Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:30 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Esmond Birnie Esmond Birnie UUP 12:30, 30 September 2002

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the dire financial situation of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Northern Ireland Office to provide adequate funding to ensure the long-term future of the centre.

I am grateful for the opportunity to move the motion standing in my name and that of my Colleagues, Rev Robert Coulter and Mrs Carson. I apologise on their behalf for their absence — they have been unavoidably detained. Rape crisis and associated sexual abuse is a serious problem and, as we are all sadly aware, an increasing one. The purpose of the motion is to highlight the response of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and, to a degree, that of the Northern Ireland Office to the inadequate financial support for the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre.

It is worth emphasising the value of the centre and the positive contribution that it has made, and continues to make, despite its fragile financial basis. It provides a wide range of services free of charge. It deals with adults, children, males and females and provides a free phone service for enquiries. The centre has been in operation for 20 years.

The centre receives £32,000 per annum from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and up to £7,000 from Belfast City Council. Because of such limited financial support, the centre has a £20,000 deficit. Arguably, it is not enough simply to clear the deficit; money is also needed to provide an adequate foundation for future work. The centre has only just been able to survive by paying low wages to its two full-time workers and by the extensive use of volunteers. It receives 3,000 new contacts every year — and it helps up to 3,000 people every year. That will give Members some measure of the scale of the problem that the centre is attempting to tackle.

We tabled the motion because we believe that the centre is underfunded and has been since it was set up in the early 1980s. Recently, members of my party and I met representatives from the centre to discuss why support from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and other Government agencies has been so consistently low. This is an especially pressing question, given that it is the only agency in Northern Ireland providing a full range of free support services to victims of rape and serious sexual abuse.

There has been controversy and confusion about the state of play as regards the recent funding application made to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety: undoubtedly, that issue will be raised again today. The centre’s staff believe that they submitted the application on time. Even if it was not received by the deadline, why did the Department not find the situation strange, given that it has had a 20-year relationship with the centre? At that time, departmental officials were meeting representatives of the centre more or less weekly. Surely, the alleged failure to submit an application by the deadline should have been raised in time for something to be done about it.

In any case, the issue of when and if the application was lodged is a bit of a technical distraction, given the crucial point that this important area of support for public health has been underfunded for most of the last two decades. That should have been obvious to the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and to the associated Government bodies some time ago.

It might be asked why there is a reference to the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) in the motion in addition to the challenge to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Natural justice requires that the NIO should also provide some support, notwithstanding the distinction between transferred and non-transferred matters. There are two reasons for that. First, the NIO already gives support to various victims of violence: by extension, why should it not provide support for the victims of sexual violence? Secondly, the NIO provides generous support to rehabilitate ex-prisoners. The interests of natural justice require us to ask why the NIO should not similarly support those who have had tremendous trauma imposed upon them through no fault of their own.

I am pleased to move the motion.

Photo of Mrs Annie Courtney Mrs Annie Courtney Social Democratic and Labour Party

I support the motion. The Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre (NI) is associated with the Network of Rape Crisis Centres Ireland. As was mentioned earlier, a helpline is provided free of charge for victims of sexual violence. Some time ago, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety passed an application for research funding to the Minister. Disappointingly, there has been no response to date.

The centre has been in existence for over 20 years and deals with more than 3,000 cases a year. It receives £32,000 per annum. Other organisations deal with similar issues but do not act in conjunction with the centre.

Sexual violence against women, children and men is not decreasing. All the evidence suggests that it is a growing problem. Since the centre’s establishment, it has played a vital role in dealing with the problem. Over the years, it has built up an unequalled body of expertise and skills in helping victims of sexual violence through their ordeal, both during police investigations and during subsequent criminal trials. The centre also plays a critical role in counselling victims in the aftermath of criminal proceedings.

The centre has never been adequately funded. In the past, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety provided some funding, and some district councils made contributions; for example, Belfast City Council allocates approximately £7,000 a year. However, the centre has limped along for years on a shoestring budget, which is not good enough. Its recent financial crisis was so serious that its telephones were cut off temporarily; Members may have watched a programme about that on television.

