Tuesday, 11 April 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Priority Questions
Community Employment Schemes Operation
40. To ask the Minister for Social Protection if he will amend the qualifying criteria for eligibility to participate on community employment and Tús schemes and in particular, the length of time a person has to be in receipt of a qualifying social welfare payment. [18238/17]
I am sure the Minister is aware that community employment, CE, and Tús schemes provide communities across the State with a deep network of services. They have always acted where State provision has not been fully accessible to communities and are, in effect, part of the State machinery in looking after some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. Many non-profit organisations, charities and community groups are heavily reliant on CE staff. It is in that context I call on the Minister to relax the eligibility criteria to ensure that more schemes could be sustained, given that it is more difficult for them to get suitable applicants to ensure the tremendous work in communities continues.
As the economic recovery takes hold and the overall level of unemployment continues to fall, the need to adapt employment programmes such as community employment and Tús to the changing circumstances, opportunities and the needs of jobseekers has become more apparent and urgent. With this in mind, my Department undertook an analysis of CE, which also looked at other employment programmes associated with it such as Tús. The report, which was recently approved by Government and which I published last Friday, made a number of recommendations on the operation of these schemes.
The changes I am introducing will see the general qualifying age for CE reduced from 25 to 21 years, thus allowing more younger people to take part in CE schemes and it will be easier for previous participants to re-enter a scheme for another year as the baseline year is being moved from 2000 to 2007. The changes widen the range of people who can take part in CE and that will improve the availability of people for the schemes.
However, the length of time a person must be in receipt of a social welfare payment to qualify for CE or Tús remains at 12 months and I have no plans to change that. That ensures a person who becomes unemployed is, in the first instance, provided with the one-to-one intensive activation support of a case officer to try to find regular employment for them before being considered for a placement on an employment programme. We want people to get into work first or education and training ahead of a scheme. We also want to ensure that the focus of these schemes continues to be on the long-term unemployed, those who are not able to find jobs.
The Deputy should note that the overall number of scheme places available in 2017 is 32,000. CE will continue to be the largest programme with 22,400 places in almost 1,000 schemes across the country. The balance will be made up of placements in schemes such as the rural social scheme, RSS, and Tús.
As part of the implementation of the new measures, my Department will consult with key stakeholders in the coming weeks about the implementation of the new arrangements which will commence thereafter. I have also signalled my intention to make a decision on relaxing the rules for people over 55 who are long-term unemployed and I will make a decision on that in the next three months.
I am pleased my question triggered some response from the Minister and his Department because I tabled a question last Wednesday and lo and behold, last Friday it all came tumbling out. I am very pleased I played a role in that regard, along with some of my colleagues who are present. So be it.
It is vital that people over 55, in particular those who use the schemes as a form of rehabilitation, are allowed to continue on schemes. There is nothing to stop that. It is all right talking about work but in rural areas in particular, one might not even have transport to get to work.
There should be a change in the Tús scheme in terms of providing materials grants and educational and training opportunities. Does the Minister still plan to reduce the number of places on community employment and Tús schemes when he links them to the live register, as he outlined in his reply? Would that not imperil the provision of community services? In terms of his future plans for CE and Tús schemes, does the Minister intend to reduce the number of places in 2018? When the Minister starts to talk to bureaucrats they will certainly urge him to do so. Does the Minister have plans to increase the materials or training grants received by CE schemes? That would be very important. In addition, does he have plans to incentivise those in receipt of disability allowance to take up places on CE schemes? That would be a very important avenue of participation.
I would very much like to increase the materials and training grant and to increase the €22.50 top-up paid to participants in the schemes.
However, these are budgetary matters and I am sure there will be competing priorities for the budget this autumn, as is always the case. They will certainly be on my ask list. I cannot guarantee that I will be able to deliver on them, but I will certainly try to do so.
During the recession, there was a major increase in the numbers on schemes. The CE scheme increased in numbers, while Tús, Gateway and JobBridge added to that. Logically, as the economy recovers, the numbers are being reduced. JobBridge is closed to new entrants and Gateway is being phased out. CE will be protected because of the important service provision role it plays. We are providing for 22,400 places to be funded this year. At present, we are slightly below that, at 22,356, so there is room for a small addition. In the medium-term, we intend to link the numbers to the live register. As a result and as the numbers on the live register increase, there will be more places. As the numbers decrease, there will be fewer places. I think that makes sense.
Is an instruction in place from the Minister's Department that requires mandatory placement of long-term unemployed individuals with private companies? Are they prevented from participating in CE schemes if suitable vacancies arise when they are engaging in JobPath? JobPath is nothing short of legalised bullying. It is time to stop that. If people want to move to CE schemes that are more advantageous, they should not be dumped into offices or put into one-to-one schemes where they learn nothing. It is time to call those boys off and terminate that contract. We might have been a party to bringing it in, but we should dump it now because it is nonsense. I am sick of it. The most complaints I, as my party's spokesperson on social welfare, received were about that scheme. The Minister would not believe how many complaints I received.
It has come to my attention that Intreo places greater emphasis on helping recipients into the JobPath programme, often without mentioning the potential of CE schemes for them. Is that a policy within the Department?
The way it works is that anyone who has a start date for a CE scheme - and if that start date is within four weeks - can take that up ahead of any referral to a job provider such as Turas Nua or Seetec. The Department's policy is one of work and jobs first. We want to get people into regular employment and reserve places on employment programmes like CE and Tús for those who are unable to gain such employment. The initial work we want to do with people in the first year or so, whether it is done through Intreo or Seetec, is to assist them into full-time paid employment. If that is not successful after a year or so, they are then very good candidates for CE schemes, Tús schemes or other programmes. That is very much the policy and I think it makes sense.
Although I have seen many such cases, I do not want to see people who have been on the live register for years only wanting to take part in CE schemes all of a sudden when they are referred to JobPath, although they had an opportunity to do CE schemes years earlier. We cannot have people chopping and changing between different programmes and schemes. Once a person is on one scheme, he or she remains on it until such time as it finishes.