Submission to Working Group Dept of Justice – November 2011

Submission from:

Alice Leahy,
Director & Co-Founder, TRUST
Former Irish Human Rights Commissioner


The Working Group
On New Human Rights & Equality Body
Department of Justice & Equality
Floor 2, Bishop’s Square
Redmond’s Hill, Dublin 2.

Below is my submission based on my daily experience of living and working in the Ireland of today.  I trust it will be viewed in the spirit of concern in which it was written.

  • Having spent 5 years as a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission I have reached the conclusion that it needs significant transformation as a matter of urgency.

  • The Commission should be fully compliant with Paris Principals.  Fewer Commissioners with a more significant role would be much more productive.

  • The selection of Commissioners should be based on experience and that experience should be freely available to the Commission as required.  Commissioners should be required and welcome to spend time in the Commission with appropriate facilities available.  An interview perhaps would be helpful with the final decision being made by a non partisan selection committee.

  • Staff salaries should not be grossly disproportionate to those working the Human Rights sector.

  • Consistently the Commission was inappropriately referred to as a Board by the CEO which reflected the confusion over the role of Commissioners.

  • The gap between civil society and the Human Rights Commission was clearly highlighted in an article by Carol Coulter in Irish Times (04/07/11) followed by an opinion piece in Irish Times from Donncha O’Connell and Ursula Kilkelly (11/07/11).  They made important observations that could be usefully revisited as part of the consultation process.

  • Comments made to me from many sources led me to conclude that the Human Rights Commission was not a welcoming place to the general public not helped by the location.  The availability of staff and Commissioners to the general public should play a crucial part in informing civil society of its role and possibilities.

  • There should be less emphasis on international issues requiring significant funding (business class travel should not be funded) and more on domestic issues of grave concern in the Ireland of today.  These issues in the area of social and economic rights as highlighted daily in the media without comment eg. care of the elderly, health services, unemployment to mention just a few.

  • In the Commission the expertise of some Commissioners was not used to good effect. Information was communicated very poorly to Commissioners, leading staff with quite limited expertise to assume roles that in instances would have been more appropriate for Commissioners to undertake, particularly when representing the Commission.

  • Not infrequently, staff travelled abroad to conferences and meetings, when there was important work to be done domestically.

  • There is a glaring and widening gap between those discussing human rights and those working at the coalface attempting to meet peoples rights on a daily basis eg. nurses, doctors, gardai and teachers and others who now find themselves in threatening situations – who is there to safeguard their human rights?

I should point out because of the above coupled with my experience as documented in attached letter to all members of the Irish Human Rights Commission (July 2011) of which I was a member,  I have hope but limited confidence in this consultation process.  (See Appendix 1).  If above issues are not considered the value of having a Commission is seriously questionable.

Alice Leahy

18th November 2011

Appendix 1 – Letter to IHRC

Appendix 2 – About TRUST

Appendix 3 – Some Educational Initiatives

Appendix 1

Dr. Maurice Manning
President of Irish Human Rights Commission
Irish Human Rights Commission
4th Floor, Jervis House
Jervis Street
Dublin 1

13th July 2011

Dear President

Recent reports on Irish Times re. Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC) highlighting the frustration of Civil Society clearly should be an issue of grave concern to all of us, pointing to a lack of focus on domestic issues.

I applied for membership of IHRC based on my years of experience working at the coal-face with peopled labelled homeless – outsiders in our society.  I was and continue to be conscious of the fact that the term homeless is misleading.  Not having a fixed address can lead to denial of a service all too often, and by extension to my mind denial of human rights in many instances.

To be appointed to public service is a great honour bringing with it responsibility.  This responsibility means at times saying what needs to be said.  Because minority views are not always captured by minutes an accurate picture of what happens shows a weakness that needs to be addressed.

It has been virtually impossible for me to convey and have documented what I see on a daily basis in what is increasingly seen as a parallel world.

A lot of time has been spent by IHRC – in particular by staff attending conferences abroad, yet the absence of feedback from these events make it impossible to assess its usefulness in relation to the domestic situation.

Legal and academic debate is fundamental to the Commission but without any connection with the daily struggle of many of our citizens it is valueless and certainly leaves the term “human rights” a rather amorphous concept.

My experience of IHRC has been disappointing and reflects a widespread failure in Irish society, namely to build from the bottom up rather than the top down.

I am mindful of the words of former President Mary Robinson who in 2001 said “each time you speak out with a critical voice you pay a price”.

It is with some regret that I will not be re-applying for membership of the new Commission.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Leahy

Irish Human Rights Commissioner

Appendix 2


TRUST has been active in a front line capacity providing health and social services for people who are homeless on the streets of Dublin since 1975.

The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles:

  • The recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being.