It is unacceptable for such an essential organisation to be constantly in that position. Society could not cope with the problem of sexual violence without the expert help that the centre provides. Given that, the burden of its funding should not fall on the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety alone. This is a human rights issue and has implications for all Ministers who are responsible for children’s policies, policies on women’s issues and the criminal justice system, so I call on all Ministers and officials in the Northern Ireland Office to consider their responsibilities and produce a funding formula to enable the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre to continue its essential work.

Photo of William Hay William Hay DUP 12:45, 30 September 2002

Rape and sexual abuse are major issues, not only in Belfast but across the Province. People in my constituency who counsel the victims of sexual abuse and rape help about 60 people a week and, because their service is seriously underfunded, there is a serious backlog.

Rape and sexual abuse here are increasing. The proposer of the motion, Dr Birnie, should remember that the funding crisis extends to other centres in Northern Ireland, which employ staff who are equally dedicated to their work. The work, effort and time put in by those people, often in difficult circumstances during which they must listen to people who have been raped or abused, cannot be quantified. Some of the stories are horrifying, and it is a tragedy that none of the centres receives adequate funds to deal with the many problems that result from sexual abuse.

I remind the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety that the problem must be tackled, not only in Belfast but across the Province. I would like her to formulate a strategic plan for all the centres. That is not to take anything away from the comments of Dr Birnie and the Member for Foyle, Mrs Courtney, who made a good case for the centre in Belfast. I urge the Minister to begin a strategic review of all the centres in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Like other Members, I wish to commend the work that is being done in many rape crisis centres in the North, sometimes voluntarily. The Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre does crucial work with survivors of abuse. Such groups ensure that survivors’ voices are heard in places such as the Assembly.

I agree with Mr Hay that that work is going on throughout the North and that many of the organisations carrying out that work are underfunded. However, more crucially, the voluntary and community sectors are also underfunded. I had a meeting in my constituency recently with a funder of a local centre in which great work is being done. Groups such as those are living from hand to mouth because they cannot get long-term funding and do not know where they are going. We must realise the impact that that underfunding has and have a fundamental review of the good work that the voluntary and community sectors carry out.

However, I am concerned about some issues that other Members have mentioned. According to recent media reports, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety received no funding application from the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre. I have had no contact with the centre, but Dr Birnie said that it believes that it submitted an application. I welcome the Minister’s presence in the Chamber. Will she tell the House if that funding application was submitted? Will she outline how it is progressing, and will she let us know when it will be resolved so that Members can get a clear picture of what is going on?

As former Deputy Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, I and other members of that Committee were critical of the previous practice of applications being made willy-nilly with no follow-up mechanism. In fact, the Committee wrote a report on that, so its concerns are on record. I am concerned — and I do not take away from the good work being done in those centres — that we do not go down that road. If criteria are in place, we must implement them.

I ask the Minister again to explain to the House what is happening with that application. Dr Birnie says one thing, media speculation says another, and I have just received a press release from the centre. Again, like other Members, I wish to commend the work, which is occasionally voluntary, that is done sometimes 24 hours a day, seven days a week in many of these centres, and I should like to reiterate Mr Hay’s point that this is not just in Belfast; groups throughout the North are doing such work.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

I speak on behalf of my Colleague Mrs Eileen Bell, who is elsewhere on Assembly business and cannot attend the debate.

Mrs Bell has actively supported the work of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre for some time. The suffering of rape victims remains unacknowledged by most people. Their trauma and stress is virtually ignored by the public and is certainly not best served by current legislation. The staff of the rape crisis centre have been working with commitment, loyalty and great experience with neither salaries nor, indeed, acceptable working conditions.

Mrs Bell has been in touch with the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, who we are glad to see in the Chamber. Those Ministers seem to ignore the urgency of the situation. I understand that no wages have been paid to staff in the centre for several months, and it is ludicrous to say that no payment can be made, even pro tem, because the Department has allegedly not received a revised application. The centre has received core funding for more than 20 years, and is evidently still being used. Therefore why has no money been given in lieu of the arrival of an application for funding?

The Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre’s mission statement says that it exists to

"provide empowering confidential counselling and other services free of charge for survivors of sexual assault and to campaign with survivors to increase awareness of the need to change the conditions in society which make sexual violence and abuse possible."

