Wednesday, 10 October 2012
Topical Issue Debate
Community Employment Schemes Places
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting the topic of the knock-on effects cuts in social welfare are having on participation in the community employment scheme. Without meaning any disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Ciarán Cannon, I am disappointed that the Minister for Social Protection is not present to address the issue. I thought the idea behind the Topical Issue matters was to have the Minister with direct responsibility before the House to discuss them.
I have considerable experience in the area of community employment, having been involved in the current community employment schemes and the old AnCO schemes as a member of membership committees and liaison person for participants. The Minister visited some community employment schemes in the north inner city some time ago. The specific community employment schemes to which I refer provide valuable services, including child care, after-school services and care for the elderly. They also provide a service for participants by offering them training, further training and educational opportunities, whether through first chance education or back-to-education schemes. In addition to these benefits, certain community employment schemes should be recognised as an end in themselves because they deal with extremely vulnerable individuals, including early school leavers who may have been caught up in crime or addiction. Schemes of this nature are different from other community employment schemes. In that regard, I acknowledge the decision to ring-fence schemes in the area of drugs.
There is no doubt that cuts in social welfare benefits are having a knock-on effect on participation in community employment schemes. I will cite the community after school project, CASP, to illustrate the problem. The CASP is having difficulty filling 38 places as a result of cuts in social welfare benefits This will have a knock-on effect on the training and education grant, which means some participants in the scheme may find their educational and training opportunities being curtailed or deferred. Further, if community employment schemes cannot attract sufficient participants, they will not be able to provide badly needed services. Child safety measures have resulted in different ratios being implemented for child care projects and it is possible these projects may not be filled either.
Developments in the social welfare area are having a ripple effect. We have heard that interviews are being held. However, the approximately €20 additional payment available to participants in community employment schemes will not even cover transport costs or the cost of their lunch. Some participants are in danger of losing a small pension entitlement, while others may lose their medical card. Potential participants who could gain valuable experience from community employment schemes, whether by securing employment or entering further education, must give precedence to their economic security. Cuts in social welfare benefits are having a range of effects on community employment schemes and their participants and will have implications for supervisors and assistant supervisors if numbers decline.
Community employment schemes in certain areas - not only those which involve drugs - must be ring-fenced given the high rates of unemployment, educational disadvantage and so forth. If the Minister had been present, I would have asked her to give special consideration to the schemes in question.
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton, who is abroad on Government business.
As announced in the budget, from 16 January 2012, new participants in community employment schemes will not be able to simultaneously claim their original social welfare payment and a community employment allowance, as per section 12 of the Social Welfare Act 2011. This measure affects those in receipt of the following payments commencing community employment schemes after that date: one parent family payment; deserted wife's benefit; widow's-widower's pension; illness benefit; disability allowance; invalidity pension; and blind pension. These new participants will instead receive payments directly via the community employment scheme at a rate equivalent to their original social welfare payment, including any increase for a qualified adult and-or child dependants, plus an additional €20 participation bonus.
New participants are defined as those persons who, with effect from 16 January 2012, have not been employed in a community employment scheme in the 12 months prior to commencing the current placement. Those lone parents who are already participating in community employment schemes had no change in their one parent family payment rates. However, they lost the entitlement to increases for qualified children on their community employment allowances and receive the community employment single adult rate only.
The number of persons in community employment categorised as jobseeker's allowance eligibility has increased by 20% since the end of December 2011 to date and there has been a corresponding decrease in other eligibility categories, notably lone parents. The jobseeker's allowance category has been increasing steadily since mid-2009 owing to the changed demographics in the job-seeking population. All participants who exit a community employment scheme and do not progress into employment or further training or education can return to their social welfare payment provided they still qualify for receipt of that payment.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Those in question - one-parent families, deserted wives, widows, widowers and those with an illness benefit, disability allowance, invalidity or blind pension - are extremely vulnerable and marginalised. Surely, the idea is to encourage them into community employment schemes with added incentives. People will not join a CE scheme for the exact same money they would get on social welfare. It beggars belief the incentive which has worked for these schemes has been removed. I have known many people who have gone from these schemes into full employment, further training, post-leaving certificate courses and college. If these people are now precluded from entering a CE scheme, the other services they provide such as child care and after-schools supervision will also be gone. In turn, there will be more on the dole. Somewhere along the line, somebody is not joining the dots to keep people on these schemes instead of their having to go back on the dole.
It has been my experience of working with CE schemes in County Galway that the opposite applies in that we are actually finding it difficult to facilitate people who want to get on to a scheme. With 450,000 people on the live register, I also find it difficult to believe there is a crisis of recruitment from the ranks of the unemployed into CE schemes. The figures are pretty stark. The numbers on CE schemes receiving jobseeker’s allowance has increased by 20% since the end of the last year and has increased steadily since mid-2009 due to the changed demographics in the jobseeking population.
As with any other Government scheme, it must evolve to respond to the challenges of the day. Perhaps the ambition of the CE scheme when we had full employment is substantially different from that of now. With 100,000 people unemployed from the construction sector, it is important to be able to facilitate as many of these people as we possibly can in engaging with their local communities, feeling they are making a contribution to society as well as being able to avail of sufficient and topical training opportunities that will allow them get back into the workforce. We are seeing the evolution of the scheme to cope with challenges that arise today. The scheme’s make-up may be different. With 450,000 people unemployed and Ireland losing €44 million per day, we have to make some difficult decisions. The decision taken by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, on the CE schemes is correct.