Tuesday, 22 September 2009
Job Initiative Programme.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting this item concerning the future of the job initiative scheme, which has less than 1,450 participants throughout the country. I was directly associated with the creation of the scheme in 1996. In 2004, the then Minister decided that no new entrants should be admitted to the scheme from that date. However, the economic environment has changed completely since 2004. The scheme, as we devised it in 1996, was designed to provide full-time employment for people aged 35 or over and who had been unemployed for five years or more.
In the approximately 12 years the job initiative programme has been in existence, it has provided meaningful work for a few thousand people who otherwise might have been left on the dole queues. More importantly, these people have done immensely valuable work in their own communities that might otherwise have not been done. If the Tánaiste was now to dismantle the scheme, she would be dismantling the essential infrastructure that supports the community sector in dozens of locations throughout the country.
In my constituency there are six job initiative projects, providing full-time employment to 103 people. These people are involved in a myriad of services essential to the community, for example after-school care, breakfast clubs, homework clubs and gardening and security services. The job initiative projects provide jobs in the social economy in administration and maintenance. The areas supported by these workers are community centres, creches, enterprise centres and parish properties. Imagine the damage that would be done to the social fabric of a struggling community if the Minister was to pull the plug on these projects.
These workers have now acquired rights. The communities they serve have grown to rely on the services they provide. Together they have made a world of difference in their own communities. I am not sure the powers that be have much of an appreciation of the nature of community development or community action. I do not believe that top-level decision makers generally appreciate the value of the work done in such communities nor have they attempted a cost benefit analysis of such services compared to the cost to the Exchequer if these services were not provided in the community by the community.
I cannot claim that the job initiative scheme has evolved exactly as was envisaged when we launched it in 1996. However, one of the most gratifying things for me is to observe how the programme has enabled participants who otherwise would have no opportunity to become involved in education to achieve diplomas, degrees, FETAC qualifications and certificates. It would be folly for the Government to butcher the job initiative scheme. In the medium term it will cost the Exchequer more to cope with the fallout if the good work undertaken by these projects is undermined. I hope the Tánaiste will be able to assure participants that their jobs are secure and that she will be able to assure the communities reliant on the job initiative scheme that they will not be deprived of the valuable services that they enjoy as a result of the scheme.
Dara Calleary (Minister of State with special responsibility for Public Service Transformation and Labour Affairs, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Teachta as ucht an cheist seo anocht. FÁS employment services comprise the community employment and job initiative programmes. As Deputy Rabbitte outlined, the job initiative programme was launched by him in July 1996 and continues to provide full-time employment for people who are 35 years of age or over, unemployed for five years or more, and in receipt of social welfare payments over that period.
FÁS, as an agency of my Department, operates the job initiative programme with a dedicated budget of €39 million for 2009. There are 1,444 participants, with this number decreasing annually due to retirement and other reasons. The main purpose of the programme, as outlined by Deputy Rabbitte, is to assist long-term unemployed people to prepare for work opportunities by providing participants with work experience, training and development opportunities. The programme is sponsored by voluntary organisations and public bodies involved in not-for-profit activities. FÁS provides financial support to assist with the job initiative programme, for example, participant wages. Also, while on the programme participants can retain entitlements such as medical cards or child dependent allowance, and be eligible for others such as revenue job assist.
Following changes introduced on 10 November 2004 by the then Minister, Deputy Micheál Martin, in response to labour market conditions at the time, no new entrants have been admitted onto job initiative schemes. However, contracts for existing participants are renewed, allowing them the option to continue until they are 65 years of age. In order to support the service being provided, community employment scheme participants replace participants who leave the job initiative programme voluntarily or through retirement.
In addition, the community employment programme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged people with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a fixed term basis. The purpose of the community employment programme is to help the unemployed to re-enter the open labour market by breaking their experience of unemployment through a return to a work routine and to assist them to enhance their technical and personal skills.
The current eligibility criteria are well known to Members of the House and I want to draw attention to a number of changes that have been made to cater for older workers in particular. In 2004, the standard three year community employment programme cap was revised to allow those of 55 years of age and over to avail of a six-year period on the community employment programme based on participation since 3 April 2000. Subsequently, the participation limit for persons eligible for the community employment programme based on a social welfare disability linked payment, including those under 55, was increased by one year. These measures were introduced in recognition of the fact that older participants and participants with a disability may find it more difficult to progress into the open labour market. I should also point out that the community services programme, operated by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, offers many of the same services and is providing many of the same opportunities as the job initiative scheme.
Funding for community employment in 2009 was €380 million and at present there are more than 22,000 people participating on community employment schemes. An additional €6.6 million was provided to FÁS for the provision of an additional 400 community employment places in 2009. In delivering these places, FÁS operates flexibly in the management of this allocation to maximise progression to the labour market while at the same time facilitating the support of community services. This provision of places is managed through a standardised application process between regional FÁS offices and local sponsor and community organisations and any issues regarding the allocation of places are dealt with in this context. However, it should be remembered that, in so far as participants remain on community employment programmes, they preclude someone else from benefiting from the programme.
FÁS makes every effort to ensure that differing levels of demand between neighbouring schemes are equalised. FÁS also operates the programme flexibly as far as possible to ensure the continuation of community projects. The Government will continue to support the positive role of FÁS employment schemes in meeting the needs of long-term unemployed people at this difficult time. I will be happy to sit down with Deputy Rabbitte, given his experience from previous times, to share ideas with him on redesigning the existing schemes.