Dáil debates

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Community Services Programme

7:35 pm

Paul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I recently attended the annual general meeting of a local community centre. I would like to outline some of the serious situations facing not only this centre but many other community centres and projects in the coming months and, more important, in 2021. This community centre has eight staff members and a co-ordinator and it receives a grant from Pobal of approximately €184,000 in respect of those staff. The funding has not been increased since 2013 and thus it has not kept up with inflation. The current funding provides for a wage of €9.39 per hour. As the Minister of State will be aware, the national minimum wage is €10.10. This means the voluntary management committee and the centre manager have to raise funding to cover the shortfall of 71 cent per hour per member of staff. They do this by running a café, which offers affordable food to the many people who use it not just for a cup of coffee or tea and a breakfast or a lunch but to connect with other people in the community. This is an important facility for people who may have nobody else to speak to on a particular day. The manager has told me that a number of people come into the café every day not just for coffee or food but to connect with people.

The centre has several rooms that are in constant use all day every day. The price and structure is kept deliberately low and affordable for the many community groups that use them because they also do not have sufficient funding. The centre receives funding from Foróige, which provides an amazing space for young people in the community and it has a brilliant crèche which caters for young parents in the Huntstown community. When they desperately need funding for repairs and maintenance, the community always rallies round. They are constantly drafting funding submissions for a couple of thousand euro here and there from Fingal County Council or some other organisation.

The time and energy taken up constantly worrying about how they will pay the wages, keep the café open and pay for essential maintenance and upkeep of what is now an old building can be overwhelming for many community groups. It should not have to be this way. They are providing a service that the State should be providing yet they have to struggle day in, day out. This was the case before Covid. With the onset of Covid, everything changed not only for this community centre but for every other community centre and community project throughout the State. Many of them are in the ownership of a local authority and this means they are somewhat protected. Centres outside of that remit are not protected and they rely very much on the local community and the resources they have.

Many of the rooms in this centre cannot be used because of the need for social distancing. The café is losing business because it cannot use all of its tables and thus the number of people that can use the facility is reduced. Fundraising will be affected because so many people have been badly hit by the pandemic. I have been involved in many community projects in the past number of months and during the lockdown. The amount of funding being raised by communities is astonishing but that well is starting to dry up as people are really struggling.

We know these community centres will either close or continue to struggle. They need the safety net of Government funding to meet the cost of the living wage but at the very least, the minimum wage. I am seeking a commitment from the Minister of State that the stimulus package will make provision for local community centres and projects such that they will not be adversely affected. While some of them will be okay for the remainder of 2019, the fear is that come 2021, the cumulative effect of all of the social distancing measures will have a detrimental effect on them.

7:45 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for his input. We shared a different chamber not so long ago and I recall him passionately defending his community there. There are not too many speeches I remember from that chamber but that was one of them. I thank him for doing that and for defending a crucial community resource in this case.

There are two halves to the answer to the question, the first of which relates to the structural funding issue. I understand that the Department provided some funding in that regard at the beginning of this year for the upkeep of the structures. In essence, the Deputy is talking about the community services programme, CSP, of the Department, which supports more than 400 organisations such as the Deputy described to provide crucial services throughout the country through a social enterprise model. It is an essential programme that provides a variety of community, business and social enterprises to deliver a range of local services and employment opportunities, such as community centres, Meals on Wheels, like in my area of Balbriggan, and the Skerries Mills café. They are crucial community focal points.

Services are being delivered in marginalised and isolated communities that would not be delivered were it not for the CSP, which supports more than 2,000 real jobs in various parts of the country. CSP funding is provided as a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time equivalent, FTE, positions, including that of manager where warranted. A total of €32,000 per annum is provided towards costs for the manager position and €19,033 per annum towards the cost of an FTE position. These positions are permanent jobs, not activation programme positions, which last only for a defined period. The CSP is a contribution towards the salaries. The jobs are not on the direct payroll of the Department, which is an important distinction.

The funding is a fixed annual contribution that must be co-funded by the organisations concerned from other sources, such as from income generated from the use of facilities and services provided. I acknowledge the Deputy's outlining of the difficulty of providing that part of the funding in the current circumstances. Supported organisations are obliged under the CSP to pay their employees at least the minimum wage level. I am aware that a number of CSP-supported organisations are paying their staff the living wage rate of €12.30 per hour. That said, during the Covid-19 crisis a significant number of CSP-supported services were unable to open or operate for a lengthy period, thereby reducing their ability to generate the required income.

To address this, the Department has a fund to assist CSP-supported organisations to retain their staff on the payroll during the Covid-19 restrictions when normal trading or other revenue-raising activities have been ceased or curtailed. The fund is providing additional funding to CSP-supported organisations that are most in need to enable them to pay their full-time CSP-supported employees €350 net per week, with a proportionate sum for part-time CSP-supported employees. It is important to make the distinction that the Department is supporting hte decisions but they are not payrolled by the Department. That is why the full wage is not covered. As I know, coming from where I do, it is wise to have several income streams if these crucial jobs are to be protected. In 2019, the Department appointed Indecon Economic Consultants to conduct an independent review of the programme. I will examine that in the weeks ahead to determine how we can progress and grow the programme.

Paul Donnelly (Dublin West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the additional funding for Covid-19 and the Covid payment that was provided. The crux of the discussion is that CSP funding is a fixed annual contribution towards the cost of an agreed number of full-time positions, including that of manager. Unfortunately, it does not bring up the payment to the level of the minimum wage. The cost is €9.38 per member of staff, whereas the minimum wage is €10.10, and it has not increased in a long time. There is a structural and fundamental issue with the CSP. My belief, and that of many community organisations, is that at the very least, the minimum wage should be covered. That, however, was prior to Covid. Post Covid, we are in completely different circumstances.

I accept that the Minister of State is genuine in respect of supporting communities and I look forward to his analysis of the report and of how we can move forward in supporting communities. At the end of the day, he and I know that such organisations are the heart and soul of our communities, both of the people who provide the service and of those who use the service. If we do not have them, that person who goes in for a tea or coffee does not get to speak to somebody that day, while a young person might wish to use the centre but it will not be there. He or she will be on the street corner. It is really important, when we are considering how we can fund our community, that we seek to make it as supportive as possible.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I assure the Deputy that on my watch, these services will be there and I will do everything to ensure they will continue to be there. It is a requirement of receiving support under the programme that organisations are obliged to pay at least the minimum wage. CSP funding is for social enterprises that are in a position to generate income to match the CSP contribution, which is a minimum requirement under the programme. If the programme were to increase the funding contribution to align it to the minimum wage, it could cost an additional €4 million per annum. It would be necessary to close the programme to new applicants and would limit any potential changes to the scheme that may be considered in light of the Indecon review.

I am conscious that in the current crisis, organisations are struggling to generate income, which is why approximately €1 million is being provided to the organisations currently being supported by the programme through additional funding. The fund was established for an initial 12-week period for all organisations in financial need but the Department has extended it on an exceptional case-by-case basis in line with the roadmap for reopening. It is targeted at those organisations most in need.

I reiterate my commitment to the Deputy that I will do everything I can to ensure that these crucial services, focal points and outlets for the community, where people can organise and feel part of the place they are from, will not only survive but grow in their reach.