Seanad debates

Tuesday, 27 April 2004

Community Employment Schemes.


6:00 pm

Photo of Michael KittMichael Kitt (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me to raise this matter and the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, for coming to the House. This issue relates to the three-year cap on community employment schemes. As the Minister of State and the Acting Chairman, Senator Ulick Burke, know, there is an organisation in our constituency known as the East Galway Community Action Group which has had a number of meetings with us, as public representatives, in the past 18 months. Some of the meetings have been successful and, in particular, I thank the Minister of State for his help in regard to the community employment schemes in Mountbellew.

An issue which has been consistently raised, and which was raised at a public meeting last week, is the question of trying to stabilise numbers on the FÁS schemes. There is a strong feeling that if the three-year cap stays, this stabilisation will not occur. One of the best examples given at the meeting related to a scheme known as Moylough Parish Services Limited. It was explained at the meeting that there were 11 people on the scheme, eight of whom were over 50 years of age. They are now unable to continue on the scheme because of the three year rule. It is interesting that when this scheme started in Moylough eight years ago, the average age of the people on the scheme was between 35 and 45 years. Many people have moved on to full-time employment and further education about which we are delighted, but there are people who need to continue on the scheme. I make a plea for them because, as I said, eight of them are over 50 years of age. Of the eight, there are three male participants in their 60s. I do not know where they will get employment if they are not allowed back on the scheme. There are five participants in their 50s, three males and two females who are widowed and are trying to rear their families. I hope the Minister of State will look at the three-year cap and at a concession for people over 50 or 55 years of age.

There is a major concern that the opportunities in rural areas and small villages are not available to everyone. There is a difficulty in regard to some family farms which are small. The schemes in question have given gainful employment and have provided a reasonable weekly income to households. The point was strongly made at the meeting that there should be more emphasis on employment than on just training. As I understand it, under the new rural social employment scheme, there is no question of training and it is for people who have herd numbers and who can go straight into employment. While that scheme is useful, one must have a herd number, so it rules out people who would have been on a community employment scheme.

Moylough has had these schemes for the past eight or nine years. The Minister of State and his Department should look at the changing situation and at the special needs area, the educational health area and other such areas in which communities are anxious to take up the challenges. If we could change the three-year cap and look at the issue of people over 50 or 55 years of age, we would be doing a good days' work.

Photo of Frank FaheyFrank Fahey (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senator for raising this matter. As part of the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure community employment, future participation in CE by an individual was capped at three years effective from April 2000. This change was introduced to discourage repeated participation in CE and to encourage unemployed persons to avail of training-education options where possible, which are shown to have more successful progression outcomes for individuals.

The three-year cap was amended in August 2001 to allow particularly disadvantaged persons to remain on the programme for a further period. Participants are considered for such an extension if, on reaching the end of their normal entitlements on CE, they are likely to experience difficulty in getting employment. A number of CE participants have difficulty in progressing to open labour market employment due to their age, literacy or numeracy problems or a lack of suitable jobs available locally.

FÁS has discretion to give 20% of participants under 50 years of age extensions of up to one year to meet the needs of individuals who would clearly benefit from an extension in terms of their future employment prospects. In addition, participants over 50 may be given a further year on CE with provision for review at the end of that year — further discretion may be given to extend participation beyond this on a case by case basis, subject to continued annual review. In general, approximately 20% of participants on CE may benefit from an additional year on the programme under the current flexibility guidelines. 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.

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 educational options available locally.

Consideration has been given to the mainstreaming of certain essential services provided through CE. In this regard, approximately 4,500 CE places in schools have been mainstreamed over the past number of years. This involved the appropriate degree of funding being transferred to the Department of Education and Science for the provision of relevant services in schools. In addition, in the region of 2,300 places have been provided on the social economy programme.

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 substantial additional funding would be required on top of the contribution from existing community employment funding to mainstream them. Due to the high demands on the health budget, it has not been possible to provide this additional funding in the Estimates provision of the Department of Health and Children.

However, 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. If FÁS encounters 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.

The total funding allocation for employment schemes in 2004 has been fixed at €351 million, which will support up to 25,000 places across the three employment schemes, namely, CE, job initiative and social economy. FÁS is being given some flexibility in the management of this financial allocation to maximise progression to the labour market while at the same time facilitating the support of community services. This allocation of €351 million is similar to the budgeted amount provided in 2003. Accordingly, there will be no reduction in the total level of provision for the three schemes or in the combined participation levels in 2004.

The future structure of the community employment programme is currently under review by a group of senior officials and FÁS and this group is expected to report to Ministers on the outcome of its deliberations shortly. The outcome of this review will inform any future adjustments in the structure and the terms and conditions of participation on community employment.

I listened carefully to what Senator Kitt said. I accept the point he made that there are difficulties in some communities because there are no people to replace those retiring from community employment schemes. That, in itself, is a good problem in that it shows that the level of unemployment has gone down so much that we cannot get people to take up schemes. I am aware that there are difficulties and that people coming off schemes may not have an opportunity to find work elsewhere. That issue is being addressed in the review, which is almost complete. I will take into account the Senator's views on the matter.