Wednesday, 2 July 2003
Adjournment Matters. - Community Employment Schemes.
I raise the situation regarding community employment schemes, particularly as they apply to the Irish Wheelchair Association. Personal carers are to be withdrawn. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, and the chief executive of the association, Séamus Thompson, met yesterday. Perhaps the critical situation of recent days may be resolved. Mr. Thompson outlined the position in his letter of 25 June. I look forward to the Minister of State's comments.
I appreciate the Senator's concerns and note his comments on the position of the Irish Wheelchair Association. The association's headquarters are located in Clontarf, in my constituency of Dublin North-Central. It does a huge a amount of work. I appreciate its concerns in this matter.
The primary purpose of community employment as an active labour market programme is to reintegrate long-term unemployed persons into open labour market secure jobs. Community employment provides unemployed people with temporary opportunities, whereby they can develop their skills and, I hope, obtain work having secured a record of work experience.
In accordance with the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure community employment, participation levels are gradually being reduced, reflecting the significant reduction in the numbers of long-term unemployed and the shift in emphasis away from work experience programmes to training, from which there is a greater level of progression to employment. As part of this process, a decision was taken to gradually reduce the numbers employed on community employment from an average of 37,500 in 1999 to 28,000 by 2003. Mainstreaming of school services, with general reductions in participation levels due to lower levels of unemployment and budgetary requirements, have further reduced the numbers employed on the programme.
The average participation rate on the community employment programme for 2003 is expected to be approximately 22,500. Funding, amounting to €274 million, has been provided for this purpose. At the end of 2002 there were 24,991 participants in the programmes. This number will reduce to a projected participation rate of 20,000 by the end of 2003.
In line with a commitment in the PPF and following consultation with relevant Departments and the social partners, certain school services provided by participants on community employment programmes have been mainstreamed. This provided for additional funding, representing 4,514 on community employment places in schools, to transfer to the Department of Education and Science on a phased basis by 2003. The availability of this funding has enabled the Department to put in place an equitable system of funding for auxiliary services throughout the free education school system.
Participation in community employment programmes is usually for a period of one to three years. All school based participants have been facilitated to complete their full engagement in their school project. However, community employment participants are not being replaced in schools and further provision of schools services, including classroom assistants, caretakers and secretarial positions, is now a matter solely for the Department of Education and Science.
As part of the restructuring approved by the Government in 1999, future participation in community employment programmes by an individual was capped at three years, effective from April 2000. An individual's participation in a programme prior to this date is not taken into account. This change was introduced to discourage repeat participation in community employment and encourage unemployed persons to avail of training and education options where possible, which are shown to have more successful outcomes with regard to the progression to jobs for the individuals concerned.
Community employment is an elective labour market programme and, as such, the concept of progression by participants is central to it. Self-employment services are available to assist participants who have completed their term of community employment to progress to employment on the open labour market or to advise on training and education options available locally.
The three year cap was amended in August 2001 to allow particularly disadvantaged persons to remain on the programme for a further period. FÁS has discretion to offer up to 20% of CE participants a further period on the programme on a case by case basis. An extension is considered if, on reaching the end of their normal community employment entitlements, participants are likely to experience difficulty obtaining employment due to age, literacy or numeracy problems or a lack of suitable jobs available locally. To ensure that persons with disabilities were not adversely affected by the ongoing restructuring of the community employment programme, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment in conjunction with the Department of Health and Children, which has primary responsibility for funding in this area, considered the possible mainstreaming of community employment services provided in the health sector.
A detailed examination of the practicalities involved in mainstreaming these positions was undertaken and it was discovered that an additional €46 million would be required on top of the contribution from existing community employment funding to mainstream them. Due to the very high demands on the health budget, it has not been possible to provide this additional funding in the current Estimates provision of the Department of Health and Children. I am pleased to indicate that all health service related community employment projects, including those providing services for persons with disabilities, are ring-fenced and protected from reductions. Other services ring-fenced from reductions include drugs task force activity and child care service provision. Projects in RAPID areas are prioritised.
Sponsor organisations, such as the Irish Wheelchair Association, have indicated that they have difficulty in replacing participants who have completed their normal term of community employment due to the lack of suitable applicants coming forward for the programme. In this regard, FÁS has been requested to make every effort to identify community employment participants suitable for the positions in question. Should FÁS encounter difficulties in replacing departing CE participants with suitable persons, the matter can be considered in the context of the 20% flexibility in relation to extending community employment participation.
A number of reviews of community employment are underway. The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness provides for an overall appraisal of active labour market programmes to be carried out and this work is being undertaken under the aegis of the standing committee on the labour market, which is chaired by my Department. In addition, an interdepartmental group consisting of senior officials has been asked to consider options for the future of community employment taking account of the link with the provision of community services. FÁS is completing an internal review of community employment and the job initiative programme which is well advanced and should be finalised shortly.
The outcome of these various initiatives will inform the Government's consideration of options for the future of the community employment programme. I appreciate and understand Senator Leyden's perspective and the points he raised. I will ensure they are taken on board in the considerations I have outlined.