Dáil Éireann - Volume 589 - 07 October, 2004

Priority Questions. - Community Employment Schemes.

  1. Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment if he will assess the impact of cuts in the community employment scheme on areas of disadvantage; if he will consider reversing these cuts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23792/04]

  Mr. Martin: The primary purpose of community employment is to provide work experience and training opportunities for the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups. The total funding allocation for employment schemes in 2004 was fixed at €351 million, which is similar to the level of funding provided in 2003. [1555] This allocation supports 25,000 places across the three FÁS employment schemes — community employment, social economy and the jobs initiative. The number of funded places is similar to the number of participants at year-end 2003 and no reductions have taken place in the overall participation levels in these schemes in 2004.

While there have been reductions in previous years in the number of places available, in line with the reduced number of unemployed, the critical service delivery areas of health and child care, and drugs task force services have been ring-fenced and maintained at the 2002 levels, at approximately 6,000 places. FÁS has endeavoured to support local communities in the services they wish to deliver while keeping the scheme’s focus on securing jobs for participants in the open labour market.

Target participation rates for 2005 will be considered in the context of the ongoing review of active labour market programmes and the budget allocation for FÁS programmes in 2005. Extensive consultation with the social partners and key stakeholders has taken place on the future direction of community employment schemes and other FÁS labour market programmes. I hope to conclude this process shortly.

  Mr. Hogan: I wish Deputy Martin well in his new ministerial post. However, with all due respect, his reply shows that he has not engaged in any consultation on community employment schemes with his new Department or FÁS. The reply is the same litany we received from his predecessor, the Tánaiste, and the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey. I note the community employment, social economy and jobs initiative schemes have been amalgamated to make the figures look better. However, the reduction of 5,000 places in the 2004 Estimates is hitting the voluntary sector and various community efforts hard, with sponsors becoming concerned. Will the Minister take his courage in his hands and ring-fence the number of places at 2003 levels? Government backbenchers are demanding this. It will give some comfort and recognition to the great work these schemes achieve.

The Minister must also examine the three year cap. In some areas, particularly rural ones, if the cap is not removed, the number of places will not be available when there is higher unemployment. However, a category of people, particularly the over 50s, will not get employment elsewhere. We are looking for modest changes that will make a meaningful impact on communities. I ask the Minister to review the response he received from the “permanent Government” and make a political decision in the interests of community groups.

  Mr. Martin: The consultation paper went out in July and various options are being considered. I have already met with the chief executive of FÁS and the departmental team responsible for this matter to discuss the issue. It is only fair that we [1556] await the submissions from the various interest groups. The same levels applied in 2004 as in 2003 for the three schemes. Any reductions were prior to this.

  Mr. Hogan: Actual community employment scheme places have been reduced.

  Mr. Martin: The three year cap issue has been identified by many as an issue. However, the scheme is not just about numbers but also the policy context within which the schemes are operated. There is a labour market component to these schemes in moving people from long-term unemployment. Those figures have been greatly reduced due to Government successes on the economic front but there is still a category of long-term unemployed. We must not forget the concept of progressing from community employment to full employment.

  Mr. Hogan: The long-term unemployment rate is growing.

  Mr. Martin: It is fair to acknowledge that, as the schemes have evolved, they have had a strong community and social impact. I want to see that reflected in any decisions made on the schemes. By the end of the year the situation will be resolved.

  Mr. Hogan: The Minister will be aware from his conversations with the chief executive of FÁS that he is opposed to the existing policy. From correspondence I have received from him, he has proved that his mind is made up on the number of places and what the long-term unemployed should be doing. A political decision must be taken. What is the Minister’s view on the future of the community employment schemes? Does he believe the policy should be changed? Enough consultations and internal reviews were carried out by his predecessor. Deputy Martin was also good at that practice in the Department of Health and Children. Will the Minister tell the House that he is personally committed to ensuring the retention of places on the community employment schemes on behalf of community groups at 2003 levels?

  Mr. Martin: There is no question about the continuation of community employment schemes.

  Mr. Hogan: I asked about the number of places available.

  Mr. Martin: The Government is committed to them.

  Mr. Howlin: It is not.

  Mr. Martin: My predecessor issued a consultation paper in July. It is only fair that the interested parties can make their observations on the scheme before a unilateral decision is made. I accept that, while the chief executives of FÁS [1557] and Forfás have perspectives on these issues, they do not dictate to the Government but work with it.