Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Community Employment Schemes.
Following his recent appointment, the Minister reviewed the policy on the operation of the FÁS employment schemes, which comprise community employment, job initiative, and social economy programmes. In undertaking this review, he took fully into account the views and concerns expressed by various interest groups and other key stakeholders, including the social partners.
On foot of this review, the Minister decided that the following changes would take effect as and from 10 November 2004. There will be no compulsory lay-offs on the job initiative scheme and participants who remain on the scheme will have their contracts renewed. People who leave it voluntarily will be replaced by community employment participants to support the service being provided. There will be no compulsory cessation of social economy programmes which play a valuable role in communities. In situations where an enterprise decides to cease activity, the employees affected will be assisted by FÁS in finding alternative employment. The three-year cap will be removed for community employment participants aged over 55. This category of participants will be eligible to participate on the schemes for a maximum of six years. In the case of people advancing beyond 55 years during their normal period of service on community employment, participation can be extended for up to a maximum of six years. The ring fencing and prioritisation of the essential services of child care, health related services and drugs task force clients will be maintained.
Community employment will remain as an active labour market programme with the emphasis on progression to employment. Despite the buoyant labour market, the continuing high level of inward migration and low unemployment, there is still a need for these schemes for people who find it difficult to secure employment. Thus, in 2005 there will be 25,000 places overall on community employment schemes, job initiative schemes and social economy programmes. These employment schemes have made a major contribution towards the provision of a network of valuable community services throughout the country. Equally, they offer participants the opportunity of work experience in a wide range of disciplines which equips them in time to progress to full-time employment in the open labour market. There are no plans to make any changes to existing FÁS training schemes.
I welcome the Minister of State's announcement of changes to the community employment schemes. I do not know why the Government took two years to make those changes. There was a 50% reduction in places over two years. Although I am sure the Government Deputies, and certainly all of us in Opposition, were being lobbied by community groups for many years, it has only now come to the Government's notice that it must act to preserve some of the schemes and the valuable work they do. How many places are there in 2004 on community employment, social economy and job initiative schemes? What was the budget allocated for 2004 for those schemes?
The most recent figures available are participation levels as of 24 September 2004. There were 20,643 places on community employment, 1,994 on job initiative and 2,189 on social economy. The budget for this year was of the order of €351 million.
The total number of places for 2005 will be 25,000, which is the same as the number at the end of September 2004. When one adds the three schemes together it comes to approximately 24,826. Despite the 50% reduction in the number of places, an effort is being made to create an impression that community employment schemes are increasing in number. That is the type of spin put on this reform. Does the Minister of State accept that there is a need for additional places to continue the work in resource centres, tidy towns and the various activities that have helped rural and urban communities and, more particularly, have helped participants receive training and gainful employment at a time when they might find it difficult to find employment elsewhere? Does he agree and accept that there is a need to provide an additional 5,000 places for the community employment schemes in line with the final outcome for 2003 to maintain the existing level of service in the community employment programme?
Two points about community employment schemes were that there were specific difficulties regarding people aged over 55 years, and the review findings and the Minister's announcement address that difficulty. They also go some way to address the second difficulty about which individual schemes complained, namely, that they had great difficulty in recruiting participants and schemes frequently had approval for a substantially greater number of places than there were eligible and available participants in their immediate areas. The improved situation for the people aged over 55 years is one measure to address that difficulty.
The rural social scheme announced in last year's budget is still available and there are 2,500 places, of which approximately one third have been taken up. Approximately 67,000 people participated in a wide range of active labour market and training programmes under FÁS.
I agree with the Minister of State that the rural social scheme exists but nobody wants to take it up. The proof of the pudding is in the eating where the number of places is concerned. Will the Minister of State indicate how many new posts were created at the FÁS head office in the past year and how many supervisors had to be made redundant at the same time to pay for them?
It is certainly not the kind of information specifically available to me at this stage. I will see if it is available and if it is, I will make it available to the Deputy.