The centre’s annual report shows that it provides face-to-face counselling in 79% of cases and that the remainder are dealt with by telephone. Survivors tell stories of nightmares, flashbacks and suicidal feelings. The centre provides the only available practical help and support, along with services that are vital to the survivors’ encouragement and continued survival.

The low rate of reporting incidents of rape and sexual assault to the police means that, although the PSNI has greatly improved its approach to dealing with such crimes, victims still fear interviews and court appearances. Moreover, the sentences that are usually handed down do not reflect the damage that has been done to the victim. The way in which victims are treated and the lack of sensitive ways in which they can give evidence mean that the legal system for such crimes is utterly horrendous and must be attended to immediately. The Alliance Party supports the recommendations that if the Bar Council is not prepared to implement a code of practice, one must be imposed upon it by statute, and that judges must also use their powers to curb the worst excesses of the legal vultures.

It is accepted that sexual offenders against women and children enjoy a high acquittal rate. If a sentence is imposed, it rarely reflects the gravity of the crime. We must bring such sentences into line with the deep trauma that is inflicted by the guilty on the innocent victim. Some judges must completely change their mindset, and instances of plea-bargaining should be greatly reduced, if not eradicated.

The issue of rape and sexual abuse has been overlooked. Organisations such as the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre have had to deal with it on a totally inadequate budget, with little public recognition or acknowledgement. The Assembly must support the centre’s efforts to draw up an effective business plan to provide a clear vision for the future in this sensitive area. Core funding must be made available and be commensurate with the centre’s many activities so that it will be able to contribute to the welfare and support of some of our most disadvantaged women and children.

On behalf of my party, I thank the management, staff and counsellors of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre for their efforts, which have been carried out effectively, in spite of an uncertain future and a lack of funding.

The Alliance Party wholeheartedly supports the motion.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC

I, like others, support the motion. With rape and sexual abuse on the increase in Northern Ireland, and with the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre doing, as we have heard, such valuable work, it is almost impossible to believe that its representatives must come to the Assembly with a begging bowl.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Given the seriousness of the debate, it is depressing to look around the Chamber and see the number of Members who are involved in private conversations and are not listening.

Photo of Ms Jane Morrice Ms Jane Morrice NIWC 1:00, 30 September 2002

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I repeat that it is astounding that a centre that does such valuable work has to come to the Assembly with a begging bowl.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety says that the funding crisis has come about because someone did not fill in an application form. We all have the details of the question put to the Minister by my Colleague Monica McWilliams earlier this year. She asked the Minister to make a statement on the current level of resources for the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre and to detail proposals for the development of its work. The Minister answered that the Department was making available a grant of up to £33,000, and gave details of the conditions of the award of that grant. No mention was made of the fact that a form had not been received or that there was a potential problem.

Given the contact between the centre and the Department, why was the centre not alerted to the problem, and why was nothing done? There is no point in getting bogged down in a "did they or didn’t they" argument. The debate about filling in forms highlights the need for more help for this organisation. We must get that point across to everyone.

I understand that the application has been revised from £32,000 plus £8,000 up to perhaps £136,000, to enable the centre to employ a full-time administrator. An administrator would help to overcome the funding crisis, as he or she would be able to draw up business plans and calculate the required funding.

Questions must be asked about how much paperwork is necessary. Many voluntary and community organisations are asking whether there is a way to reduce the volume of paperwork. I agree with my Colleague Sue Ramsey that organisations must report annually, at the least. As members of the Public Accounts Committee, we realise the importance of accountability. However, there may be a way to ensure accountability while avoiding lengthy forms.

Members have mentioned the centre’s workload. It receives 3,000 calls a year. Some calls are from people who experienced sexual abuse 30 years ago and who are only ready to come forward now. There are calls from women, children and, increasingly, men, who come forward because they were abused the previous day. Mr Hay said that the centre receives 60 calls a week.