  • The need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Homelessness as experienced by those living rough on our streets or staying in shelters and hostels is a complex problem and is not the same as “houseless ness” or a lack of accommodation.  In tackling this problem it is very easy to forget that the people involved have rights and deserve to be treated first and foremost as human beings who have as much right to determine the way they live as anyone else.   People do not decide to become outsiders – they are made to feel excluded and then find themselves being denied their human rights on many fronts.

In TRUST everyday we seek to positively affirm the unique identity of all of those we come into contact with.  The range of people we meet mirrors the make-up of Irish society with a strong bias in favour of those who are different.  Many of the people we meet have spent time in State run institutions and many not allowed to forget it. Regardless of sexual orientation, disability, religion, ethnic group or nationality we seek to treat everyone with respect.  We also meet people with severe mental and psychological problems which underlines just how diverse and different the people are who come to us everyday.  Our approach is to remind ourselves that first and foremost everyone is a unique human being with rights that must be respected.  A particular concern to TRUST is the right to privacy of many of the people we meet.  Personal data is sought from many before getting a basic service and this is stored and shared without due regard for informed consent.  (An issue we have raised with the Data Protection Commission).

TRUST has had a number of Education/Awareness Programmes to create greater understanding about what it means to be an outsider in society.   This was motivated by real concern about the way in which official policy was tending to create outsiders rather than helping people to find a welcome and a place in society.   (SEE APPENDIX 3 for a list of some Education/Awareness Initiatives).

Appendix 3

The TRUST Education & Awareness Programme:

The TRUST Education & Awareness Programme is aimed at changing attitudes and making people more sensitive to the needs of those who feel themselves outsiders around them.

All projects are on the theme of “The Outsider”:

  • The Homeless Experience, a Trust initiative, is a one day resource programme

for service providers in statutory and voluntary organisations at national and local level.  Financial assistance was given by Dublin Corporation (now DCC).  This programme aims to raise awareness on the issue of homelessness and to help focus individuals and organisations on their responses and possible interventions;

  • A video “A Fragile City” made by Esperanza Productions;
  • National Essay Competition for Transition Year Students;
  • National Art Competition for all second level students;
  • Book – “With Trust in Place”, with 40 contributors including Judge Michael Moriarty, Christy Moore and Tony Gill, a man who was homeless, published at the end of 2003 by Townhouse;
  • A seminar in RCSI in October 2004 entitled “Is the management philosophy of benchmarks and performance indicators compatible with a philosophy of caring?”
  • DVD “Building Trust in the Community” incorporating “A Fragile City” – sponsored by ESB Electric Aid – 2005.
  • Book “Wasting Time with People?” published by Gill & Macmillan (April 2008)             Over 70 contributors from all walks of life – dedicated to the late Professor James McCormick and Frank Purcell.
  • Website which as well as being a vehicle to advance understanding of the outsider also provides information about all Trust projects and activities.

Letter to Thomas Hammarberg

This letter was submitted to Commissioner Hammarberg in my capacity as Director & Co-Founder of TRUST

Commissioner for Human Rights
Thomas Hammarberg
Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights
Council of Europe
F-67075 Strasbourg, Cedex

1st June 2011

Dear Commissioner Hammarberg

I welcome the opportunity to meet you on your short visit to our country.
I am a member of the Irish Human Rights Commission and work on a daily basis at the coalface with people who find themselves homeless.

I would like to bring to your attention some areas of concern:-

  • The gap between those working at the coalface and decision-makers is wide;
  • Umbrella groups are not representative of the wider community and Quangos have allowed the decision-makers to distance themselves from those working at the coalface;
  • State funded agencies have allowed unprecedented outsourcing of services to our most vulnerable people to the voluntary/private sector;
  • No research has been done to indicate financial savings, if any, in this area but more important, quality of service and accountability;
  • Bureaucracy and red-tape have stifled initiative and debate, and as a result important questioning voices have been stifled;
  • Definitions of homelessness give no indication of the complexities of the human condition;
  • A large number of people who have been in State Institutions, eg. psychiatric hospitals and prisons, end up homeless, a number of whom at a very young age in the care of the State;
  • Many of the above people come from disadvantaged areas around the country;
  • Adequate community services have not been put in place to care for people discharged from psychiatric hospitals;
  • Access to health services, particularly for children and older people is a major concern. The embargo on recruitment of staff has had a huge impact on the quality of services, and as a result, the rights of individuals have been greatly eroded. Some of these issues were highlighted in a PrimeTime special programme aired by RTE on Monday 30th May 2011.

The information Update from The Homeless Agency dated December 2010 acknowledges that the numbers of people sleeping rough in the Dublin area has increased over the previous 12 months. [It is impossible to put a precise figure on the number of Non-Irish Nationals who are homeless in Dublin/Ireland as they are presenting at different agencies and there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that many are not presenting at agencies because of fear of repatriation or denial of a service.]

