Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 17 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Social Protection
Community Employment Scheme: Discussion with SIPTU
I welcome our guests from SIPTU who have asked us to allow them address this meeting. Here with us today are Mr. Darragh O'Connor, community organising sector organiser; Ms Doreen O'Connor, community employment participant Treasure Tots crèche, Ballyfermot, Mr. Seamus Briscoe, community employment supervisor and chairman of the SIPTU national supervisor committee, and Mr. David Connolly.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. By virtue of 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I now invite Mr. O'Connor to make his opening statement.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for agreeing to hear our presentation on the challenges facing community employment schemes and the future direction of community employment. On my right is Mr. David Connolly, community representative on the NEC of SIPTU, next is Ms Doreen O'Connor, a child care worker, Mr. Briscoe, a CE supervisor.
I will give a brief overview of community employment. It is Ireland's principal labour market programme, with the aim of enhancing the employability and mobility of the long term unemployed by providing employment opportunities for them in their communities. It aims to facilitate them to re-enter the active workforce by breaking their experience of unemployment. In addition, it assists them to develop both their technical and personal skills which can be used in the workplace. Community employment involves a part-time work placement with an employer or sponsor in a community based setting and operates in both urban and rural areas of disadvantage. It is by far the biggest programmes of its kind in Ireland. There are approximately 23,300 CE workers carrying out valuable work in communities all around the country. There are currently 1,123 CE programmes in operation. Community employment also provides a range of vital community services.
Community employment is an effective means of addressing long-term unemployment by providing accessible and appropriate opportunities for employment and training. Through participation in community employment in a supported community based environment, CE workers can regain confidence and acquire new skills to help them re-enter the active labour marker. It also plays an important role in helping to realise equality and inclusion for many who find themselves disadvantaged. Participation on CE is drawn from the live register and, consequently, often represents those at greater risk of marginalisation from society, work and learning.
In evaluating CE, it has been noted that CE schemes have had a number of attractions for disadvantaged groups such as lone parents, including flexibility, a strong social dimension and service orientated work.
The personal gains for participants, such as increased social interaction and integration, growth in self-confidence and self-esteem, and the holistic development of the individual, have also been acknowledged. A preliminary cost-benefit analysis by Fitzpatrick Associates in 1995 found that the benefits from community employment participation were 90% greater than the net cost of the programme. In 2008, over 44% of community employment workers progressed into employment or further education and more than 30,618 training awards were made to community employment workers, including Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC and Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, awards. The total estimated individual benefits from qualification awards in that year was €12,580,300.
There are 184,800 long-term unemployed people and any reduction of funding for community employment negatively impacts on the abilities of schemes to provide training and educational opportunities for unemployed people and other disadvantaged groups. Community employment is the backbone of the community sector, providing nearly one third of the total employment. Child care projects, youth projects, disability projects, elder care, arts, sport and cultural schemes, to list but a few, are dependent on community employment workers. The 1995 Fitzpatrick Associates cost-benefit analysis found that local development benefits accounted for 64% of the overallvalue of community employment. In community child care, for example, 1,288 of 8,200 child care workers in community-based child care facilities are community employment workers, and it is estimated that over 70% of those are lone parents. There are 2,200 community employment places ring-fenced for child care, 1,000 for drug rehabilitation and 2,800 for health and social care.
Community employment has an intrinsic social value. The review of labour market programmes carried out by Forfás found that:
Community Employment activity provides economic and social benefits to communities around the country in terms of providing services that would otherwise be lacking - especially those in disadvantaged areas. It provides support for several hundred community organisations, local councils, VEC's, Drug Task Forces, the HSE, Semi-State bodies and national charitable organisations.A 2011 paper by the Combat Poverty Agency, entitled Combating Social Disadvantage in Social Housing Estates, found that: "The Community Employment scheme is a core element of much of the area-based social provision now in place in Ireland and its contribution in that regard should be more clearly recognised and incorporated into the rationale for providing it and the bases on which it is evaluated." It is clear that community employment provides vital services in every sector of society, especially in areas of disadvantage, and the removal of these services through further cuts to community employment would have a devastating impact on communities.
