Wednesday, 17 November 2004
Community Employment Schemes.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, to take this Adjournment matter on an issue which is very important to the people of County Longford. The motion relates to the community employment scheme to maintain Longford County Council's burial grounds under a cemetery maintenance programme. The council has applied to FÁS for a community employment scheme to replace the Longford jobs initiative scheme, which has been running for the last year, to maintain the council burial grounds. Employment for eight persons was granted, whereas an application was made for four times that number to maintain more than 50 cemeteries in the county.
Regrettably, FÁS, the State training and employment authority, is not in a position to fund the Longford jobs initiative scheme. As an alternative to this scheme, Longford County Council has applied to FÁS for a community employment scheme. Unfortunately, while the opportunity to apply for such a scheme is broadly welcome, the scheme, as granted by FÁS, will not enable the council to provide the same level of service to burial grounds as heretofore.
The Longford jobs initiative scheme provided valuable training for its participants and much needed support for local communities in improving and maintaining local burial grounds. I take this opportunity to thank those involved in running the jobs initiative scheme for their wonderful work in the past and for their respect for our deceased. Their efforts not only impacted on Longford people but aided tourists and those seeking their roots to avail of safe and well-tended cemeteries.
Longford County Council has a limited budget available for financial support for community groups. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the maximum level of funding is available to the council to set up and finance a cemetery maintenance programme in Longford. Longford has the lowest base in the country and some 7% of our funding is derived from rates. Longford County Council depends on capital grants from the Department for the funding of services. The eight jobs granted will make it impossible for a successful scheme to operate. Last year's level was the minimum required to continue this valuable service. Some 18 people were employed at that time and they did a good job. That level of service must be maintained for the benefit of the community.
The stipulation regarding the over 55s is gone and the Minister of State might clarify the situation with regard to the three-year rule. Are people still excluded after three years? I hope the Minister of State will respond favourably and that I can bring good news home to Longford.
I thank Senator Bannon for raising this issue and affording me the opportunity to clarify the situation. Following our recent appointments, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin, and I reviewed current policy on the operation of the FÁS employment schemes, which comprise community employment, jobs initiative and social economy programmes. In undertaking this review, we have taken fully into account the views and concerns expressed to us by various interest groups and other key stakeholders, including the social partners, with whom there have been extensive consultations in recent months.
On foot of this review, the Minister decided that a number of changes would take affect as and from 10 November 2004. There will be no compulsory lay-offs on the jobs initiative scheme and those participants who remain on the scheme will have their contracts renewed. People who leave the scheme voluntarily will be, replaced by community employment participants to support the service being provided. Likewise, there will be no compulsory cessation of social economy programmes, which play a valuable role in communities. In situations where an enterprise decides to cease activity, the employees affected will be assisted by FÁS in finding alternative employment. In addition, the three-year cap will be removed for community employment participants aged over 55. This category of participants will be eligible to participate on community employment schemes for a maximum of six years. In the case of people advancing beyond 55 years during their normal period of service on a community employment scheme, participation can be extended for up to a maximum of six years. The ring-fencing of essential services, particularly health-related services and drugs task force clients, will be maintained.
The community employment schemes will remain as an active labour market programme with the emphasis on progression to employment. Despite the buoyant labour market, the continuing high level of inward migration and low unemployment, I am conscious that there is still a need for these schemes for people who find it difficult to secure employment. In 2005, therefore, there will be 25,000 places in total on community employment schemes, jobs initiative schemes and social economy programmes. These employment schemes have made a major contribution towards the provision of a network of valuable community services throughout the country. Equally, they offer participants the opportunity of work experience in a wide range of disciplines, which equips them in time to progress to full-time employment in the open labour market.
I am happy to announce that funding for the particular community employment project sponsored by Longford County Council and referred to by Senator Bannon has been approved. Contracts have been issued to the council. The project is expected to commence by the end of November 2004 and the recruitment process has already commenced.
Is there any possibility that the Minister of State might increase the numbers allocated to Longford? Only eight places have been provided but a proper maintenance programme would require at least three times that number. I ask the Minister of State to give this issue his favourable consideration as it is important to development in the county.
The principal difficulty heretofore raised with the Government by sponsors of schemes was that they tended to have approval for scheme numbers in excess of those, which were available in their areas. The raising of the cap related to those aged over 55 was meant to address that shortfall in eligible participants. I was not aware of the details of the numbers allocated to Longford County Council. I will arrange to have the matter examined and report directly to the Senator on it.