Thursday, 4 April 2019
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Community Employment Schemes Supervisors
3. To ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans for community employment schemes; her further plans to address pension entitlements for supervisors and assistant supervisors; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [15535/19]
This question relates to the Government's recent announcement that it intends to change the focus of community employment schemes from activation to the social aspect. The Minister has informed us that she has set up an interdepartmental committee to consider how that should be done. I am trying to ascertain if this committee has met yet. How long will it be before we can expect proposals from the committee? For how long will the recommendations be considered? When the recommendations are ready will they be discussed with stakeholders and with the relevant Oireachtas committee, which is the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection?
Community employment, CE, is the largest employment programme administered by my Department. It was initially established in 1994 to enhance the employability of unemployed persons by providing work experience and training opportunities for them within their communities close to their homes. Its objective was, and remains, to help long-term unemployed people to re-enter the active workforce. It was always intended and it has been the practice that the numbers of people on community employment or similar schemes, such as Tús and the rural social scheme, RSS, at any point in time would reflect the number of long-term unemployed people on the live register. It is because of this that the governing rules were established, arein situ and still established today.
Thankfully, the number of people on the long-term live register has fallen very significantly in recent years from more than 200,000 people a short five years ago to about 76,000 people today. Given the reduction in the live register, we have to recognise that there are challenges in ensuring that we can refer sufficient numbers of people with appropriate skills to resource all of the existing the schemes at the level the schemes require.
I refute what Deputy O'Dea has said. I am not changing the focus with regard to the interdepartmental group I have established. I am trying to acknowledge the reality of the current system and the fact that one set of governing rules does not actually fit the reality of what our community employment schemes do today. I am fully committed, have always been and will always be to the future of our community employment schemes. They make an enormous and valuable contribution to our communities. I want to see them sustained, which is not the current position given the difficulties of the accessibility and the rules required of people to either apply for CE or to stay on CE. Thankfully, the Government agreed to my establishing the interdepartmental group to explore the most appropriate organisational arrangements with regard to all our schemes. The primary focus is on social inclusion, or sheltered employment, and the delivery of the services they provide for all of our towns and villages.
The first meeting of the interdepartmental group was held last week and it is expected that the group will have set of recommendations for me to bring to bring to Cabinet by end of the second quarter.
In his parliamentary question, Deputy O'Dea specifically asked about the claim by CE supervisors-----
I will get on to the CE supervisors in a moment but first I will address the Minister's reply. My reading of the Department's statement was that the situation had changed with regard to community employment schemes. Originally their primary purpose was labour activation. Now that we are down to nearly 5% unemployment, it is recognised that there is a tremendous social aspect to these schemes also. If the Minister wants to put it differently from me and say that the reality has changed, then that is fine and I am willing to go with that. Will the Minister agree that the new reality, for which she is now providing, indicates that more flexibility will be required? We are constantly presented with cases - for example, where a person works as a caretaker in the local community centre or GAA club and there is nobody to replace him or her when the year comes to an end. Under the rules of the CE scheme, the club or centre has to let that person go. More flexibility will be needed. Will the Minister say whether she agrees with me on that? Would the Minister agree that because of its long experience in this area the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is the proper Department to continue to be the governing Department for the community employment schemes?
When it was established, it was not to look after people who may have difficulties from a social inclusion perspective. That just evolved. It has evolved in that way and is effective because of the type of services the CE host companies offer to all of our communities. It is normally a volunteering type of effort, for example, with regard to tidy towns, helping our sports clubs and meals on wheels. It is very much a giving and voluntary-type of service offered by these organisations. Over the years, more people who have faced those social barriers or difficulties in entering the mainstream workforce and who, for whatever reason, have difficulties working on the main streets of our towns, have found a very natural home in our CE schemes because of the extra supports, the extra mentoring and the lovely warm environment our CE companies all display. They provide huge services. People get up every day and go to work. They do not get up every day to help somebody do a service, rather, they provide a valuable service. I want to see that acknowledged because I do not think it currently is. I want to stop the business of me getting letters week in, week out, and I am sure this happened to all the previous social welfare Ministers also-----
On the CE supervisors, the Minister will be aware of the Labour Court recommendation, which is now 11 or 12 years old, that indicates that community employment supervisors should be paid pensions. There is also a Dáil motion that was passed by a majority of two to one in this House. The initial explanation from the Government for the delay in implementing the will of the Dáil was that if pensions were granted to community employment supervisors, there was a danger it would have to be done right throughout the community and voluntary sector. I believe that we have sufficiently debunked that. I hope the Minister is not going to fall back on the idea that the companies themselves are responsible and, therefore, say she cannot honour the Dáil motion. These are paper companies with no cash or assets and they do not have the resources.
I will answer this in the politest way I possibly can. When the Labour Court passed down the judgment in 2008, Deputy O'Dea was sitting at the Cabinet table, and he continued to sit at it for a further three years. If there was a simple solution to this problem, I am quite sure the Deputy would have found it.