Dáil Éireann - Volume 526 - 28 November, 2000
Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: I call for an urgent review of the restrictions imposed in April by the Tánaiste on the social employment scheme. Effectively it has meant that many of the schemes that operated successfully in rural and urban areas are either coming to an end or those which have been planned will not come to fruition. The Minister of State is well aware of the valuable work done by means of these schemes down through the years. Under the scheme, many small communities have improved their environmental landscape and amenities and many physically disabled persons had personal assistants, all of which is coming to an end. I fail to understand how any Government can stand idly by and allow this to happen.
I am conscious, as is the Minister of State, that initially these schemes were intended to have a high training input. Many people who can avail of this training want to be employed in their own community because they do not have transport and they do not have any training beyond that  received from the community employment scheme. Will the Minister review, as a matter of urgency, the fact that persons of 55 years of age or over who have been employed in community employment schemes are being put on the scrap heap? Will the Minister review the restrictions and allow those persons continue in community employment or FÁS schemes until retirement age as there is no other alternative for many of them? They are not capable of being employed in the traditional or ordinary manufacturing areas. At 55 years of age they are forced into getting a job or are left idle. They want to work but the Government is denying them the opportunity to continue in work.
When the Minister of State and I along with our other colleagues attended a meeting in Tuam of about 200 or 300 people directly involved in FÁS schemes, the message came loud and clear that these people wanted to continue in community employment and wanted to work in their community for their community. They are being denied that opportunity. Those in the 40 to 55 age group should be allowed work for the three years, opt out for one and become re-employed. That is not happening. There is a raft of about 50,000 to 60,000 people throughout the country in this catch 22 situation who want to work. Because of their previous history and training up to now, they are unable to command the job opportunities in this Celtic tiger economy in the same way as younger people. We cannot turn our backs on them. Neither can we turn our backs on those who provided the training and supervision, all of whom support the notion that those who have a tradition in those schemes are probably the best people to continue in them.
I implore the Minister of State not to turn his back on those with physical disability who have relied on FÁS and social employment schemes for their personal assistants. Now they are restricted and confined. Many who went out to work in the past are unable to get outside their houses because of being denied personal assistants through the restrictions put in place by the Tánaiste.
I am well aware that when the social employment schemes were introduced the Progressive Democrats did not give them much credence. They said these schemes were for cutting briars and nettles. This view is coming back at us again. I do not want any patronising jargon from the Minister of State. I ask him to face reality, to provide a proper scheme and lift the restrictions.
Mr. Treacy Mr. Treacy
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Treacy): I do not give patronising jargon, I give facts. To say there are 50,000 or 60,000 persons involved in this scheme is ludicrous. The total number involved altogether is 37,500. Let us start with facts.
The primary purpose of community employment as an active labour market programme, is to reintegrate long-term unemployed persons into open labour market jobs. The programme was introduced in 1994, to replace a range of initiatives which existed at that time, including the  social employment scheme, which I think the Deputy has in mind. At its height it operated at a level of around 40,000 participants.
The programme was restructured by the Government in 1999, following a consultancy review, to take account of the tightening labour market, and to refocus the programme on older persons and those most removed from the labour market. The principal feature of the restructuring was the introduction of a phased reduction in the number of participants on community employment to 28,000 by 2003, through transferring the resources for 5,000 places to the social economy programme, and by reducing the numbers of places otherwise on the community employment by 4,500, from the 1999 average provision of 37,500.
There are currently 33,412 participants on the programme, which has a target average participation in the region of 35,500 in 2000.
Under the restructuring the eligibility age for the part-time integration option under community employment, was raised from 21 years to 25 years with a number of exceptions, including offshore island residents and 18-24 year olds referred under the employment action plan who have been unemployed for 18 months.
The restructuring of community employment, includes a three-year cap on participation and an increase from the six months required between schemes to 12 months, with effect from April 2000. These changes were introduced to discourage repeated participation in community employment and to give individuals the opportunity to undertake training-education programmes where possible, or to utilise the service of FÁS placement officers and-or the local employment service. Offshore island residents are also exempted from this change.
I am particularly sensitive to the needs of older workers in rural areas and their situation is being reviewed pending the introduction of suitable projects under the social economy programme.
The reduction in absolute numbers participating on the programme, together with the changed eligibility criteria are considered to be appropriate, given the present economic climate and buoyancy in employment projections. Community employment is intended to be a progression programme and it would be inappropriate to allow almost permanent presence on such a programme, while employees are being recruited from around the world to fill vacancies in even the least skilled categories of employment. I am sure the House will agree that it is essential in the interests of the persons concerned, that we should make the most of the present opportunities to re-integrate and offer employment opportunities to the maximum number of those still unemployed.
Our Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment intends to keep the continued operation of community employment under close review, in the context of the restructuring of the programme and the changing labour market environment.
In addition to community employment, the new social economy programme, which was for mally launched by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, on 18 September 2000, will provide urgently needed local services and employment opportunities and experience for people who have been distanced from the labour market. This new programme is aimed at providing up to 2,500 jobs, for the long-term unemployed particularly in disadvantaged communities. This programme is being funded through a reallocation of community employment funding.
The key aims of the social economy programme are to support the regeneration and quality of life of local disadvantaged areas and to maximise employment opportunities for long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged persons. The programme will support the development and operation of social economy enterprises that provide social services and employment opportunities in and for disadvantaged communities. Financial grants and technical supports are provided for the development of social economy businesses for up to three years. This includes grant support for the development of a business plan.
The national development plan provides for expenditure of £213 million on the social economy programme over the period between 2000-06. It is expected that expenditure in 2001 will be £17 million and it is forecast to rise to £41 million per annum, as the demand for the programme increases.
As identified in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness and during the review of the job initiative programme, some people, including those currently on the job initiative programme, will have difficulties getting and keeping a job in the open labour market due to personal barriers such as age, health, literacy and numeracy factors. Additional long-term supports are needed. Our Department is currently developing proposals for appropriate supports for such persons, taking into consideration discussions already held with the social partners and a number of submissions received from the statutory and voluntary sectors. Final proposals are expected to be ready for further discussions with the social partners in the very near future.
We are confident that all these measures will be effective in reintegrating the long-term unemployed and those most removed from the labour market, particularly those in the higher age groupings, into jobs and other options relevant to their circumstances. The House can be assured that the Tánaiste, Minister of State, Deputy Kitt, and myself, together with the management of FÁS, will ensure that the maximum practical flexibility prevails in the interest of continuous opportunity for the unemployed.
Dáil Éireann 526 Adjournment Debate. Community Employment Schemes.