We have raised the concerns of TRUST with:-

  • The Director of The Homeless Agency in May 2008 (see attached)
  • Mr. Michael Finneran, Minister for Housing, Urban Renewal and Developing Areas at a meeting in May 2009 – (see pg. 4 of follow-up letter attached).

A large number of people currently homeless in Ireland do not meet the requirements of the Habitual Residence Condition – while entitled to shelter it is not always possible to access same. For example, in February of 2011 we had people from 25 different countries using services of TRUST:-

Ireland , Romania, Mauritius, Grenada, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Chile, Hungary, Spain, Moldova, USA, Ethiopia, Russia, Afghanistan, Portugal, Algeria, Morocco, UK, Italy, Turkey, Tunisia.

In April 2011 we had people from the above list as well as people from France, Malaysia and Bulgaria.

If a Human Rights Institution is to be effective it must be accessible to all and clearly independent of political influence.

Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us and continued success.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Leahy
Director & Co-Founder
Member of Irish Human Rights Commission

TRUST is a non denominational, non party political body providing health and social services for people who become homeless since 1975, not in receipt of funds from The Homeless Agency. TRUST is also committed to sharing the insights gained in its everyday work through education and advocacy.     See our web site:  The philosophy of TRUST is based on two central principles: the recognition of every individual’s right to be treated as an autonomous and unique human being; the need to restore the dignity of individuals whom society has labelled deviant and undesirable.

Formal complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner regarding tender process for the outsourcing of Housing Support Services

This matter was raised in the Irish Times and can be read online here.

Below is the full text of TRUST’s complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner.

TRUST makes formal complaint to the Data Protection Commissioner regarding tender process for the outsourcing of Housing Support Services.

13th October 2009

Mr. Billy Hawkes
Data Protection Commissioner
Canal House
Station Road
Co. Laois

Re: Danger to the privacy of people who are homeless through the outsourcing of Housing Support Services by Dublin City Council

Dear Commissioner

Further to our last complaint about the Homeless Agency, which we received correspondence from your office by the then Acting Commissioner Gary Davis, dated 11 July and 11 August 2008, we are very concerned about the outsourcing of Housing Support Services by Dublin City Council, which potentially could result in the abuse of the highly personal and confidential information about people who are homeless, which we complained about in the first instance.

The documentary evidence, which has given rise to our concerns, is the confidential Invitation to Tender document, a copy of which I enclose, and is only made available we understand, to registered potential service providers. Indeed, many of the same questions we raised in our original complaint, which was sent to your office in a letter dated 25 July 2007, a copy of which I also attach, are all relevant again in this context because services will now be outsourced to private contractors.

The tender has been issued by Dublin City Council, acting on behalf of the Dublin Local Authorities in collaboration with the Homeless Agency. You may also be aware that the Homeless Agency, which you discovered had no independent legal personality, and was simply part of Dublin City Council, is now being merged with other agencies. Therefore, our complaint on this occasion must be directed at Dublin City Council, the body with overall responsibility.

Before dealing with the specific concerns which arise out of the Invitation to Tender document, which prompted this new complaint, I think it is important to point out that when services, formerly provided by the state, are outsourced to private contractors, they must be done within very strict budgets or a loss may arise, something all businesses and voluntary bodies will attempt to avoid with considerable vigour. Against that background, great care must be taken to protect the people these new services are meant to help in case the service providers are forced to cut corners. Therefore, you will appreciate when we could find no credible evidence of specific measures designed to guarantee quality of service, or to protect the privacy of vulnerable people in the aforementioned tender document, we became very concerned. In an atmosphere where service providers are under financial pressure, the question must be addressed: will highly vulnerable people, who are often not in a position to complain, be put at risk?

Holistic Needs Assessment (HNA)

The basis for our original complaint was the highly intrusive way in which highly personal information was harvested through the Holistic Needs Assessment document, a concern you clearly found justified on the last occasion. However, as you will see in the Invitation for Tender Document on page 9, under the heading – 3.1.3 Provision of Support (Intensity and Duration), the HNA will not only be shared with the new contractors, but form the basis for the provision of new services, with no reference to the protection of the privacy of very vulnerable people.

In that context, it is worth noting that the Community Welfare Officers, have also expressed real concerns about the manner in which confidential information will be handled by the new contractors. They have, we understand, refused to hand over their confidential files until these issues are addressed. The latter only further increased our concern, especially as it appeared to suggest that little or no concern is being shown for the right to privacy of the most vulnerable.

Indeed, as you will see in Section 3.1 the new service providers will be involved in delivering services across a very broad range, even sourcing mental and other health services. Against that background, confidential information will inevitably be at the core of the new outsourced services, and the protection of the rights of very vulnerable people is clearly imperative.