In December 2011, the Government announced a reduction in the community employment budget in the order of €36 million, in the form of a 66% reduction in the materials and training allocation. It also announced that the retention of secondary payments for those with a disability and for lone parents would cease for all new community employment entrants from February 2012. Following the announced cuts, community employment workers, supervisors and sponsor groups, supported by SIPTU, campaigned and lobbied Deputies and councillors throughout the country to have funding restored. A financial review of all community employment schemes was announced by the Minister, which took more than seven months to complete, during which time schemes faced uncertainty and financial difficulties and many community employment workers were unable to complete training modules.
On completion of the review, the Department of Social Protection announced the reallocation of €9.5 million to community employment budgets for 2012 which, although broadly welcomed, is still in the order of a 30% to 40% cut. There is also huge variation in terms of grant allocations. Many schemes are still under extreme financial pressure and face uncertain futures. There has been no adjustment of the cuts to secondary benefits. The impact of this decision is twofold. First, for lone parents and people with disabilities, community employment is no longer a financially viable path to employment and training, which has limited their options for re-entry into the workforce and training. Second, many community employment projects, especially in child care and drug rehabilitation, are dependent on community employment workers who were in receipt of an additional social welfare payment. We now have a situation where many community employment projects are unable to recruit suitable workers, placing their future viability in doubt. Community child care projects, for example, will have to reduce capacity or even close if a solution cannot be found.
SIPTU activists have been campaigning tirelessly all year against cuts to community employment and to protect schemes and community services. This has been done through visiting Deputies, proposing parliamentary questions, lobbying councillors, organising community employment open days and promoting community employment through local media. We call on the Government to ensure community employment workers have access to high quality, accredited training, that placements are for three years to facilitate training and valuable work experience, that lone parents and people with disabilities are facilitated financially to cover their additional expenses in accessing community employment, and that vital community services are protected. We call for meaningful negotiations between the Department of Social Protection, SIPTU, as the workers' representative body, and relevant stakeholders on the future shape of community employment schemes and to agree reforms with workers, supervisors and sponsors. In that context, the Department's recent announcement that an employment schemes advisory committee would be established to advise the Minister on the implementation of the upcoming labour market review is welcome.
There is not a town in Ireland that does not benefit from community employment. Not only does it provide local services, it also gives people an opportunity to work, achieve a qualification and give something back to their community. In areas of disadvantage in particular, community employment can be a second chance for people. We must ensure community employment continues to provide this worthwhile service. I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for their time and am happy to answer any questions they may have.
I hope Mr. Darragh O'Connor heard what the officials from the Department of Social Protection had to say. They highlighted some of the changes that are coming but some of the questions and issues raised by Mr. O'Connor were not fully addressed.
Can Mr. O'Connor tell me the cost of a FETAC level 5 child care course and how long such a course takes to complete? Can it be done within a year or does it require more time than that? The information I have is that it is not always possible to complete a FETAC level 5 child care course in a single year or even to progress beyond that. The use of community employment schemes as a vehicle through which people attained child care qualifications and progressed to full-time employment is not an option any more because the private sector is now demanding level 6 qualifications and it is my understanding that it is not possible to complete levels 5 and 6 in a single year.
How have projects been affected by the changes relating to those on disability allowance and lone parents allowance? I quoted figures earlier from CityWide which indicate that there has been an 84% drop in recruitment for community employment schemes. Some of the schemes in my area are seriously stretched and are talking about reducing the services they can offer. Some of the child care facilities are reducing the numbers they can cater for. Is the drop in recruitment happening across the board?
The Kilbarrack coast community programme has been very successful in dealing with literacy issues, IT training support and so forth, but the cuts to the materials and training grant has badly affected it.
A number of other schemes have had the same type of recognition from the State, through Aontas for example, but no longer have money available. There has been a promise from officials that the VEC will, at some stage, get its act together and begin to deliver literacy and IT support schemes. In the meantime, what is the effect on CE schemes?