Two members of staff, Eileen Calder and Eileen Kelly, have to do everything, which involves supporting victims in the courts, answering phones, visiting hospitals and counselling traumatised victims, women and children. The staff need the patience and understanding of counsellors, the therapeutic knowledge of psychiatrists, and almost the same legal ability and dexterity as a High Court judge. We ask a great deal of them.

I was fascinated to note in the research that was prepared for us that incidents of rape have increased from 209 cases in 2000-01 to 252 cases in 2001-02. Indecent assaults on female children have dropped from 342 cases in 2000-01 to 308 cases in 2001-02, and indecent assaults on male children have dropped from 134 cases in 2000-01 to 55 cases in 2001-02, which is progress. However, one of the most shocking statistics was that, overall, sexual offences have increased from 1,176 in 2000-01 to 1,431 in 2001-02. These crimes are on the increase, and we should be doing much more about that.

It is important to note that these statistics mask the reality. Nine times out of 10, the abuser is known to the victim. In many of those cases, the victim will not want to go to the police to get the crime recorded. The statistics that I have given are the recorded statistics. All the additional cases that are handled by the centre are not recorded, and those victims do not want to go to the police.

Another surprising item of information is that an important piece of research shows that 84% of people convicted have previous convictions, one third of which are sexually related. These statistics must be taken more seriously.

Consideration of the localities shows that Foyle has a high incidence, with 144 cases last year. We have all heard of the problems in south Belfast with the student population; that area had 134 cases last year. My own area, north Down, had 79 cases. Those are the three highest incidences in Northern Ireland.

We still have much work to do. There are issues such as the extension of part V of the Police Act 1997 to allow previous investigations to be taken into account when cases are being heard, and the protection of children and vulnerable adults through the setting up of a proper vetting system. All that work is important. With its expertise, the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre can offer much help with that.

I want to turn to one alarming — I am unsure what best to call it — obscenity. It is an Internet obscenity. I have received e-mails during the past couple of weeks that I would not even dare to repeat on the Floor of the House. They all involve the possibility of seeing free pictures of rape. I have contacted the police. People say that one can get eight or nine of these e-mails a day. They are obscene, disgusting and horrific, and children could have access to them. The centre is already working in this area to try to get "cyber police" to stop this type of obscenity coming to innocent and ordinary people, particularly young children. It is a disgusting occurrence in our society, and we must stop it.

Finally, I call for more funding, particularly core funding, for a centre that is doing so much work in this area. We must all work and take urgent action to prevent this type of thing from taking over our society.

Photo of Mark Robinson Mark Robinson DUP

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre faced its own major crisis in that it was forced to operate for 24 hours with no telephone lines. This was as a result of the centre being unable to meet payments for a phone bill of a staggering amount. Over this period of time, I am absolutely convinced that those people seeking support from the trained counsellors at the centre were thrown into further confusion and upset due to being unable to access the support which they required. It is obvious that the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre cannot function adequately or to its full capabilities without telephone lines, which are the first point of contact for someone contacting the centre for support and advice.

Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre is one of the earliest established centres in the UK, and it has been providing Northern Ireland with its only free and confidential service for survivors of rape for over 20 years. Right from its inception, the centre has been forced to operate on a shoestring budget. They are allocated the minimal sum of £30,000 per annum from the Department of Health and Social Services. That figure does not even come close to what is required to enable the centre to function properly. The crisis centre is an organisation which must be maintained. The latest crime statistics in my constituency of South Belfast have revealed a 42% increase in sex attacks in that area this year alone. I cannot praise the centre enough and the service that it provides; free, supportive and sympathetic advice and counselling to the victims of the heinous crime of rape.

The centre provides support at all levels: for example, it offers therapy support and Northern Ireland’s only free phone line for victims of sexual abuse. The centre is unique in that it also provides court support. Many women do not report rape for fear of the treatment they will receive from the legal system. Women who do go through the courts are often left feeling that they have been raped all over again, as they have to relive the terrifying events and are left feeling traumatised after giving evidence. This is, once again, where the centre becomes involved. Its counsellors offer court support and advise and counsel women on how to cope with their experiences in court. As a result of this support, many women have found the courage to go through the legal system, and many perpetrators of this crime have been put behind bars.

