Tuesday, 27 January 2015
Disability Activation Projects
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection, Deputy Kevin Humphreys. As he knows, funding for projects under the Disability Activation Project, DACT, is due to end in April.
In 2012, approximately €7 million was approved for a range of projects, including the Walk Peer programme in County Louth. It was a great day for disability and people in the Dundalk area when the Tánaiste launched this back in 2012. This programme has flourished due to Disability Activation Project, DACT, funding. Walk Peer in County Louth has enabled 118 young people with disabilities to engage with mainstream opportunities that were not previously open to them. If funding ends in April, as I understand it will, and is not renewed, five staff who work on the Walk Peer programme will lose their jobs and over 100 young people in County Louth will lose this vital link and support.
I can attest to the excellent and inspiring work of Walk Peer in my area. The programme fills a gap in services for people with a disability and provides individualised support to assist in ensuring that people with a disability do not experience long-term unemployment early in life. The Walk Peer programme and staff have been recognised as leaders in their work locally and nationally, having recently been invited to present as a model of best practice at the National Disability Authority conference. Indeed, they have received awards in both Dundalk and Drogheda for workforce development and best training initiative in the county. They have proved themselves. I have also shadowed participants in the Walk Peer programme over the past two years and can attest to the enjoyment, benefit and learning they gain from these courses. I will single out one person and how they have benefited. I had the good fortune to teach a student who left school, was then deemed ineligible or not ready for employment or further education, went into the Walk Peer programme, has now graduated from that and has a place on a local PLC course. This is something that not many people would have thought possible a few short years ago. It shows the excellent work done by trainers, co-ordinators and all the help that has come together to ensure that people with a disability get the best they can.
This is why I have taken this issue up today. I fully support the work of Walk Peer, as do many people in County Louth who have heard of or come into contact with this excellent service. One Walk Peer participant with whom I spoke recently told me they loved meeting up every Monday morning as it is the chance to do something different with the hope of getting some outcomes. These testimonials can be found all over the place. Walk Peer provides hope, support and confidence to young people on the programme. I could go on for hours with testimonials and positive responses, which are key because one knows that one has a good programme going.
I would appreciate it if the Minister could address certain issues today, including the DACT evaluation. When will this take place and when will it finish? Surely it is important to conduct this evaluation while the Walk Peer programme is still in place rather than in April when it will be all over? Could the Minister also outline what will happen to participants on a programme like Walk Peer when the funding ends in April 2015? As I previously mentioned, more than 118 people have been involved. We have had the opportunity to address the funding issues for Walk Peer and other successful DACT projects. We need to secure and ensure access to this valuable and empowering service for young people with disabilities.
I thank the Senator. I know she has a long-term commitment to the area of disability,. Many Members of the Seanad have raised different issues relating to disability and I acknowledge the work the Senator and other Members do within this area. They regularly raise very important issues that are similar to this issue and always do so in a very constructive manner.
DACT is jointly funded by the European Social Fund and the Department of Social Protection with an estimated budget of about €7 million. A total of 14 projects are being funded under this programme in the border, midlands and western region and commenced in 2012. The project seeks to explore a variety of routes towards ensuring that people with disabilities are enabled to avail of progression, education and development opportunities in the world of work.
A key criterion applied when selecting projects was that the findings from the projects in terms of what worked successfully should be capable, where appropriate, of being mainstreamed in future. That is very important. The aim is to recognise best practice and to mainstream those elements.
The disability activation programme is organised around four separate strands all with similar eligibility and selection criteria, but each having its own key focus. These strands are as follows: improving access to employment, progression programmes for young people, supporting the progression and retention of people with an acquired disability and innovative employer initiatives. The target group for each strand is people between 16 and 65 years of age in receipt of disability or illness welfare payments who reside in the Border, midlands and west regions. Projects may relate to one of the three main disability types, which are physical and sensory disabilities, intellectual disabilities and mental health difficulties or may have a cross-disability focus. Some 2,700 people with disabilities have participated in these projects between 2013 and early 2015.
ESF funding for the disability activation project is being provided under the human capital investment operational programme 2007-13. This programme recently came to an end and there is no provision in the ESF for co-funding arrangements to continue after April 2015, as I have already pointed out. The Department is arranging an evaluation process of the disability activation project to determine the extent to which it has achieved its aims and objectives. The evaluation process will seek to highlight any learning from the projects and modules undertaken of good practice that could be used to inform policy development and will also identify those aspects of the project which could be maintained so as to develop and, or, sustain its work and achievements.
It was recently clarified to the projects that further ESF funding will not be available and that terms and grant agreements with disability activation projects stipulate that such projects must be completed and delivered by the end of April 2015. It was never envisaged that the disability activation projects would de factobecome delivery of services no matter how successful they were. The disability activation project was not designed to be an open-ended funding stream and an end date was set by which to determine its strength and weaknesses and to identify what aspects might increase the capacity and potential of people on disability and illness welfare payments to participate in the labour market.
We will be carrying out that evaluation programme and tendering as quickly as possible. The project was intended from its commencement to find out what worked and mainstream that and not to develop a whole new area of programme delivery. It has been successful in some areas and new ideas have come forth which need to be evaluated before being worked into the mainstream. I am not sure if the Senator is asking whether people currently on the schemes will be left high and dry. I will endeavour to clarify that matter for the Senator and come back as quickly as possible. It is an issue I raised with the Department when I saw the motion put down by the Senator. When the information is available, I will provide it to her. I thank the Senator again for raising such an important issue.
I thank the Minister of State on whom I can always rely for a straight answer to a straight question when he attends the House. I thank him for his reply notwithstanding that I am disappointed. I take his point when he says that there was a specific time for the project, but when something is working everything that can be done should be done to ensure that it continues. On that, what is the nature of the evaluation taking place? All 14 projects are delivering very different models of support to very different groups of people all over the country. Will there be a qualitative aspect as well as a quantitative analysis?
How will the Department identify what is deemed to be successful? What will be measured?
I do not want to predetermine the outcome of the evaluation. I take on board the Senator's evaluation on how she has seen it operate within her area. That may be the same across the 14 schemes, but we have yet to complete that evaluation. From the beginning, we wanted to identify elements that could be mainstreamed and included in the current system. This was not about setting up 14 separate groups across the country, but about trying 14, probably different, schemes, evaluating them to see what works well. Then, we will consider whether it is possible to mainstream these through our new Intreo offices and case officers.
The evaluation has a common sense purpose, to discover what worked well for participants, whether it was of value to them and whether that can be replicated in the mainstream through the Department's current resources. Having met some participants and some scheme organisers, I believe there is quality in the schemes. We must quantify that and see how we can replicate it to ensure everybody can take advantage of it. Not all of the schemes will be as successful as the one Senator Moran has outlined. Let us learn from them and see whether we can reproduce the good work that has been carried out and get that into the mainstream.