Tuesday, 20 April 2010
Question 56: To ask the Minister for Social and Family Affairs the new responsibilities allocated to his Department, including details of its responsibility to provide a cohesive system for unemployment to retraining and jobs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15642/10]
Under the recently announced changes in ministerial responsibility, the employment and community services programmes of FÁS are being transferred to my Department, the community services programme and the rural social scheme are transferring from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and responsibility for the payment of redundancy and insolvency payments is transferring from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment.
The process of transferring functions from one Department to another is carried out by means of Government orders. Each order needs to be carefully drafted so that all relevant legislation is listed in the Schedule to the order. The Departments which currently hold the functions that are being transferred to my Department are fully engaged in this task at present. The draft orders will need to be finalised and settled in the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel before they can be brought to Government.
Once this process has been finalised, the Minister for Finance will bring the necessary orders to Government. At this stage, I cannot give a precise date for the formal transfer of functions as this depends on a number of factors, including the complexity of the legislation governing the particular functions. I assure the Deputy that everyone involved in the process, both in my Department and in the other Departments concerned, is making every effort to complete it at the earliest possible date and I hope that it can be brought to conclusion within a matter of weeks. While the primary responsibility for job creation rests with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, my Department already has a role in supporting people from welfare to work. The national employment action plan is the main activation measure for jobseekers and provides for a systematic engagement of the employment services with unemployed people.
Overall, the transfer of functions being implemented will facilitate the delivery of a more effective and streamlined response to the needs of the unemployed. Bringing together, under the aegis of one Department, the employment services of FÁS, the expertise of its placement officers and the unemployment services of this Department, as well as the community employment schemes, job initiative scheme, community services programme and rural social scheme, will offer significant opportunities to generate synergies, improve efficiency and ultimately improve service delivery to those availing of these services.
The existing level of interaction and co-operation with FÁS and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will facilitate a seamless transfer of functions when the necessary orders are finalised and the restructuring will provide for greater cohesion of activation measures.
I, too, wish the Minister well in his new portfolio.
The Minister's predecessor, the current Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Mary Hanafin, indicated that she did not mind being removed from her previous portfolio because the Department's policy functions had been removed. I am paraphrasing rather than quoting the Minister directly but that was the import of her words. Will the Minister confirm that his Department will continue to have a policy function, specifically in the area of creating employment opportunities?
The Minister used the word "seamless" in connection with FÁS. No one in the House would describe FÁS as a seamless organisation. I am concerned by the decision to divide the organisation's function among three Departments. Will the Minister provide further detail on exactly how this will work, in particular, on the ground in local FÁS offices? At present, a person visiting a local office will find the community section and employment officer in the same place and the training function elsewhere. Will this continue to be the case? While the Director General of FÁS has ultimate responsibility, will three FÁS officials be answerable to the three responsible Ministers or will only one official be answerable to all three Ministers?
The Minister stated everything will come together. Will the 59 facilitators operating in the Department come under the remit of FÁS or continue to operate independently? While we all want seamless operations, I am not convinced that will be the outcome of the proposed changes.
Currently, a person who signs on as unemployed signs up for a payment and then visits his or her local FÁS office seeking activation placements and so forth. The Department's aim, which makes a great deal of sense, is to ensure that when a person visits his or her local social welfare office, the officials who deal with placement will be working side by side with those dealing with payments. There are two sides to unemployment. While the income issue is important, we have not stressed the debilitating effect of unemployment on those affected by it. The objective, therefore, is to have a one-stop-shop.
The Deputy asked whether the Department will have a policymaking role. The Department will make all policy in this realm. The only policy element being moved elsewhere is the national social inclusion policy which is transferring, with the family functions, to the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The Department will continue to feed into that process, although the lead Department will be the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Policy on all activation and social welfare issues as well as community schemes and so forth will be made in my Department.
The Deputy asked how the proposals will work. For years, I have argued that enforced idleness is not a great policy. We spend €3 billion or €4 billion annually on unemployment payments and a further €500 million on activation. My Department, rather than two Departments, will treat this money as one pot. I want to use activation measures to differentiate between those who are genuinely unemployed and those who may not be genuinely unemployed and use savings arising from this approach to create more activation and opportunities for people to be gainfully involved in community work and so on. That is the where the big change will come about. Having all the money in one place will make a radical difference in that respect.
We would all like to see greater activation. It would have been better if the training section was within the Department itself, but that is for another day.
Will the FÁS staff currently based in local FÁS offices now be placed in local social welfare offices? If that is the case, will they retain the status of public servant or will they become civil servants, as they would be in the Department of Social Protection? FÁS staff were supposed to be moved to Birr, but it was hard to move them, so I do not envy the Minister in trying to get them to move to social welfare offices around the country.
The Deputy previously asked who was in charge as long as FÁS exists. The best analogy on how this can work is with Pobail. The responsibility for this body was with the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which I served in a previous administrative role. However, many different Departments use Pobail to deliver schemes on their behalf under service level agreements. Similarly, primary responsibility for corporate governance in FÁS will transfer to the Department of Education and Science, but there is no difficulty in the short term in having an agreement between my Department and FÁS to deliver services on a contract basis through activation. Decisions on CE schemes and so on will not pose insurmountable difficulties. There are good working models on how to do that.
The Deputy rightly highlighted the next stage, which is the challenge of getting from where we are to where we would like to be. There are industrial relations issues and we will work on these gradually. On a practical level, we must have greater interaction between those working on the payment side of unemployment and the people who are working with deactivation. After three months, about 60% of people have moved back into employment. After one year, it has dropped to about 30%. It is at that juncture where we have to try to move people into some kind of activity rather than having them drawing money for a long time with nothing to do. One of the big things that genuinely unemployed people complain about is the forced inactivity. I will try to tackle that problem as quickly as I can.