Thursday, 4 March 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Community Employment Schemes
The community employment, CE, programme is invaluable. Workers gain experience and develop skills. Communities gain from the work and society gains from the programme. In west Cork, CE workers are vital. Without them, many rural services and organisations would close.
Skibbereen Education and Environment Project recently shared with me a selection of the roles CE workers fill. There is the care and repair service, set up with support from one of my predecessors, former Deputy Jim Daly, which carries out small repairs to keep elderly and vulnerable people in their own homes and is staffed entirely by CE workers. Support staff in Lisheens House, a suicide awareness and counselling charity, are CE workers. Community halls, Tidy Towns committees, sports clubs, and charity shops have all gained substantially from this programme. It is the type of Government policy we need. Community employment is targeted at the needs of people and communities and meets our shortfalls in local services. Every Deputy in the House knows its value and supports it.
There are three issues that projects and sponsors have highlighted to me. The first is the situation regarding workers aged over 55. Rural areas have proportionately more older unemployed people. Rural and coastal communities need the CE scheme to recognise this reality. Prior to 2017, workers could remain on the scheme for up to five or six years depending on their circumstances. However, the previous Government greatly reduced this period and community employment schemes generally last one year now, with the possibility of an extension if the participant is working towards an award. This is beyond frustrating for workers and sponsoring services. Individuals doing good work and helping their community have to leave their role because the Department changed the conditions. They are forced to leave the programme, are made unemployed and the vacant role is not filled. I do not know where the joined-up thinking is in this.
The second issue raised with me is that projects and sponsors are calling for the qualifying period of unemployment to be reduced from 12 months to six months. This would enable a whole cohort of people to participate in the programme, upskill and actively contribute to their communities. I do not know what sense there is in making people spend an additional six months unemployed rather than giving them the opportunity and dignity of taking up meaningful work. This issue is even more relevant during the pandemic, when employment prospects are bleak. The people affected and all communities need the Government to respond pragmatically by allowing people to access this excellent programme earlier.
The third and most urgent point, to which I ask the Minister of State to give priority, is the clear need for a further extension of contracts for community employment workers. While I welcome the extension the Minister of State announced during the week, it was only until 2 July. Over the past year, sponsors and projects have not been able to recruit and retain effectively. Training, which is a requirement of the programme and part of the contract, has not been adequately delivered, particularly during the pandemic. It is only fair that all existing contracts be extended well past July. The Department has acknowledged that an extension is needed; it just needs to follow that through to its logical conclusion.
There is precedent for this. On the islands, an exception is made for lifelong learning due to the restrictions caused by living on an island. Those same restrictions are apparent in many rural areas as well. These roles cannot be filled, particularly in a pandemic. For example, social welfare officers would normally look for new people to fill community employment roles after 12 months. However, these officers are in desk work now so the roles are not being replaced. Leaving vacant roles such as those I highlighted will have a detrimental effect on communities, even more so in a pandemic. If community employment positions in west Cork are not extended very soon, the number of CE workers will fall from 30 to 11, which could cause the service to be discontinued. We would then lose services we desperately need, especially at the moment.
Skibbereen Education and Environment Project and other organisations have asked me to bring these matters to the Minister of State’s intention to help preserve their schemes and the service they provide. What answers can I give them?
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Community employment is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed-term basis.
The Deputy may be aware that I held a productive online meeting on Wednesday, 27 January with the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, and representatives of the CE sponsoring authorities. The representatives outlined a range of issues that are causing concern within their schemes. One of the CE schemes in Skibbereen has raised similar issues directly with my Department officials locally. Following this, the Minister and I announced a number of changes to community employment on Tuesday, 2 March, which will substantially address the concerns that have been raised. One of the issues raised was the implication of a 2017 rule change that affected CE participants aged 55 years and older who were in community employment in July 2017. Following an examination by Department officials, we announced that participants affected by the rule change in July 2017, who were in community employment at that time, now have the option of remaining in CE for a maximum of six consecutive years in accordance with the terms of the saver clause introduced in the 2017 rule changes. Department staff will shortly begin work with community employment sponsoring authorities to identify those eligible CE participants.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have approved the extension of CE participant contracts that would have come to an end during level 5 restrictions on a number of occasions. To date, more than 5,000 community employment and Tús participants have benefited from these arrangements. These participants will now benefit from a further extension up to 2 July. This will benefit an additional 2,000 CE and Tús participants whose contract would otherwise end between now and the start of July. I reassure the Deputy and the community employment scheme in Skibbereen that these contracts will not suddenly end on the final date of extensions, whenever that will be. Subsequent to the final extension date, there will be a planned ending of contracts on a phased basis and over a period of time to ensure continuity of local services. Department officials will work on the ground with CE schemes to support them in managing this process.
