Dáil debates

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Priority Questions

Community Employment Schemes

2:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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I understand the Ceann Comhairle has agreed to allow Deputy Sean Fleming take Question No. 109 and subsequent questions in place of Deputy Barry Cowen.

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Question 109: To ask the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm the findings of the reviews she commissioned in relation to community employment schemes; the schemes that have been earmarked for closure; the cuts in materials and training grants planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28166/12]

Photo of Barry CowenBarry Cowen (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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Question 110-: To ask the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm the findings of the reviews she commissioned in relation to community employment schemes; the schemes that have been earmarked for closure; the cuts in materials and training grants planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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I propose to take Questions Nos. 109 and 110 together.

The budget for expenditure on community employment, CE, schemes in 2012 is €315 million in respect of 23,300 places, including approximately 1,400 supervisors. Responsibility for community employment schemes transferred to the Department of Social Protection with effect from 1 January 2012. Since this transfer Department of Social Protection staff, including former FÁS staff, 700 of whom are now integrated into the Department since 1 January, have been involved in a series of detailed discussions with CE sponsors. These discussions have shown that while notionally focussed on activation, in reality community employment programmes deliver a range of services from child care, health care, drugs support to environmental works.

The financial review of community employment schemes is near completion. This review has proved to be a valuable exercise for the schemes and the Department. Given the volume and breath of the data being returned and the requirement for staff to engage with each scheme, of which there are almost 1,000, the review has taken longer than originally envisaged to complete. The outcomes of the reviews will be communicated directly to CE sponsoring organisations by staff in the Department as soon as they are finalised and the overall provision has been agreed by Government. It should be possible to do that this month.

Owing to current economic circumstances, the Government had to find significant savings in the budget for 2012. However, the allowance grants for CE supervisors are unchanged, as are the working hours for staff employed under CE. There will also be no decrease in the number of CE places allocated in 2012. While no final allocation of materials and training grants has been made pending completion of the financial review, the existing commitment in relation to the financial support of schemes will continue to apply. No schemes have been earmarked for closure. The Government is committed to supporting the CE participants and the sponsors in continuing the valuable contribution the programme makes to individuals and communities.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister's reply to these questions is seriously deficient in that it does not answer our question in regard to when the reviews will be completed, one of which, the value for money review, was to be completed by end March. I understand there is to be a third review, which will be a combination of the two earlier reviews. The Minister stated that the review is taking longer than expected. There were 1,000 schemes in place prior to commencement of the review and 1,000 will remain in place when it is completed. I do not understand the reason it was not possible to determine how long the review would take.

The Minister stated that she hopes to communicate by the end of this month with each of the sponsoring committees on how they are to continue and in relation to the materials and training grants situation. This could lead to further delay. By way of example, I would like to read a letter which I received yesterday from Mr. Michael Nestor, who is involved in a community employment scheme and deals with Offaly Personal Assistant Services Limited on this issue. He states no decision has been made on how its funding will continue. The company was told it would know by the end of April but it has not yet received any information despite a meeting having taken place between FÁS regional managers and the Department. Offaly Personal Assistant Services Limited provides services to people with physical and sensory disabilities. These people are the leaders while those participating in the scheme are the personal assistants.

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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A question please Deputy.

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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These personal assistants have a progression rate of 91%. At present 24 personal assistants are being trained to FETAC level 5. Will the Department of Social Protection or the Department of Education and Skills be responsible for this training? Will the Minister give a commitment to schemes throughout the country providing FETAC level 5 training and with good progression rates that their training budgets will remain intact?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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With regard to the final point on training, when the scheme was transferred to the Department the allocation for training from the national training fund was €4.2 million, which was approximately €190 per participant per scheme, and this funding is included in the budget allocation I mentioned earlier. To be clear, the terms of the review were to examine the income and funding of sponsoring organisations in terms of their ability to continue the programme with reduced funding from the Department of Social Protection. Community and voluntary sponsoring organisations receive funding from a multiplicity of State agencies. Deputies familiar with community employment schemes will know that in some cases, perhaps in the case of the scheme in Offaly which assists people with a disability, they may also be in receipt of other funding, for instance from the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills or educational bodies. This is part of the reason that collecting this enormous body of data on community employment has been so difficult and so demanding. I thank all of the community employment schemes which, for the most part, have been extremely co-operative and helpful in providing data. It came from a slow start, to be honest, which is one of the reasons it has been difficult to get a full picture.

