Seanad debates

Wednesday, 2 December 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Community Employment Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I think it is my first time addressing him since his elevation, so I congratulate him on that.

I have been asked to raise this matter by Councillor Ben Brennan from Laois, but I know that the matter will interest a number of people around the country. It specifically concerns community employment, CE, schemes and those on them who are in their late 50s and early 60s. Since the schemes were first introduced, they have delivered a number of objectives for individuals and communities. They have served both as activation and social inclusion measures, and they have been adapted to times of low and high unemployment. The schemes are the backbone of many local services such as childcare, healthcare and social care, outdoor works and local facilities. Workers on the schemes work hand in glove with many local organisations, including Tidy Towns committees and local authorities.

It was widely reported at the height of the pandemic that CE scheme workers were the first to step up to the plate to support older people who were cocooning in their homes, by providing meals on wheels and other services funded by the HSE. Participants in schemes are normally long-term unemployed or are from targeted social inclusion groups such as those who are parenting alone or have a disability.There is no doubt that the schemes have been very successful in delivering on activation and social inclusion objectives.

One of the features of the schemes is that they extend across the life cycle of Governments. Fine Gael Governments have been very responsive to lowering the qualifying age. In 2019, the general qualifying age for community employment schemes was reduced from 25 years to 21 years and for those aged 55 years the rules allowed them to remain on a community employment scheme for three years.

We have been very realistic about the activation outcomes of the schemes. Young people are a lot more likely than those aged in their late 50s or 60s to go on to full time-employment. This is not because of any reluctance on the part of the older cohort. Rather, the jobs are just not there. While many might not like to admit it, there is rampant ageism when it comes to hiring workers. Very talented older participants on community employment schemes have to leave them well ahead of retirement age. This places them in an unemployment limbo for up to four years. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that many older workers on community employment schemes are making no extra money. They spend the €20 they receive from the scheme on petrol and sandwiches during the week. However, they love to go to work and they love the energy and commitment required of those on these schemes. All of the participants are valuable mentors for younger participants and have a lifetime of rich knowledge and experience to share. It behoves us to ring fence this group in order to protect the opportunity for participation and ensure that if they want they can stay in schemes up to retirement age.

Fine Gael in government has always been very proactive and responsive to changing labour market demands and the needs of community employment scheme participants. I am very hopeful that the Minister of State will respond to the call to extend the participation age up to retirement age. When he contacted me, Councillor Brennan was deeply distressed by the case of a 62-year-old man who, because he had reached the limits of the scheme, is now expected to go on the dole and do nothing. The only cost to the State of keeping him on the scheme was €20. That is wrong in every sense of the word. I look forward to the response of the Minister of State.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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Community employment is the largest employment and training programme administered by the Department of Social Protection. The 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 in their communities. Its objective continues to be to provide valuable work experience for long-term unemployed people to help prepare them to gain employment. The community employment programme is delivered throughout the community and voluntary sector by independent community employment scheme sponsoring authorities.

In general, community employment placements for new entrants aged between 21 and 55 years are for one year. Community employment scheme participants who are working towards a Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, major award can seek to extend their participation in a scheme by up to two years to enable them to reach the required standard of qualification. A significant of number of community employment scheme participants each year avail of an extension in order to continue training and obtain qualifications or major awards. However, community employment scheme participants aged 55 years or older can remain on a scheme for three years and do not have to work towards a QQI major award.

In either scenario, a maximum of three consecutive years' participation in a community employment scheme is permissible. A person may requalify for a community employment scheme after a 12-month break once he or she satisfies the qualifying conditions. An overall lifetime limit of six years applies to all community employment scheme participants and seven years for those in receipt of a disability payment.

A pilot initiative, known as service support stream, was implemented in January 2016 for those aged 62 years or older. The initiative facilitated up to 7% of the total community employment scheme numbers being allowed to extend their participation beyond the maximum duration normally permitted and to remain in community employment up to the State pension age, provided the participant continued to meet the eligibility conditions and the number of places in the community employment scheme was not exceeded.

Overall, the service support stream was positively received by community employment schemes sponsoring authorities and participants who availed of the pilot scheme. A number of new conditions were introduced in July 2017 to further support progression and broaden access to community employment for a wider range of people. The service support stream was one of the new options provided on a more mainstream basis. In 2018, the 7% limit for service stream support participation placements was increased to enable 10% of the total number of community employment scheme participants to apply for this facility for those aged over 62 and without the need for a 12-month break in their previous community employment scheme participation, provided the participants continued to meet the eligibility conditions and the number of places on the community employment scheme were not exceeded.

in summary, I can confirm that community employment scheme participants aged over 62 can continue on a continuous basis up to the State pension age in this specific community employment service support scheme strand. This is subject to the standard criteria such as the availability of places on the service support stream, satisfactory performance on the scheme and annual approval by the Department.

Photo of Gerard CraughwellGerard Craughwell (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. I appreciate it. Community employment schemes have been the poor relation. One only has to look at the way the supervisors on these schemes have been treated down through the years. The Minister of State was not in office to oversee that.

I visited a community employment scheme in Wexford during the summer and it was amazing to see men aged in their late 50s and early 60s committed to the work they were doing in a garden. We need to waive all restrictions for those aged over 62. If people are on a scheme and the sponsor and supervisor are happy with the work they are doing, they should be allowed to remain until retirement age, with no restrictions and qualifying criteria. I ask the Minister of State to bring that proposal back to the Department because there is nothing worse for mental health than being forced into unemployment. My colleague spoke a few moments ago about the devastating effects of unemployment. I have been there and know what it is like. We need to look after the supervisors in the context of pension entitlements and the like. I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House today and I appreciate his answer.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I have some further information that might be of use. Nationally, there are approximately 19,000 places on community employment schemes, 10% of which are under the service support stream. The scheme is currently under-subscribed nationally. There are 1,081 community employment scheme participants availing of the service support stream. The 10% limit was previously at the local provider level. We have bumped that up to divisional level which should provide more flexibility for local providers to go beyond the 10% limit to some extent in some situations. That will vary from place to place at a local level. I wish to acknowledge that a lot of people availing of the service support stream also contribute invaluable advice and guidance to newer and less experienced community employment scheme participants over the course of their work and activities.