Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Community Employment Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent) | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I think it is my first time addressing him since his elevation, so I congratulate him on that.

I have been asked to raise this matter by Councillor Ben Brennan from Laois, but I know that the matter will interest a number of people around the country. It specifically concerns community employment, CE, schemes and those on them who are in their late 50s and early 60s. Since the schemes were first introduced, they have delivered a number of objectives for individuals and communities. They have served both as activation and social inclusion measures, and they have been adapted to times of low and high unemployment. The schemes are the backbone of many local services such as childcare, healthcare and social care, outdoor works and local facilities. Workers on the schemes work hand in glove with many local organisations, including Tidy Towns committees and local authorities.

It was widely reported at the height of the pandemic that CE scheme workers were the first to step up to the plate to support older people who were cocooning in their homes, by providing meals on wheels and other services funded by the HSE. Participants in schemes are normally long-term unemployed or are from targeted social inclusion groups such as those who are parenting alone or have a disability.There is no doubt that the schemes have been very successful in delivering on activation and social inclusion objectives.

One of the features of the schemes is that they extend across the life cycle of Governments. Fine Gael Governments have been very responsive to lowering the qualifying age. In 2019, the general qualifying age for community employment schemes was reduced from 25 years to 21 years and for those aged 55 years the rules allowed them to remain on a community employment scheme for three years.

We have been very realistic about the activation outcomes of the schemes. Young people are a lot more likely than those aged in their late 50s or 60s to go on to full time-employment. This is not because of any reluctance on the part of the older cohort. Rather, the jobs are just not there. While many might not like to admit it, there is rampant ageism when it comes to hiring workers. Very talented older participants on community employment schemes have to leave them well ahead of retirement age. This places them in an unemployment limbo for up to four years. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many older workers on community employment schemes are making no extra money. They spend the €20 they receive from the scheme on petrol and sandwiches during the week. However, they love to go to work and they love the energy and commitment required of those on these schemes. All of the participants are valuable mentors for younger participants and have a lifetime of rich knowledge and experience to share. It behoves us to ring fence this group in order to protect the opportunity for participation and ensure that if they want they can stay in schemes up to retirement age.

Fine Gael in government has always been very proactive and responsive to changing labour market demands and the needs of community employment scheme participants. I am very hopeful that the Minister of State will respond to the call to extend the participation age up to retirement age. When he contacted me, Councillor Brennan was deeply distressed by the case of a 62-year-old man who, because he had reached the limits of the scheme, is now expected to go on the dole and do nothing. The only cost to the State of keeping him on the scheme was €20. That is wrong in every sense of the word. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.


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