On page 4 of his presentation, Mr. O'Connor says the total estimated individual benefits from qualification awards, that is, the substantial FETAC awards that participants have got over the years, was worth €12.5 million in 2008. Where does that figure comes from? Does it refer to the benefit to society as a whole? If people's ability to progress through CE, come out with an award and get into work is restricted, what would be the effect of that on the figure of €12.5 million?
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. It is great to see Mr. David Connolly, in particular, at a meeting of this nature. The witnesses referred to the need for meaningful engagement on this issue. What engagement has there been until now and what would they consider to be meaningful engagement that might lead to a resolution of the problem?
I have a number of questions myself. Mr. O'Connor said in presentation that the Government had announced reductions to the CE budget of the order of €36 million, and of 66% in the materials and training allocation. How did he come up with the figure of €36 million? In the presentation by Department officials they mentioned the financial review which says €20.5 million was provided for training and materials this year compared with €29.4 million in 2011.
The issue of double payment was raised. The feedback I get as a public representative is that most people felt the double payment was not sustainable or justifiable. Some CE participants had larger incomes than public service employees or even their CE scheme supervisors. The payment was unsustainable, from a budgetary point of view, and was a disincentive to people seeking work, in the public sector, for example, where they would earn much less. This would arise for people whose families were of a certain size and had large social welfare payments.
I welcome the delegation and their ongoing campaign. I hope they will continue the campaign. It is invaluable for public representatives. Has SIPTU done any assessment on the quality of the education and training elements of CE? I would have been sceptical about them. How was the quantity and quality of the education and training elements measured? Does Mr. O'Connor have a view on the prospect of the VEC as a likely contender for doing more of the education and training? Would he welcome that, or does he have a view on it? It is something I would certainly welcome.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. Public representatives are kept aware of this issue every day of the week. I missed the presentation by the officials of the Department. They may have addressed the issue I raise. Last year, there was uproar when the cuts were announced. It was feared that community employment schemes would close. How many, if any, schemes closed when the cutbacks were made? Have participants encountered difficulty in progressing their training following the cutbacks?
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
The next question related to how projects are affected by cuts to disability and lone parent's payments. There is a practical issue in areas such as drug rehabilitation and child care, where we are seeing an impact. A high proportion of CE child care workers are lone parents and have been in receipt of those additional payments. We are now finding that child care facilities cannot find staff to meet their ratio requirements and this is putting pressure on their existing resources. Many of them are contemplating reducing the number of children they take on. This reduces their income stream and leads to a vicious cycle. Practical issues arise as a result.
In drug rehabilitation projects, where 1,000 places are ring-fenced, there appears to be a huge reluctance among people who need to avail of these services to give up their disability payment and go onto a CE scheme. People seem to be fearful that they may not resume their disability payment when they come off the CE scheme. They have medical needs and need their disability payment. The demand for drug rehabilitation services has not declined but schemes are finding it difficult to persuade people to join, because of the financial implications.
I will ask Mr. Seamus Briscoe to say a few words about how the cuts to training and materials grants have affected CE schemes since last year's budget.
Mr. Seamus Briscoe:
The cuts had a disastrous effect on training in the first seven or eight months until the reintroduction of a training budget, of sorts, amounting to approximately €250 per participant. We were devoid of training, meaningful or otherwise, unless it could be sourced free of charge by the scheme, the supervisor or the sponsors, from the VEC or elsewhere. Schemes have been very successful in sourcing literacy and further education programmes through the VEC or through the agencies that provide them. We were successful in getting people to junior certificate and even leaving certificate standard. It is often left to a supervisor to deduce that a person has a literacy difficulty or is dyslexic and to progress that person to the next level of education. We have had success stories in that regard.
The figure of €250 is 50% of what we were previously allowed. The question about childminding is not pertinent to my area of expertise, which is the sporting and social area. We begin the first rung of the ladder when the supervisor assesses the one-to-one relationships with the participants. Even after they leave the schemes, we do our best to progress the participants, and they frequently go on to achieve qualifications, to degree level in some cases. We begin them on the first rung of the ladder with regard to the required FETAC qualifications and modules. The resulting end product is qualification up to degree level in some cases. I have been fortunate to experience this on my own scheme. I hope this answers the committee's questions about the training process.
