Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Disability Activation Projects

10:30 am

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for being here. I thank him, his Department and the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, for their engagement on this important issue. I know that the Minister met with groups involved in this programme in January to find a solution to this matter and that one is close to being arrived at. I thank them for the work they have put into this.

The Ability programme provides funding to 27 local regional and national projects that focus on bringing young people with disabilities between the ages of 15 and 29 closer to the labour market. The programme targets young people who are not currently work-ready by using a range of person-centred supports. This type of work assists young people to identify and follow progression routes based on their potential and their needs. As a result, the programme promotes positive pathways into education, training and employment for participants. The need for the programme is borne out by the 1,900 plus young people currently on their individual journey to further education, training and employment. There is a constant flow of young people with disabilities entering the pre-activation stage, a stage which is critical in ensuring access to mainstream services in the longer term. The in-person actions and supports that participants require in value are severely curtailed in light of the ongoing restrictions of Covid-19. Those successfully transitioning along a pathway towards employment before the pandemic will need continued ongoing support to realise their full potential after it.

The Ability programme is due to end on 1 July 2021. The 1,900 plus young people who registered and engaged across the 27 projects require ongoing support to continue their journey through education and training towards employment if they are to realise their full potential. For this support to continue, an emergency interim solution needs approval to ensure these young people avoid early school leaving and unemployment. To ensure equality for people with disabilities in assessing education, training and employment opportunities, a temporary interim solution on the grounds of reasonable accommodation should be introduced. This would consist of an 18-month ability transition period, similar to the extensions made to other labour market activation programmes such as Tús, community employment and community services programme in light of the current pandemic. The proposed ability transition period would allow Departments to review the quality matters evaluation. It would provide an interim solution that would facilitate participants across to supports between the Ability pilot and the Ability mainstream solution in the future, accordingly, preventing a stop-deactivation-reactivation approach. Equally, it would allow 27 projects to avail of the original 36-month timeframe as per the European Social Fund guidelines and grant agreements.

The programme for Government states that a new social contract will provide greater security for individuals and communities. It will be founded on the principle of equality and ensuring that every citizen can achieve his or her full potential. It will fine-tune and expand targeted employment schemes, such as the wage subsidy scheme and the Ability programme, to help more people with disabilities stay in the workforce. All other support programmes have been extended with reviews postponed except for the Ability programme.

People with disabilities are entitled, as part of their core human rights, to have access to appropriate education, training and employment pathways. Implementing a short-term transition period to facilitate the gap between the pilot programme and the future mainstream programme is the only way to ensure inclusion and equality for people with disabilities as a fundamental basic right. Not much money is involved. A request for €8 million has been made to keep the programme going over the next 18 months. I appreciate that the Department is working on this matter with those involved.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank Senator Ahearn for raising this important issue.

The Ability programme was introduced in June 2018 as pre-activation programme for young people with disabilities. Funding for this programme amounts to €16 million over a three-year period and it is being provided jointly under the European Social Fund employability inclusion and learning operational programme and the Exchequer with funding from the Dormant Accounts Fund, which falls under the remit of the Departments of Social Protection and Rural and Community Development.

The aim of the Ability programme is to bring young people with disabilities who are not work-ready closer to the employment market. The programme supports over 2,600 young people with disabilities aged between 15 to 29 years of age.It is being delivered by 27 community and voluntary groups from all around the country, including three in Tipperary, some in Connemara and Fingal LEADER Partnership in my area.

Pobal has been contracted by my Department to manage the Ability programme. It was a condition of the current three-year funding arrangement that the programme would end at the end of June 2021. An ongoing evaluation of the programme is being undertaken. It will explore the effectiveness of the different approaches and actions applied in bringing young people with disabilities who are not work ready closer to the labour market, in addition to examining impacts on the participants. The evaluation is to be conducted over the duration of the programme, and it will conclude in June 2021. An interim evaluation report has been submitted to the Department. This evaluation will feed into future programmes in this area.

The Minister has taken a strong interest in this issue. In mid-January, she met a delegation of Ability providers to hear their concerns. She is very conscious that Ability providers are looking for some certainty with regard to the year ahead and reassurances regarding the Department's wider commitment to advance pre-employment supports for young people with disabilities so they will have the opportunities they need to progress into employment. Following on from the meeting in January, the Minister asked officials in the Department to examine this matter and revert to her with proposals. I am pleased to advise Senator Ahearn that, just this morning, the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, had a follow-up meeting with the Ability providers' subgroup. It was a very useful and informative exchange. Everybody on the call this morning was in agreement on the need to maximise a number of supports that will contribute to the development of these young people, their future economic independence, their standard of living and overall well-being.

The positive news is that we have found a way forward so that the good work being carried out by Ability projects across the country can continue. There will be a multi-faceted approach to this that will involve an extension of the current programme together with further short-term funding for Ability projects to allow them to continue. The Minister will be announcing full details in due course. The subgroup we met this morning supports this approach, which provides options for meeting the needs of participants in the Ability programme, and also progressing the various pre-employment supports for young people with disabilities so that they will have the opportunities they need to transition into employment.

I can give the Senator a little more detail. The approach we intend to pursue now includes a combination of an extension of the current programme to the end of August, an application process that is to open in April and that will allow successful applicants to continue uninterrupted from August into September and beyond as part of a new programme.

Photo of Garret AhearnGarret Ahearn (Fine Gael)
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I had a list of points to make to keep pushing for a solution. The Minister of State announcing one this morning is really momentous. On behalf of the many people whom I know are watching online, I thank him and the Minister. As the Minister of State said, there are three organisations in Tipperary, including St. Cronans Association, Nenagh, where Mr. Paul Farrell is running the show, and Youth Work Ireland Tipperary, where Mr. Donal Kelly is working very hard. I know at first hand Knockanrawley Resource Centre, under Ms Emer Leahy, who does phenomenal work in Tipperary town. I have been at the centre numerous times and have noted the immense work done and its impact. It is phenomenal for the groups to get reassurance today that €8 million will be sourced to keep the services going for 18 months until the next EU round of funding. It also reassures 180 service users and their families in Tipperary and the 1,900 others across the country. On behalf of everyone, I thank the Minister of State and the Minister for their commitment and the understanding they have shown. It means an awful lot to different groups.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Senator again for raising the issue. As Minister of State with responsibility for the Roadmap for Social Inclusion 2020-2025, I am very committed to improving and extending supports to help more people with disabilities to enter employment and stay in the workforce. The work the providers have done in the context of the Ability programme has been innovative and has made a difference in the lives of the young people who have participated. We listened carefully to the Ability representatives last month and this morning when they described the experiences of the young participants and the positive impact of the programme on their lives. This is particularly relevant to my remit. I have oversight of the social inclusion and community activation programme nationally having regard to what we can do with the Ability programme in the long term but also with regard to the community employment schemes' aim to act as a bridge to the labour market.

Our planned approach entails a combination of measures. There is to be an extension of the current programme until the end of August. An application process opening in April of this year will allow successful applicants to continue uninterrupted from August into September and beyond as part of a new programme.

Sitting suspended at 11.47 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.