Wednesday, 16 November 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister of State to the House and thank him for taking this Commencement matter. The Minister of State will be fully aware of the rural social scheme, commonly know as RSS. This scheme is aimed at low-income farmers and fishers. To quality for the RSS, people must be in receipt of a social welfare payment. In return, those participating in the scheme provide services that benefit rural communities. These services are critically important. The areas covered under the schemes are: maintaining and enhancing various walkway routes; energy and conservation work for older people and those at risk of poverty; village and countryside enhancement projects; social care and care for older people projects; community care for preschool and after-school groups; environmental maintenance work; caretaking in community and local sports facilities; and other projects related to cultural and heritage centres. This is an extensive array of arrangements that are needed in communities. They are not just add-ons but critically important functions that do not necessarily require full-time work. Carried out under the rural social scheme, they are worthy of support. The Department is fully aware of the projects under the scheme and they are constantly monitored.
At a local level, the RSS is managed by implementation bodies such as the local development companies, Údarás na Gaeltachta and others. I understand the scheme is soon to be reviewed. The Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community Development, Deputy Joe O'Brien, issued a statement that the scheme was under consideration and review. That is important and we need to address how we will review it. There are also areas in which to expand the rural social scheme, for example, biodiversity projects and other projects that are critical in our communities.
The aim here is to extend the scheme to farmers and fishers on the financial margins in order that they can supplement their incomes by doing important and beneficial work in this communities and to acknowledge and formalise that. Participation is voluntary, although a contribution or payment is given, and can be monitored in the best interests of all. I see enormous benefits in extending the scheme and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, will also see the scheme's benefits and importance. Will he comment on what the review involves, its timescale and if it is intended to extend the scheme?
I acknowledge the excellent work on the rural social scheme and the contribution this scheme and its participants make to rural communities throughout the country. Currently, there are 2,873 participants and 133 supervisors employed on the scheme. The Department of Social Protection runs the scheme which has a total budget of €51.9 million in 2022. The scheme is delivered through a network of 36 local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
RSS projects deliver a range of services which are vital to the social and economic well-being of many rural areas. Services include the development, regeneration and enhancement of community spaces, environmental maintenance, early years and after-school supports, recycling and repair of equipment, and the staffing of cultural and heritage centres. Many of these have a social inclusion dimension.
The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, and the Minister for State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, have been hugely impressed by the range and value of the work undertaken on RSS projects, some of which they have had the opportunity to visit and witness at first-hand. Over the past year, the Minister and Minister of State announced reforms to the RSS to support recruitment and retention of staff by removing the six-year time limit on the scheme. This means all participants can now stay on the RSS until they reach the pension age. These changes benefit up to 1,400 participants.
The Department of Social Protection has recently reviewed the means assessment disregards for farm assist, the main qualifying payment for the rural social scheme.As part of the review process, the range of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for income disregards to qualify for the farm assist payment has been greatly expanded. These measures were implemented in June 2022 and should increase the number of people who may qualify for farm assist payments and, by extension, can take up a place on a rural social scheme. Recent positive employment trends in reducing numbers claiming farm assist payments have had a direct effect on the number of people interested and eligible to participate in the rural social scheme. This is why there are still some vacancies on schemes even with the important reforms introduced by the Government this year.
The Department will undertake a review of the scheme. The review will begin before the end of this year and cover all aspects of the scheme including its social dimension. It will be overseen by a steering group which will have a wide representation including representatives of the schemes. It is hoped the first meeting of the steering group will be held this year. This review will cover issues such as: the sustainability of services delivered by the scheme; the role the programme can play in changing our society; and potential for the scheme to deal with issues such as climate change and biodiversity. It further demonstrates the support of the Government for the scheme.
I thank the Minister of State for the comprehensive response. I am pleased with it. As he correctly stated, it demonstrates the Government's commitment to keeping the rural social scheme in place. It has an important function. I acknowledge the budgetary measures of the increase in the payment under the scheme. It is to be welcomed and is significant. That also demonstrates the Government's commitment to the rural social scheme. I know from speaking to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, that she is supportive of it. Like most people who know and understand her, I see she is keen to get out on the ground and meet the people who are directly involved and tell them of her support for the scheme. That is important and it should be acknowledged and admired.
I thank Senator Boyhan again for raising the matter. I reassure the Senator that the Ministers place huge emphasis on the importance of employment schemes, especially, for rural areas, the rural social scheme. As I stated earlier, they have visited rural social schemes in recent months and are fully aware of the important work they do in the community. They have seen first-hand the great work that is being carried out, offering services to vulnerable members of our communities, keeping our towns and villages looking well, and protecting our environment.
The removal of the six-year rule is making an important difference to the operation of the rural social scheme by supporting schemes to ensure they retain experienced participants to deliver services. This change addresses an issue that was frequently raised on visits to projects and provides security to the participants who need it most and who might otherwise have had to leave the scheme in the coming years. As I stated earlier, the review of the scheme will commence shortly and will be inclusive and wide-ranging in nature to ensure all relevant views are included.
I reiterate that the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, are fully committed to the future of the rural social scheme and will continue to support and improve it for the benefit of participants, given the valuable contribution being made to local communities through the provision of services in rural areas.
We look forward to the outcome of the review in due course.
I thank Senator Boyhan for raising that critical issue for rural Ireland.
It is my great pleasure to welcome the teachers and pupils from St. Finian’s Community College in Swords. Is it a primary school? No, I apologise, it is of course a secondary school. Forgive me. There is a glass panel between us. They are all very welcome and it is great to have them in the Houses of democracy observing what we do. I hope they will be impressed by some of it and perhaps it will inspire one or two of them to consider coming here in later life.
They heard the Minister responding to a matter raised by Senator Boyhan. They will now hear an educational matter being raised by Senator Ahearn. This is the stage of the day when we address issues raised by individual Senators. Later we will have another opportunity for Senators to speak about the issues of the day. I think the pupils will no longer be here for that session as it is an hour away, but it is great to have them in the House.
I call Senator Ahearn to present his Commencement matter.