I am aware that community employment recruitment challenges arising from the current restrictions have had an impact on the ability of some CE schemes to recruit new participants. Department officials continue to work with CE sponsoring authorities to identify and refer potential CE participants to schemes where it is safe to do so in compliance with public health restrictions. I have also reiterated on a number of occasions, most recently on Tuesday, that filling CE vacancies will be an absolute priority for the Department, once the economy and society begins to move beyond Covid and public health restrictions ease. It is our intention, therefore, to significantly scale up the numbers of referrals from local Intreo offices to CE once the country begins to reopen.
We also announced on Tuesday that a new forum comprising representatives of community employment and Tús schemes and officials from the Department of Social Protection will be established shortly. The purpose of the forum is to discuss and exchange views on operational issues impacting on both schemes. These recent changes that have been announced will mean the schemes in Skibbereen will not have any participants exiting until 2 July at the earliest. One participant employed in one of the two CE schemes in Skibbereen will also benefit from the changes announced for those affected by the 2017 rule change.
The Minister and I are fully committed to the future of this programme, as is evidenced by the announcement of 3,000 additional CE places. We also secured approval to support community employment and Tús schemes as part of the July stimulus package. We will continue to support and improve the programme for the benefit of CE participants and the valuable contribution being made to local communities through the provision of services.
I thank the Minister of State and welcome his interest in the scheme. Communities now need that interest to be lived up to with commitments.
The programme is incredible value for money. For almost 20 hours of work a week, participants get only €22.50 more than their social welfare payment. While my critique of this small amount is a discussion for another day, the Government and Department must recognise that the cost of the programme is vastly outweighed by its impact on the ground and it needs greater flexibility to meet the needs of workers.
The Minister of State said he was aware of the recruitment issues. It is hard to recruit new CE workers who have been unemployed for longer than 12 months during this time, and particularly, if there is an extension to 2 July. There is precedent to provide for lifelong learning for island communities. We know it is possible to do that. It is necessary during the pandemic, not to mention the fact that many rural communities have the same restrictions and barriers as island communities. I ask the Minister of State to look into that and to please, if he can, extend that special measure for islands into other areas during the pandemic, because we all know 2 July is not long enough. I will leave the rest of my time for him to respond to that specifically. It will give people much ease. Programmes such as the care and repair service set up by former Minister of State, Mr. Jim Daly, allowing vulnerable people to stay in their homes and be looked after, are entirely staffed by CE workers. In west Cork, we are looking at a situation where we could go from 30 CE workers to 11. I know the Minister of State said 2 July but people need more reassurance and longer-term assurance that they will be able to stay in their positions, not just for themselves, but for the people who rely on them.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I also place a major emphasis on the importance of CE schemes. I am aware of the CE recruitment challenges arising from the current restrictions, which has had an impact on the ability of some CE schemes to recruit new participants.
Community employment is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantage persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary fixed-term basis. CE schemes make a valuable contribution to local communities through the provision of services and my Department will continue to support them with this.
I reassure the Deputy, and the CE scheme in Skibbereen, that there will be no sudden ending for this number of contracts on whatever the final date of extensions will be. Subsequent to the final extension date, there will be a planned ending of contracts on a phased basis, over a period, to ensure continuity of local services. My officials will work on the ground with CE schemes to support them in managing this process and they will be in touch with the Skibbereen CE scheme over the coming weeks.
I will take away the Deputy's suggestion on lifelong learning exemption for the islands. I was not aware of it. I will take that back to the officials and hear what they say, however. We might need something beyond 2 July. We are, I suppose, moving in sync with the new plan and so we will review on an ongoing basis. There is a chance there may be a need for another extension.
The other issue to keep in mind is that there will also be larger cohort of long-term unemployed people who could very well benefit from CE schemes. While I understand many sponsors have many good people doing good jobs and who want to stay, there is also pressure in the other direction for many people who are and who will be distant from the labour market. We need to be conscious that they also need to be given a fair shot and a fair opportunity over time.