizens have rights should be state agencies.

There are 2,680 agencies receiving funding from the HSE and they account for €3.27 billion, or over a quarter of the health budget. You can argue that charity status gives an organisation specialised knowledge, but a well-run state agency would develop that. You can argue, meaningfully, that access to donations is the advantage charity status brings.

But I don’t accept that basic needs should be serviced by charity. If we cannot meet our basic needs some of us have to pay more tax. And the regressive nature of the Coalition’s budgets has to be reversed. It is hypocritical of the Government to hand €1m to charities addressing poverty in the same week that the ERSI judged the recent budget to have had the greatest impact on the poorest in society.

What do we lose in handing power over our welfare budget to private boards? We put a board between us and the people who need services. That can work well but sometimes it leads to an absence of oversight and answerability.

We can end up with a situation like that which helped facilitate Michael Neary to remove 129 wombs from healthy women in the privately-run Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Drogheda, from 1974 to 1998, as found by in Judge Harding Clarke’s enquiry.

Inevitably, we can end up with competition, duplication and gaps between services. You only have to look at the schools, which are nearly all state-funded private charities, to see how that works out. There is little rhyme or reason as to which schools are placed where. Boards have huge automony. Dublin Friends of the Earth enquired recently if the Department of Education asked schools to cut their energy costs, given they make up a third of the state-paid capitation grant? They were told the schools were governed by boards and it was none of the department’s business how schools used their energy.

We have given charities in our society too much power and too much work. We have also established a swathe of charity managers on huge salaries. The “top-ups” scandal focussed on pay rates in Section 38 charities which are meant to adhere to HSE rates. But the pay rates in the thousands of other state-funded charities do not have to. Some chief executives of charities earn massive pay. The director of Amnesty is on €110 k. The director of the Irish Heart Foundation is on €130 k. The director of the Irish Cancer Society is on €145 k with car, pension scheme and donation to health insurance. Even the director of the Vincent de Paul gets €115k-€125k.

I think the Government should decline to fund a charity which does not have a maximum benchmark of state pay levels. And it should establish a charities watchdog to demand transparency, as laid down in the Charities Act 2009. Indeed, the act should go further and lay down that charities should report the pay of their senior staff on their own websites.

But reform of the charities sector should go further. It should start the process of disentangling state services and charities. This would acknowledge that we have developed as a society and have established rights for our citizens.

This should not mark the end of charity, as my left-wing friends used to argue when I lived in continental Europe. Charity is a vital component of any caring society. It is at the centre of every major religious tradition: some Jews put a charity box on the wall of their kitchens so that they can contribute every single day; Muslims emphasise that as God has given us what we have it is immoral not to share it; Buddhists teach that charity must be given for no recognition or reward. The most loving face my autistic son ever encountered as he accessed services was that of one of the founding John of God brothers, who looked at him as an individual, and as a magnificent work of creation.

In another time we will hopefully have the grace to thank the thousands of barely paid religious who in their charity established a rudimentary welfare state in this country. But there are hardly any of them left. Like any modern welfare state we have to pay people to care now, and if we pay people we should manage them. Because what our disabled, our sick and our poor deserve more than charity are rights.


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