Wednesday, 11 December 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Community Employment Schemes Supervisors
I thank the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade for coming here today. This matter is not part of his remit but I know he will convey my concerns to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection.
I have been contacted by a number of community employment (CE) supervisors in the past few weeks because they feel that their strike in the spring, and the subsequent promises made, have yielded no results. What is being done to support them in their request to recognise their fine work? I ask the Minister of State to discuss why, after more than ten years, they still do not have a pension. CE schemes are designed to help people in long-term unemployment or who are disadvantaged or find it impossible to secure mainstream work in their local communities. The schemes also provide much-needed services in communities throughout the country.
As we all know, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is now responsible for these schemes and there is an ongoing review. I ask the Minister of State to update me on the review. These schemes are in various communities across the country and they provide childcare, elderly care and drug rehabilitation services. The supervisors are a vital part of ensuring that these schemes run effectively.
We, in Fianna Fáil, are acutely cognisant of the deep sense of frustration felt by CE supervisors and assistant supervisors in trying to secure an occupational pension. Promises were made but I am afraid that we are in this situation because of the Government's refusal to respect a recommendation that was made by its own industrial relations mechanism. I am disappointed with the Government's decision to walk away from trade union talks on this very issue and ignore rulings in the same regard. Two judgments are being ignored, one historic and one recent. First, there was a 2008 Labour Court recommendation that as the funding agency was a statutory body, the Government was responsible for the CE supervisors' pensions. Second, there is the more recent Workplace Relations Commission's ruling that the supervisor in question was an employee of the State and, in particular, the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and so was entitled to all of the same rights as an employee of the State. This would, in my opinion, indicate a responsibility on the State to provide a pension. This judgment is a matter of public record in that it is available on the WRC's website.
I am aware that a detailed scoping exercise was carried out by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2017. Earlier this year, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform told the Dáil that the pension presented significant issues for the Exchequer with a potential cost to the State of between €188 million and €347 million per annum. The Minister stated, during the Dáil debate, that the position of this Government was that State organisations are not the employer for the particular employees concerned, and that it is not for the State to provide funding for such pension provisions. The employees in question are, or were, employees of private companies notwithstanding the fact that the companies concerned are, or were, in receipt of State funding. This is clearly contrary to the LRC's position and the position outlined in the recent WRC ruling. The State hires these supervisors and for all intents and purposes employs them. We need to see this issue for what it is.
SIPTU and Fórsa have written to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform calling on him to urgently convene a meeting of the community sector high level forum to discuss issues of importance within the sector, including funding, pensions and policies. The forum has not met since 2017. Since then the union representatives have expressed a desire to show how the figures referred to by the Minister for Finance in the Dáil debate on the cost of honouring the LRC's pension recommendation are completely inaccurate. It is my view that the State must accept a level of responsibility and engage. It is imperative that a resolution is found without further delay. These are good people who work very hard for the State and they should be entitled to a pension as a just reward for all they have done.
I ask the Minister of State to ask the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform whether they intend to meet the unions and have meetings with the union representatives, the supervisors and assistant supervisors with a view to creating a process to bring this issue to its finality and to make a pension available even on an incremental basis. I want the Ministers to do something. It is important that the Ministers provide the financial resources to address this issue that has lasted for ten years. I ask the Minister of State to convey all of what I have said to the Ministers and come back to me.
I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty.
Community employment is the largest employment and training programme administered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. The CE programme was initially established under the aegis of FÁS to enhance the employability of long-term unemployed people by providing work experience and training opportunities for them within their communities.Its objectives continue to be to provide valuable work experience, including targeted training interventions for the long-term unemployed, and help to prepare them to gain employment.
The CE programme is delivered throughout the community and voluntary sector by independent community employment sponsoring bodies that receive public funding. Participants and supervisors in CE schemes are employees of those independent community employment sponsoring bodies. The Department provides funding in respect of the participants and supervisors' payroll. The Department is not the employer of CE participants or supervisors and such employees are not public servants.
In July 2008, the Labour Court recommended that an agreed pension scheme should be introduced for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors and that such a scheme should be adequately funded by FÁS, which was then responsible for the community employment scheme programme. FÁS was not a party to the LRC case.
On the subject of Exchequer-funded pension provision for CE supervisors and assistant supervisors, the community employment scheme programme is not operated by public bodies or State organisations. Therefore, the State cannot extend pension entitlements or funding to employees of private bodies in a manner that would set a precedent in respect of other employees in private companies that provide services on behalf of the State. CE supervisors and assistant supervisors comprise just one group within the wider community and voluntary sector, and any provision of State funding for such a scheme in respect of those employees could potentially give rise to claims for similar schemes across the broader sector.
The issue of pension provision for CE supervisors was considered by a high-level community sector group chaired by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in 2017. A range of stakeholders, including unions representing CE supervisors, were represented in the group. A detailed scoping exercise was undertaken and included input from the Irish Government Economic and Evaluation Service on the potential cost of providing Exchequer support for a pension scheme across the wider community and voluntary sector. As Senator Murnane O'Connor has outlined, this exercise estimated a potential cost to the State of between €188 million and €347 million per annum depending on the numbers involved. The scoping exercise clearly illustrated that it is not feasible for the Exchequer to provide pension funding in the amount required.
Earlier this year, the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection undertook to engage with unions representing CE supervisors to address issues of concern to their members, and this process is ongoing. All parties to the discussions agreed that the detail of the discussions undertaken by the group should remain confidential until the process had been completed. The Minister is committed to seeking a resolution to this difficult impasse, which I must emphasise has significant and tangible consequences for the Exchequer. She is actively pursuing options to seek a resolution to the impasse.
I welcome the reply. The problem is that there is a lack of information and communication. I ask that supervisors and assistant supervisors are given some information. The timescale is important. I ask the Minister of State to come back to me as soon as possible. Many Senators have received requests for information about this matter. I would appreciate more information. A solution can be found if everyone works together. This matter is of utmost importance. At least I can tell those who have contacted me that the Minister, Deputy Doherty, is trying to find a solution.