This debate is concentrating on the funding crisis which the centre is facing. The centre is living from one year to the next, not knowing if it will get the finance to allow it to continue its valuable work. The reality unfortunately is that the level of funding is limited and the level of dependency great. The centre needs £150,000 each year to enable it to provide its services properly. The current level of funding totals just £32,000 each year, which is nowhere near the amount required to enable the centre to operate to its full capacity.

It simply baffles me that organisations such as the Belfast centre are forced into this position, when recent patterns of underspending by Departments have emerged. Resources must be managed better, so that the work which voluntary organisations do day and daily is not put in jeopardy. It is therefore essential that the necessary finance is made available to the centre if we are to avert a similar crisis in the future.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I commend the work of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre in providing support for the survivors of child and adult sexual abuse and assault. Moreover, it is essential that there is a properly funded service to support such victims. I am almost reluctant to take an objective view of the circumstances surrounding the motion, because it is so emotive. I have serious concerns about what is happening in the centre — assuming that the report in today’s ‘Irish News’ is correct — and questions must be asked.

Given the dire financial circumstances of the centre, why was it so tardy in making an application for funding? We have heard different stories about funding, and maybe the Minister will be able to reply to them. Members have, on other occasions, raised the need for transparency and probity. However, on this occasion they seem to be setting those things to one side, which makes it difficult to attempt to be objective about this emotive situation.

The centre was given £6,000 to put together a business plan. What happened to that business plan? Was it ever presented to the Department, and what happened to the money allocated for it? Other centres outside Belfast are attempting to deal with the problem of rape in their own way.

Why, instead of going through the normal funding channels that every other voluntary organisation adheres to, is the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre using the media and the Assembly as the vehicle for its funding application? I have difficulty with that, and I would like to hear an explanation from it and others.

I do not wish to discount the work that is going on, but we must try to be objective. I would be the first to accept that, if a voluntary organisation feels that a Department has treated it unfairly, it should have recourse to MLAs. However, on this occasion, the organisation did not take the opportunity to speak to me or to my Colleague Sue Ramsey. Why, if no funding application was made, do we have the motion and all the publicity surrounding it?

Given that the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre received substantial funding to prepare a strategic plan, why did it not deliver that plan? We might also ask whether there has been a proper audit of the centre’s finances to ascertain exactly how the organisation has used the not inconsiderable amount of taxpayers’ money that has been allocated to it over the years. How has it arrived, year after year, at this situation of dire financial straits, without it being flagged up in a substantive way to those of us who share the concerns of survivors of rape and child sexual abuse? We deal with those issues on an ongoing basis in our constituencies.

It is essential that those centres carry out their voluntary work efficiently. However, we must also have a sense of probity about the financial structures with which those organisations surround themselves.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP 1:15, 30 September 2002

Members have highlighted the needs of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre. Most of the issues have been mentioned; I do not wish to repeat them. The centre looks after several cases in my constituency of Strangford and in the Ards Borough Council area.

I have become aware of the number of people that have been abused and the need for the centre over the past 12 to 15 months. It is not just a question of those who have been abused in the last few months and years; several people have come forward for help who were abused 10, 15, 20 and even 25 years ago. Those people are still traumatised by what happened to them.

As a result of the numbers of people who asked me about this issue, I met the chairman of the Ulster Community and Hospitals Health and Social Services Trust to see if he could get funding to address the needs for such services in the Ards Borough Council area and, specifically, on the Ards Peninsula. He agreed that assistance was required, but if the money were granted, other services would suffer. My frustration was apparent to the chairman and his officials, but more apparent to my constituents, and to the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre.

That is an example of the difficulties faced. The small way in which this issue is being addressed touches only the tip of the iceberg. The organisation supplies two hours of counselling in the Ards Hospital. That comes nowhere near to meeting the needs of people, most of whom have to travel to Belfast for assistance. Even then, the necessary funding was not apparent.

Although I support the motion, there should be a strategic review to help the people and organisations within the Health Department who look after rape and sexual abuse victims. It is important that that strategic review address all related issues, not just in the Strangford constituency but in all others. My Colleagues William Hay and Mark Robinson mentioned the need for assistance in their constituencies of Foyle and South Belfast.