Mr. David Connolly:
As Senator Moloney said, the cut applied in last year's budget was a shock to the whole system. We know from our meeting with the Minister that it was foisted on that Department in an attempt to deal with something of the scale of 60%. We need to acknowledge that the officials were the ones who had to deal with much of that stress. As Mr. Briscoe said, people at local level felt under threat because the future of their jobs schemes was up in the air. It is important to acknowledge that the officials were in a difficult position where they had to deal with everything while at the same time trying to engage with people. I think they found that the engagement through the unions in particular helped them to work through the process. We are not pretending it is anywhere near the end of the process but that was an important point.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor referred to the community employment campaign run by SIPTU. Many of the activists are in the Gallery to hear the evidence to this committee. It was important that we engaged with the Government backbenchers and the Opposition parties. Much of the change happened because of that internal pressure on the Minister from the parties. We learned that there are many Deputies who are very connected into the work of community employment and the wider community sector and the benefits and argument for it. We have a very informed electorate. However, our concern now is that we have been warned by the Taoiseach and the Minister responsible that this budget will be the worst ever in their term of office. I do not know why they keep telling us it will be the worst ever. This creates a serious threat to the future of community employment. We ask the committee to be aware of this issue because there is a danger that the Minister rather than the Department could decide that we should start with last year's allocation and then have the argument. It is vital the committee ensures the Minister allocates the funding necessary for this programme into next year so that another crisis is avoided.
I refer to the important work by the Department officials and their presentation today. Despite all the stress and turmoil, we now have evidence in financial terms to show what it costs to run community employment. We have recommendations that value the service side as well as the activation side. Coming to the end of this year and into next year, we have much more concrete evidence of the costs and the fact that the scheme is run very efficiently and has been developed over many years.
Mr. Oliver Egan said there are cuts of €3.5 million to be found. It is good if they know that but it should be retained in the programme because, in fact, their own report shows there is a greater demand for training. It is welcome that the officials who produced this report acknowledge the importance of training in the current environment.
I have two further points to make. The Minister assured us we would be involved actively with her and the officials, and this has happened. However, we will now be facing a potentially ominous report on the activation process, in other words, labour market activation. There seems to be a mindset and an obsession - some of it driven by the ESRI and the Forfás report and this seems to be contaminating the troika representatives - that the only reason for community employment and other schemes is to do with activation into the labour market. We know in this country that there is not an active labour market in this current environment. The representatives have said new approaches need to be developed, and social economy is one such approach. I remind the committee that when Deputy Ruairí Quinn was the Minister responsible for enterprise back in the 1990s, the size of community employment schemes was doubled because the infrastructure was capable of doing so. We are not arguing it is all the one thing. It is good to hear the Department officials saying the Tús programme should be aligned, as should the RSS, but in doing so the differences in wage scales and conditions need to be addressed without undermining or diluting the effectiveness of community employment. The other schemes should be brought up to the same level.
With reference to the double payment, there is no question that the decision to remove the payments from lone parents and those with disabilities had a major impact on people who have been recognised as among those most likely to be living in poverty. Recent research work in UCD has shown that in the general population there is a 16% risk of poverty but it is 35% among lone parents. The argument that they are getting an income over and above what others who are on the scheme receive misses the fundamental point. It was not just an income, rather it was to address the circumstances of those who are lone parents or those with disabilities because their circumstances are different from the rest of the population. It was designed to act as an incentive to ensure this participation would be of benefit to them and their children. The case being made is reflected in the Department's report. It states there should be tailor-made approaches to those circumstances. For example, we support the drugs projects and child care projects. It is not a case of one size fits all. We argue it is vital a means is found to re-involve lone parents or those with a disability.