I am very conscious of what happened previously, which was that many of the reports published on community employment were not flattering to it but they did not tend to address the issue of services provided. I was anxious that when community employment came under the remit of the Department of Social Protection the issue of the delivery of service and its importance and significance to local communities throughout the country would be taken into account.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I note the Minister stated the report is not finalised but some work has been done by the Department with regard to meeting some of those who will be affected. Therefore at the very least the Minister has a draft in front of her. The Minister stated the review was a valuable exercise but for some schemes it was not because the outcomes and changes being implemented do not seem to have been reversed, such as the financial implications of some of the cuts to child care schemes in particular. Some of these schemes have been greatly affected and a number are seriously considering whether they can re-open in September. On top of this are the changes with regard to terms and length of time of community employment placements. With regard to child care schemes, a number of people have been refused a third year of training. It is illogical that the State would invest in their training only to cut it off midstream. Will the Minister re-examine this issue in particular? It is illogical to have people on level 4 or 5 in terms of child care when the new standard is level 6. Away from this debate the Minister has also committed to providing a first class child care service. That would be one change.

The Minister said the review would not result in immediate closures. However, some CE schemes have closed because of the cuts, including the Smithfield Centre for Independent Living. As I have mentioned, a number of child care facilities are seriously concerned as to whether they will be able to continue, including Casper on the north side, Treasure Tots in Ballyfermot and one in Poppintree. Representatives of other child care facilities have also contacted me. Can the Minister give a commitment that the report will be finalised and published, and that there will be some type of stability for such facilities in future?

Photo of Joan BurtonJoan Burton (Minister, Department of Social Protection; Dublin West, Labour)
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Late last week I received drafts of the report, which I have been reviewing in great detail. I wish to clarify a matter on specialist areas of CE. Some 1,000 places are ring-fenced for rehabilitation purposes; 2,200 places are ring-fenced for child care provision; and 2,800 places are marked off for health and social-care provision. They are commitments in those very important areas. The issue of the child care courses is being specifically examined by officials in my Department as part of the overall review of CE. I agree with the Deputy that the provision of child care and appropriate training and education for child care have been very important, both in terms of community services and in terms of the progression of the individual through the acquisition of appropriate qualifications in child care and social care. That is very much part of the review.

One of the reasons the review has been so challenging and has taken so long is that there are almost 1,000 schemes. There are many different types of CE schemes, some of which deliver services to GAA and other sports clubs where there might not be a requirement for a great deal of education, training and progression. In other cases such as child care, there would be such requirements. For example, the drug programmes relate largely to the rehabilitation of the individuals who take part in those programmes. There are probably ten or 12 different broad types of CE schemes.

One of the important outcomes of the review has been the identification - we discussed it in the House previously - of very serious savings that could be made in areas such as administration in respect of insurance charges, and audit and accountancy charges. In the case of a number of CE schemes, it is also clear that rental savings may be possible. In the case of some schemes, premises are being rented in some cases at what one might call Celtic tiger prices. Some schemes have entered into legal obligations and commitments.

No two schemes are exactly the same which is one of the reasons the review has taken so long. I am very happy that the schemes have offered a very high level of co-operation and information to staff in my Department. I am confident that with the information we have got we will be able to retain the level of service delivery and also provide for a much better structure of experience and progression for the individuals who participate in the schemes.