Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Community Employment Schemes Places
31. To ask the Minister for Social Protection if his attention has been drawn to the ongoing difficulty of filling community employment scheme places due to his Department's prioritisation of JobPath; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25900/17]
79. To ask the Minister for Social Protection his plans to amend the JobPath rules to allow for referral of eligible persons to community employment schemes; his further plans to reduce the barriers limiting the number of eligible persons applying for community employment schemes; and the criteria used to determine if a person is eligible at 21 years of age or if the case officer has complete discretion. [25842/17]
95. To ask the Minister for Social Protection the way in which community employment scheme places are to be filled if he continues prioritising JobPath over community employment; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25896/17]
The focus on JobPath as opposed to all other job activation schemes is something I have raised with the Minister consistently in the last year. If the focus on JobPath continues, how does he realistically expect to fill the many vacant community employment scheme places in the State?
I propose to take Questions Nos. 31, 79 and 95 together.
As the Deputies will be aware, my Department provides a range of activation supports catering for long-term unemployed jobseekers and those most distant from the labour market. These supports include the JobPath service and the community employment programme.
The JobPath service aims to place people in full-time sustainable employment. The period of engagement with the service for any individual is typically 52 weeks. During that time he or she receives intensive individual support to help him or her to overcome barriers to employment.
While the community employment programme is a stepping stone back to employment, the positions are not full-time sustainable jobs. It is worth noting, however, that people who have completed their year long engagement with JobPath may, if eligible, apply for a community employment scheme vacancy.
The Deputies will appreciate that the welcome increase in the number of people at work and the continued reduction in live register numbers is a factor in recruitment to all work programmes and the private sector generally. Nevertheless, it should be noted that I recently announced changes to the terms and conditions for participation in the community employment programme. My effort is to widen the pool of people who can apply and, therefore, help to fill the vacancies in that way. The changes being introduced will see the general qualifying age for the community employment programme for those on the live register reducing from 25 years to 21. This will open the programme to all young jobseekers who will be paid the full adult rate if they take up a community employment scheme position. These clients will meet a case officer in the same way as all age categories of applicants do. As part of the implementation of the new measures, my Department is consulting key stakeholders across the country. If any scheme is experiencing particular difficulties, it is asked to contact the Intreo office for further assistance.
At this stage, over 97,000 people have been transferred to JobPath and the private companies Turas Nua and Seetec. Community employment schemes across the State are in serious trouble not just because of the creation of JobPath but also because the lack of funding has thrown open a series of other challenges for community employment schemes. It is not just the low unemployment rates that are the driving factor in places not being filled, it is also the over-reliance on JobPath. The fact that more than 97,000 people have been referred to JobPath is having a serious impact. That is not just my view, it is also the view of the community employment reform group. People who are operating on the ground with the schemes are saying many places are not being filled as a direct result of JobPath. I heard the Minister's comments on broadening the criteria for participating in the schemes, but if people are referred to and locked into JobPath in the first place, they will not be available to fill places.
Nearly 100,000 people have been referred to JobPath, but the Deputy did not mention that 25,000 of them are now in full-time employment, which is to be celebrated. They are older people, or even younger people, who have acquired a new skill and are now as a result in full-time employment. They include lone parents who have overcome many barriers to employment. There are also people who have set up their own business with the assistance of my Department. Not only are they now in full-time employment but they are also creating jobs for others. These are the heroes of the economy. They are people who were in receipt of welfare payments for over a year and are now in full-time employment. They number 25,000 in the last year. That is something to be celebrated, not denigrated.
The major factor in filling vacancies not only in community employment schemes but also in shops, hotels and across the board throughout the country is the fact that rate of unemployment has gone down so much. It has decreased from 15% in 2012 to 6.4% now. When one factors out short-term unemployment, where people are between jobs, the long-term unemployment rate is now 3.6%. It should not be a surprise, therefore, that not just community employment schemes but businesses all over the country are finding it hard to recruit and fill vacancies.
At a recent meeting of a Westmeath community employment sponsor network group massive concerns were raised by members about the Department of Social Protection's proposed changes to community employment schemes. They believe the Department might not fully understand the important role community employment schemes play in towns and villages across the country. They say the proposed changes to the eligibility criteria and the qualifying length of time will severely limit the pool of people accessing community employment schemes and greatly affect the essential services they are providing in local communities. There is not enough support available for the main sponsors of community employment schemes. Can the Department advise on how the position can be improved or whether funding can be made available to the main sponsor who wishes to be trained in the development and running of community employment schemes? There are many changes taking place in community employment schemes and the main sponsor must be up to date with all of the changes made by the Department.
I wish to put a number of points to the Minister. People over 55 years of age who are seeking work face ageism in the jobs market. Qualifications are not a guarantee that one will find work. We are an ageing society and there is no proper structure in place to support people over 55 years of age, aside from the community employment programme. Forcing this group to attend training, with the use of all sorts of paraphernalia, is unfair. Many of them have literacy or rehabilitation issues. There is no outreach service in rural areas. There are no departmental offices in my area of Ballynacargy. It is all theory. A big shift has taken place under the Minister. There has been a shift from a community focus to a shifting-people-on approach.