The VEC programmes were very effective in the earlier days of the community employment scheme. They are a vital element in providing quality training and also because they are in receipt of much of the funding that was taken away from the Department of Social Protection and was taken over by the Department of Education and Skills. There is a strong argument for a more active involvement by the VECs. However, in doing so, they need to talk to the local sponsors, the workers and the trade unions about their requirements in order that it is not another one-size-fits-all approach that suits the VECs. Those are the issues I want to deal with.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
These figures would have been taken from statements by the Department and by the Minister. There is a training budget and a materials grant and these are usually lumped together so there might be a difference there. I will double-check the figures and if there needs to be a clarification-----
I was comparing the Department figures with Mr. O'Connor's figures. I looked at a lone parent with a particular number of children and I compared the income to be received from a social employment scheme with what a student nurse receives. The student nurse was coming out a lot worse. The student nurse would be better off financially in the end because he or she would have a career progression over the years, earn a reasonable salary and have a permanent and pensionable job. I still believe there is an issue that needs to be addressed. If double payments were not restored, what would Mr. O'Connor suggest as a support for a lone parent? What should the Department do, in his view, to support lone parents and people with disabilities?
Mr. Seamus Briscoe:
The Chairman has summed it up correctly. However, she is leaving out some of the aspects we would encounter as to what lone parents have to deal with. They may wish to re-enter a system that will re-introduce them to training or to the work ethic.
Their income is not sufficient. They may have child care costs and be obliged to make mortgage repayments and they just cannot do both. They cannot sustain their position in this regard no more than they can actually sustain themselves. The Deputy's summation is probably correct. I am merely providing details on the type of practical cases we encounter.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
If I was a lone parent taking up a place on a CE scheme at present, I would be receiving €237.80. This would be if I had one child. If there were child care costs involved, I would not be able to afford to take up the place on the scheme. If we are to be able to facilitate lone parents and people with disabilities to access CE, which is the main avenue for them to partake of work or training opportunities, consideration must be given to child care provision. I am reluctant to put an exact figure on it but some kind of additional payment would need to be made. This would be in recognition of the fact that people are obliged to meet certain costs, such as those relating to buying lunch, paying transport costs, etc. We would love the payment to be restored. In the absence of this, however, there is room for manoeuvre in the context of making CE a viable option.
Mr. David Connolly:
If I could take up that point, aside from the money issue, we are concerned here with the fundamental role of community employment. Last April, just over 20% of the participants on community employment schemes were lone parents. This represents a significant drop on the previous position. Some 16% of the participants were those with disabilities. As Mr. Darragh O'Connor stated, we want to ensure we do not end up losing the entire concept behind community employment, namely, the benefits it has for the services sector, the individuals who partake of the scheme and the labour market, as a result of pressure arising from the scale of the unemployment problem. Community employment is targeted at those in particular circumstances such as the long-term unemployed, lone parents and those with disabilities. There is a belief that after being unemployed for six months, people need to be doing something and this gives rise to the pressure to which I refer. As Deputy Connaughton said, we need to ensure community employment will be viewed not merely as the quickest way to get large numbers of people back into the labour market.
I hope the thrust of the Department's presentation will be reflected in the wide range of labour market activation programmes which exist. I hope the baby will not be thrown out with the bathwater and that it will not be a case of deciding that it is all just about how large numbers of people can be placed on community employment schemes. As Deputy Ó Snodaigh stated, rehabilitation is no longer working in the cases of many lone parents who are drug addicts. There has been an 84% drop in this regard, which is an extremely serious development. Ring-fencing 1,000 places for those who are addicted to drugs was a vital element in the context of rehabilitation and really had nothing to do with CE. We do not want to lose these. There must be an incentive in the context of facilitating certain people with regard to CE rather than obliging them to just fit in with everyone else. That is the argument in respect of lone parents and those with disabilities.