We want a strategic review and a plan of action on the whole process, to zero in on where the problems are and give the necessary financial budget. If, God forbid, the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre stopped its work tomorrow, the Government could not jump in, take over and continue its work, and that is a problem.

Members should recognise — and I think that the Assembly will recognise — the work of the centre. However, Members want the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Government to take on this case and to provide the necessary financial assistance to help the dozens, hundreds and even thousands who need help. In a small way, I realise the needs of some people, because my constituents come to me as other people go to their Assembly Members. The cry coming from Members is for more finance and help for those people. That can only happen if the finance is there and the Departments are doing their best to help.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

It was not my intention to make a contribution, but I was astonished at that made by Mr John Kelly, the Member for Mid Ulster. After serving up the usual platitudes and paying due tribute to the work of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, he proceeded to put the boot in in a highly political manner.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

No, the Member will not give way. Mr Kelly, you got your opportunity to speak.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

On a point of order, a LeasCheann Comhairle.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Kelly, I hope that this is a point of order.

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Is it relevant to use "put the boot in" in these circumstances?

Photo of Mr John Kelly Mr John Kelly Sinn Féin

Is that a valid comment to make?

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

"Put the boot in" is the only apt term that could be used. Clearly, Mr Kelly is being used as a noble cat’s paw, the ministerial spokesperson or the warm-up person to the Minister. It will be interesting to hear what the Minister has to say about the applications submitted by the centre, how they were processed and what assistance — if any — was given to it in its funding difficulties.

It is interesting that Mr Kelly concerned himself with issues of probity and questions which ultimately served to undermine the alleged comments of support that he promoted in the early part of his contribution. The manner in which Mr Kelly sought to undermine the credibility and attack the integrity of the centre left many Members with a bad taste in their mouths. It is almost unbelievable that that would happen in a debate in which members of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre have no recourse to respond as to how they dealt with applications. It is unfortunate and wrong of the Member for Mid Ulster to have made his contribution as he did.

I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response on what help was offered and how she will address the various points that are now in the public domain. This essential service has been reduced to having to come to the Floor of the Assembly to beg for financial support to remain operational. Perhaps the Minister will reflect that if she wasted less money on some of her personal crusades, such as the promotion of the Irish language, groups such as the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre might not face such unfortunate difficulties.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Tá mé buíoch den Dr Esmond Birnie as an rún seo a mholadh mar go dtugann sé deis domh seasamh mo Roinne a shoiliéiriú maidir le maoiniú don Ionad Éigeandála um Éigniú agus Mhí-úsáid Gnéis Bhéal Feirste.

Tá mo Roinn ag tabhairt tacaíochta airgeadais don eagraíocht seo le cuid mhaith blianta. Caithfidh gach eagraíocht a fhaigheann an cineál seo tacaíochta airgeadais iarratas scríofa a dhéanamh agus eolas ar mhonatóireacht bliantúil a sholáthar don Roinn mar choinníoll don deontas. Le blianta beaga anuas, áfach, sháraigh go leanúnach ar an Ionad Éigeandála um Éigniú agus Mhí-úsáid Gnéis eolas ar mhonatóireacht bliantúil a sholáthar. Mar thoradh air sin, tá maoiniú ceadaithe ag mo Roinn don Ionad Éigeandála um Éigniú agus Mhí-úsáid Gnéis ar bhonn bliana seachas ar bhonn trí bliana mar is gnách.

Le tamall anuas, tá mo chuid feidhmeannach ag déanamh iarrachta oibriú leis an ionad le léargas níos soiléire a fháil ar staid airgeadais na heagraíochta agus le hoibriú amach cad is féidir a dhéanamh le cuidiú léi tabhairt faoina deacrachtaí reatha. Leithroinn mo Roinn £11,000 breise chuige seo le trealamh ríomhaireachta a cheannach agus le plean gnó straitéiseach a fhorbairt. Samhlaíodh go ndéanfadh an plean gnó beartaithe plean gníomhaíochta trí bliana a fhorbairt; straitéis phraiticiúil struchtúrtha maoinithe a chruthú; struchtúr bainistíochta soiléir cuntasach a bhunú; agus íomhá agus margaíocht a fheabhsú don úsáideoir agus do mhaoinitheoirí féideartha mar eagraíocht ghairmiúil. Go dtí seo, áfach, níor éirigh leis an phlean gnó seo teacht i gcrích.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am grateful to Dr Birnie for tabling the motion, as it allows me the opportunity to clarify my Department’s position regarding the funding of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has been providing financial support to the organisation for many years. All organisations receiving this type of financial support are required to make written application and provide the Department with annual monitoring information as a condition of the grant.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre has continuously failed to provide annual monitoring information. As a result, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety placed the centre’s funding on an annual footing, rather than the three-year cycle that normally pertains.