You will be aware of our concerns in relation to the LINK system on the last occasion. In fact, sharing data bases will be a fundamental part of the new outsourced services. The Invitation to Tender document makes plain on page 13, under 3.2.3 Contractual Responsibility of the Provider to the Local Authority, that the contractors or service providers must comply with the following:

‘The use of and co-operation with, any IT/shared database systems as prescribed by the Local Authority as relevant to the operation of Housing Support Service(s).’

We have concluded from the foregoing that there must be wholesale data sharing, in a highly systematic way if the outsourced services are to “work” within the framework as laid down by Dublin City Council. We have seen how that worked when the Homeless Agency operated that system as part of Dublin City Council in the past. However, it is clear, if the services are fully outsourced as envisaged, it is conceivable that there will be even less control and protection of the most vulnerable under the new system.

Key Questions that must be addressed:

Before outlining the detailed questions that our concerns give rise to, it is important to stress, that this new system is not in place yet. Therefore, in raising these questions, we are very anxious to prevent a new regime, if possible, that will compromise the rights of the most marginalized in society.

How will proper care be taken, under the system as envisaged in the Invitation to Tender, to ensure that informed consent is obtained from people, who in most instances maybe highly vulnerable and suffer from mental and psychological problems?

What steps will be taken to ensure that the service providers, who take over housing support services, will not be able to use undue pressure to obtain signed consent forms in exchange for the provision of services?

How will the quality of the proposed services be assessed? And who will be responsible for managing that process? (Quality in that sense would include: Are people properly informed of their rights? Is informed consent defined, and what steps are taken to observe agreed protocols in obtaining it? How will the level of training of necessary staff be assessed? What steps are taken to ensure that only highly trained people carry out appropriate functions to ensure vulnerable people’s rights are protected?)

How will the contractors or service provider be monitored to ensure that all information is used and obtained consistent with the Data Protection Act?

In our previous complaint, we were especially concerned about large-scale information harvesting of the most intimate and invasive nature, for which there did not appear to be any need or justification, a contention that you supported in certain instances. When we question how will the quality of services be monitored, such questions must be at the heart of that process, to ensure that people who may already be suffering from mental problems will not be subjected to further pain by insufficiently trained or inexperienced staff.

The pressure that is brought to bear on private contractors and service providers to work within their budgets, poses real risks for the most vulnerable. Indeed, when we submitted our complaint in 2007, we offered anecdotal evidence, that suggested that untested allegations were entered on LINK, and were often used to bar individuals from access to services. In a situation, as envisaged by the Invitation to Tender, where the pressure will be placed on those agencies that win contracts to ensure that people are ‘improved’, will that result in even more emphasis on entering allegations in the system to ensure that people perceived as ‘difficult’ are denied access to services, without having the opportunity to defend themselves?

In conclusion, we acknowledge that this complaint is of necessity a pre-emptive action, because the way in which housing support services will be outsourced, under the terms as outlined in the Invitation to Tender document, appear to pose a grave risk to very vulnerable people. On that basis, we urge you to act urgently to review in detail the tender process, because if the services are rolled out as outlined, it may be both difficult and costly to act to protect people after they are established.

I look forward to hearing from you.

With very best regards

Yours sincerely

Alice Leahy
Director & Co-Founder

We have no future unless we give our young people a future

“We have no future unless we give our young people a future, and turning down a staggering 65% of students who applied for VEC PLC courses means putting all our futures at risk”

Alice Leahy, Director and Co-founder, TRUST presenting Certificates to students at the Liberties College

“Ireland’s best hope is to give young people educational opportunities because they will make a difference for all of us”

Congratulating students on their success in the Liberties College today (Thurs. 22 Oct, 2009) Alice Leahy, Director and Co-Founder of TRUST, the Liberties’ based health and social service for people who are homeless, said that they represent Ireland’s future and we all forget that at our peril. In many ways the current generation of politicians have let us all down, but she was highly confident that the talented and highly educated young people emerging from all of our third level colleges would make a difference, and denying educational opportunities to anyone was not only immoral, it posed a threat to Ireland future progress and prosperity.

“We have no future unless we give our young people a future, and turning down a staggering 65% of students who applied for PLC courses means putting all our futures at risk,” Alice Leahy said.

Describing the cap on placements on VEC PLC course as indefensible, with only 13,000 awarded places out of 37,000 applications, she said that politicians and policy makers had forgotten the reasons why we made such great strides in recent decades. “Ireland’s best hope is to give young people educational opportunities because they will make a difference for all of us. We proved that in the past with the universal acknowledgement that our well educated young people were the most valuable resource in helping our development, especially since we joined the European Union.,” Alice Leahy said.

Alice Leahy made her remarks when presenting PLC and Community Education Awards to students, who were successful in a range of disciplines including professional art and design, media, interior design, community care, nutrition and health care, counseling, child care and special needs education.