Is the 10% limit on extensions hampering certain of the outcomes for participants? It was stated earlier that it is not possible for people to pursue a FETAC level 5 course. What is the position with other schemes? The scheme with which I am familiar is that which relates to child care. The campaign raised a range of other issues during the past year and I presume that SIPTU is still engaging with the Department in respect of pay and conditions, collective bargaining for supervisors and other vital issues. The issues to which I refer have been forgotten to some extent as a result of the crisis in dealing with the day-to-day operation of CE schemes and ensuring participants can avail of some type of training.
Mr. Seamus Briscoe:
In respect of the extensions, there are different interpretations. Ms Doreen O'Connor will testify to the fact that in the context of child care there is a need for a period beyond the initial year. Possibly, it could be extended to three years. This is a matter in respect of which a supervisor and a higher executive officer would consult and make a decision. Extensions vary and would be determined by the level of progression in the context of seeking a qualification or training or seeking a qualification and training.
In respect of the Deputy's other queries and questions, we have been involved in discussions and negotiations for the past year. Some of the matters in that regard, in the context of community terms, social terms or whatever, are not relevant to this meeting. Issues have arisen for some supervisors and these are ongoing. We hope that at some stage we will reach a compromise as a result of our negotiations. What has happened during the past year has been very frustrating.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
This is the crux of the matter. Studies show that in respect of CE, one gets the biggest bang for one's buck in areas such as child care and elder care where high skills specific training is provided. If we are going to take this on in a serious way, then people need to be trained up to FETAC level 5 or level 6 or whatever is the industry standard. In addition, people must be given the time to pursue and complete the relevant courses. What is required, therefore, is access to quality training. Such training is provided by VECs or other providers. In such circumstances, three years is a realistic goal because not only will people have an opportunity to complete their training, but also the organisation involved will also get something out of it. A three year period would ensure there would not be a constant churn of people through those organisations. In other words, individuals would not leave immediately upon obtaining a qualification. There is a need to bring some kind of stability into the workforce which relates to community organisations. These are the key points we are trying to get across in the context of the training aspect.
I asked this question because some of the schemes with which I am dealing are very frustrated that extensions are not being granted. Mr. Darragh O'Connor referred to a constant churn of people through organisations. In that context, there is no benefit to participants because they are halfway through courses when they are obliged to leave. Equally, there is no benefit to the scheme because it must begin again with someone new. This all takes a great deal of time. Three years is a very abnormal period nowadays and it would only be one year in the majority of cases. With the exception of the training and materials grant, this is nearly the equivalent of the position with regard to Tús courses. I do not know whether our guests are familiar with the suggestion to the effect that, with the exception of an element of training which might be provided by VECs in future, there is a move towards equating CE with Tús.
Mr. Darragh O'Connor:
There has been an increasing amount of discussion to the effect CE courses are going to move toward the one year model. This misses the point which various members of the committee have highlighted, namely, the benefit of CE to individuals and local communities. I do not know how we are going to sustain quality community services if everyone is on one year contracts. There are underlying issues for those who are long-term unemployed which can take six to 12 months to address before those individuals can take up vocational training.
Community employment plays a key role in local communities and it really is the backbone of the community and voluntary sector. Without it and the quality training and longer-term placements it offers, there will be a detrimental impact not just on the people involved but also on the schemes and various organisations involved: Enable Ireland, Age Action Ireland, meals on wheels, the Alzheimer's Association, etc. Unless we are able to protect the social aspect of community employment, we will be much worse off. A short-term saving will possibly be made but, as a result of the choices we make in the next six to 12 months, there will be a cost to be met in 20 years' time when the services begin to crumble around us.
I thank the Chairman and members for their time.
I thank the witnesses for briefing us so comprehensively. It has been very valuable to hear both sides, from the Department and the witnesses. This is an issue of great interest to Deputies and Senators because we can see the value of community employment schemes in our constituencies. They have become professional over the years, and now have a formal training and education structure whereby people reach various levels. We will keep on top of this issue because like the witnesses and the Department we were also taken by surprise last year. We have learned much from this. We will send the presentations made today and a transcript of the meeting to the Minister for Social Protection and we will ask her to comment. She will come before the committee at a future date and we will raise the issue with her then and do our best to ensure the sector is protected.