The motion specifically addresses the long-term future of the centre. My officials have been trying to work with the centre for some time to establish a clearer picture of its financial position and to determine what might feasibly be done to help the centre to address its current difficulties and then to focus on the key issue of long-term sustainability. To that end, my Department allocated an additional £11,000 to purchase computer equipment and develop a strategic business plan. It was envisaged that the proposed business plan would develop a three-year action plan; create a structured and practical funding strategy; establish a clear accountable management structure; and improve image and marketing to the end user and the potential funders as a professional organisation.

Unfortunately, the business plan has so far failed to materialise. The Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre has experienced ongoing difficulty in complying with the terms and conditions applicable to grants, with the late submission of the requested monitoring information — audited accounts, annual reports, details of how the grant has been attributed and an organisational forward plan.

I reiterate that it is a measure of the Department’s commitment that, in March 2001, it awarded the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre £6,500 of the additional £11,000 in funding to employ an independent consultant to help it to develop a strategic plan to turn it into a creative organisation that could ultimately achieve sustainability. To date, that plan has not materialised.

Photo of Bairbre de Brún Bairbre de Brún Sinn Féin

No.

Issues have been raised about adequate funding. The compact between Government and the voluntary and community sector, which was published in December 1998 and endorsed by the Assembly in early 2000, recognised the need for a more co-ordinated strategic approach to the funding of the voluntary and community sector in general. To address that matter, my Department is participating in a major cross-departmental review of Government support to the voluntary and community sector. It is hoped that the outcome of that review will ease the funding situation. In the interim I will continue to seek additional funding.

With regard to funding for the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, the Department awards grants of up to 75% of the amount requested. The centre has not submitted a case for increased funding. However, it received additional funding of £11,281 in 2001 and £3,500 in 1998-99.

Questions were asked about the Department’s strategic approach. My Department and the Executive are concerned about sexual abuse and its impact on the individual, and we are committed to tackling the issue. Until now, most developments and services for survivors of sexual abuse have been included in wider service developments, such as child protection arrangements or the mental health services. However, the Department accepts the need for a strong, coherent policy, and officials are discussing the matter with their counterparts in Scotland.

The Department supports survivors of sexual abuse directly through grants to voluntary organisations and indirectly through boards and trusts. The health and social services boards and trusts provide a range of services, including specialised children’s units, initial response teams, direct counselling by social workers and home visits to survivors of rape and sexual abuse.

The Department provides core funding for central administration costs to voluntary organisations that tackle issues, such as rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence and relationship counselling.

Members asked how funding is assessed and whether it is based on the organisations’ application forms. The application form is essential, but, in order for the Department to make a proper assessment of the funding required, the application must also contain certain information. For example, it must demonstrate how the organisation intends to meet the Department’s objectives in respect of the services to be provided. A regional organisation must show how it represents the region and how it proposes to achieve the aims set out in the application.

Until this morning, the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre had not made an application to my Department for funding for the current financial year, although my Department had issued application forms and invited the organisation’s representatives to meet officials.

An e-mail version of the application form arrived at the Department this morning, a full 11 months after the first application form was issued. It is the responsibility of both the Government and their social partners in the voluntary and community sector to ensure the effective and efficient use of public moneys. It would be remiss to allocate resources without due care for accountability, and I am certain that the Members who have constantly questioned the use of funding in the Assembly would not now wish to suggest that accountability is not an issue. I am astounded to hear a Member who has raised the question of accountability again and again refer to an application form as "a bit of a technical distraction".