That is what is taking place. It is said there is a lack of value of contribution by the participants. The Minister is shifting them on to the next programme. The likes of JobPath and Seetec are an absolute disaster. A letter from them means an applicant is no longer eligible for community employment. Will this continue now that Intreo case workers are assessing a client's eligibility? They are interested only in shifting people on to Seetec and so on, regardless of whether they are suitable. When they get their claws in, it is like an alligator getting one between its teeth. They will not let go. I brought to the Minister's attention cases of abuse by them. I want them wiped out. I do not care a sugar; I said that before. I am sick of them. Will this continue? This has to stop.
What criteria are used in determining applications for the community employment scheme with regard to those aged 21? Is it completely at the discretion of the case officer? This is very important.
The proposal I am making in regard to community employment schemes is to relax the rules and widen the pool of people who can qualify. If there are supervisors who are opposed to that, it is news to me. I have come across supervisors who believe it does not go far enough but I have not come across anyone who is actively opposed to the measure I am putting in place, which is to widen the pool of people available for community employment.
JobPath is a service to which people are referred for a year. There are many who could qualify for community employment or Tús schemes before JobPath but, for whatever reason, they choose not to participate on them. There are many who spend a year on JobPath, who do not find a full-time job afterwards and who are then eligible for community employment but who, for whatever, reason, choose not to participate. What I am trying to do is have my Department connect a bit better with community employment schemes and refer to them the list of those whom we call JobPath returnees, the people who do not find full-time employment after a year with Seetec or Turas Nua. It is a matter of trying to get them connected with the community employment scheme. The supervisors fill those vacancies. If one thinks about it, one realises there are probably nearly 40,000 JobPath returnees who have not found full-time employment at this stage. This is much more than the number of vacancies. We need to connect a bit better.
I acknowledge the Minister understands the concept of community employment. I have listened to him previously on this. He said he appreciates and acknowledges the essential and critical work of the programme right across the State. My concerns are replicated outside the House. I outlined the case of one organisation. Another organisation, the Local Employment Service Network, a community-based organisation that focuses on finding work for people, sees its referrals down right across the State. The Minister acknowledges the position on work being carried out in community employment schemes. Community crèches are unable to fill their vacancies.
The Minister said he is broadening the criteria for applicants for community employment but the problem is that when Seetec and Turas Nua get their claws into the applicant, he or she is locked into a contract for a full year. I have come across numerous examples of where JobPath, Turas Nua and Seetec got their claws into people who were waiting for a short period for community employment application forms to go through and locked them into a contract. The Minister is saying now they are locked into that position, and they know themselves that they are not fit to work in the public-----
They then have to wait a full year to go back onto a community employment scheme, on which they really should have been in the first case. This would have saved the State €1,000 up front. The people get locked into a scheme, run by a privatised service, for which they are not really suitable in the first place.
The time limits exist for a reason and I ask the Deputy to adhere to them in fairness to every other Member who wishes to contribute. In order that as many questions as possible may be answered, I ask Members to stick to the time limits. Does Deputy Penrose want to comment?
The materials budget allocated to community employment schemes is severely inadequate due to the rise of insurance costs. Can the material allowance be increased to accommodate the increase in insurance costs and could we revert to a payment of €20 per week to remedy the cash flow deficit existing on community employment schemes?
What about the Jobs Ireland website, which caused a lot of confusion, hinders the application procedure for all community employment schemes and is no longer connected with the old FÁS application procedures, making the submissions list obsolete? How does the Jobs Ireland website factor into the application procedure now? One is required to have a high standard of education to operate computers and associated software, thereby contradicting the whole ethos.
Participants coming off Tús schemes are immediately eligible to commence on community employment schemes involving child care but with environmental schemes the participant must go back on payments for two weeks before becoming eligible for a community employment scheme longer than one year. Can the approach to all community employment schemes be harmonised? There is not enough awareness of community employment among the unemployed on the live register. How can this be rectified? Can there be a public awareness programme introduced on a pilot basis by the Department of Social Protection? The period of participation on child care schemes is three years. Environmental scheme participants are initially allocated just one year. Why can it not be the same? Why can it not be three years for everything? Let us have a level playing park. If some schemes are for one year and others are for three, one will of course go on the three-year one.
I am not really sure what Deputy Brady was referring to when he spoke about jobseekers not being suitable for employment. If I said something like that, I would be accused of all sorts of calumny. The usual left-wing commentators and the usual suspects on Twitter would probably be in a frenzy this minute if the words the Deputy used in the past five minutes came out of my mouth.
Of course the number of referrals to the local employment schemes is down. Unemployment is down by two thirds and, therefore, referrals are down. What we want from the local employment schemes is not having one case officer to 2,000 people; we want one case officer to about 150 people. Now that the unemployment rate is relatively low by comparison with the previous rate, the people who are now still unemployed need more one-to-one attention than those who would have been unemployed during the boom period.
I absolutely acknowledge the important role community employment plays, not only for the individual participants but also in terms of the work done in communities, be it meals on wheels, social care, child care or outdoor works, as on pitches. That is why I am determined to ensure that where a community employment scheme is providing a service in the community, we relax the rules to the extent that allows the positions to be filled.