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No. The departmental procedures for grants are a basic matter of completion of application forms — forms which the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre has been completing since 1989. I am aware of more general concerns in the wider voluntary statutory organisations about the onerous task of completing some assessments. However, our departmental procedures for grants are a matter of the basic completion of application forms; something that the organisation in question has been doing for years.

It is important to note that in the absence of verifiable evidence of need it is no easy task to assess what funding would be adequate. To establish a realistic level of funding, it is necessary for organisations to establish need; identify what is to be achieved; quantify the additional value to be gained; and commit to the monitoring and evaluation of the work undertaken. That is why those procedures exist, and that is why the Assembly again and again asks Departments and others to stick to proper criteria and procedures. My Department must consider all funding against competing priorities and financial constraints. I am aware that the junior Ministers have been in contact with Jane Kennedy about funding from the Northern Ireland Office.

I am committed to funding this type of service; I am committed absolutely to playing my part with others in providing what is needed to a vital section of society. Funding, however, is dependent on all organisations adhering to the terms and conditions of Government accounting procedures. It is also important that organisations are evaluated to ensure that they are delivering appropriate services in an effective and efficient manner. I therefore urge the organisation in question to complete the business plan, ensure that it maintains proper records and comply with the terms of any grant funding provided to it.

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I should like to begin by thanking all those who spoke and, indeed, the Minister for her response. Mrs Annie Courtney rightly referred to the expertise of the centre and, like several Members, mentioned the recent problem when it had its telephone lines cut off. William Hay pointed out some of the problems dealt with by the centre, particularly in his own constituency. He highlighted the need to support all such centres carrying out this good work. Sue Ramsey commended the centre for its work and stated that there was a need for a strategy in that area of public health. Kieran McCarthy pointed out the practical help provided by the centre. Jane Morrice asked why the Department had not been alert to the fact that the centre had been tardy with its application forms. She also referred to some of the frightening statistics of rape and sexual abuse and raised the question of new and growing developments on the Internet. Mark Robinson also referred to the cutting off of the telephone lines and said that it was very significant, since the centre provided a free advice service over the telephone to people across the Province.

John Kelly commended the centre for its work. However, he asked why it had been, in his view, tardy in its application processes. Jim Shannon stated that the centre was carrying out needful work and referred to his constituency of Strangford. My Colleague, Danny Kennedy, outlined his astonishment, particularly at Mr Kelly’s comments.

The Minister attempted to clarify her Department’s position. She referred to money granted to the centre for its business plan, which she said had not yet been produced. The business plan is delaying an obvious conclusion that we can already come to: there is substantial underfunding in this case and that the work is immensely valuable. It is a chicken-and-egg situation. On one hand, for two decades the centre has been on a shoestring budget. However, on the other hand, it probably has problems with administration and housekeeping.

I appeal to the Minister to look favourably on better funding for the centre when the business plan and applications are produced. It can be argued that, in the long run, funding spent in this way represents good value for money: the centre and similar bodies deal with problems and counsel people in trauma at an early stage. Such help prevents their medical, psychiatric and mental health problems from worsening and stops the individuals appearing at another part of the Health Service with an even greater demand on resources to pay for treatment.

I would have thought that the Minister would have found it possible to be more supportive of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre, given her, and her party’s, professed attachment to political radicalism and certain varieties of feminism. On 23 September, Eileen Calder of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre referred to the "iron law of oligarchy" in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’. She felt that it had influenced the attitudes of the Department and hence, by implication, the Minister in supporting that needful work.

I said that the need for additional moneys is obvious even without the business plan. One way to prove that is to contrast the situation with that South of the border. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of that. In the Republic of Ireland, rape crisis centres operating in cities much smaller than Belfast, such as Galway and Limerick, receive much higher public support — sometimes two to three times higher.

As many Members have said, there is a need for a good strategy to deal with the victims of rape and sexual abuse.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the dire financial situation of the Belfast Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre and calls upon the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the Northern Ireland Office to provide adequate funding to ensure the long-term future of the centre.

The sitting was suspended at 1.44 pm.

On resuming (Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr J Wilson] in the Chair) —