Dáil Éireann - Volume 600 - 14 April, 2005

Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.

  Mr. Healy: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me an opportunity to raise this issue on the Adjournment. On 5 April, I received a letter from FÁS, the training and employment authority, in response to a representation I made to the authority regarding employment for a worker as a book-keeper. Part of the reply read as follows:

Furthermore, the FÁS budget for Community Employment has been reduced by approximately €1 million, resulting in cutbacks in the south east region with cuts of 22 to be achieved in Tipperary South by the end of April.

Over the next week or ten days, I was contacted by scheme sponsors, participants and supervisors on the scheme. The situation is significantly worse than indicated initially in the reply from FÁS. It transpires that 193 participants on community employment schemes will lose their employment by December this year, and a further 30%, or one in three, of the supervisors will also lose employment. This is as a result of the financial cutbacks but, more importantly, as a result of the three-year cap which the Minister introduced for participants in the scheme aged 40 to 55 years.

This reduction is almost 50% of the number of participants involved in schemes in Tipperary South. Approximately 500 participants are involved in schemes in the constituency. By the end of this year, that number will almost be halved. This will be a significant blow to local communities. It will decimate the schemes. It will mean that schemes will have to close, amalgamate and, over a period of two to three years if this capping is not reversed, we will see the demise of community employment schemes.

I would like to indicate the type of valuable work carried out by people involved in these schemes in just two towns in South Tipperary. In Cashel, for instance, there are a number of schemes. The first scheme is a Cashel Town Council scheme which is basically an environmental scheme. There is also a scheme in the town by South Tipperary County Council which is an environmental tidy towns scheme, a parish scheme which supports local social services and the local community radio in the town, a sports scheme which supports the local pitch and putt, tennis, GAA, soccer and rugby clubs, a Cashel town heritage scheme which supports heritage and development in the town, a Brú Ború scheme which supports Irish cultural events in Brú Ború in Cashel, a Brothers of Charity scheme and a Nagle centre scheme which supports children with disabilities in the town of Cashel.

[1096] Fifteen miles down the road in Tipperary town, there is a care of the elderly scheme, the Excel scheme which supports cultural activity in the Excel centre in the town, the Canon Hayes centre scheme which supports all sorts of community sporting activity in the town, a community centre scheme which includes social services, meals on wheels and so on, a Moorehaven scheme and a Knockanrawley resource centre scheme and an omnibus scheme which does excellent work in the Tipperary town. That is mirrored in every town and village throughout the county.

If this capping is not reversed, there will be significant loss of employment and significant decimation in the services provided by the schemes. The services are not being provided by another individual or agency. It is a very short-sighted proposal because the cost of with continuing these schemes is minimal. It costs approximately €20 a week per participant when one takes into account that unemployment benefit, or some other type of social welfare payment will have to be paid. Will the Minister seriously consider reversing this capping and the financial cutbacks in these schemes because otherwise significant damage will be done to the fabric of society in towns and villages throughout the county?

  Mr. B. Lenihan: I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Martin. I thank Deputy Healy for raising this matter on the Adjournment.

Community employment offers work experience and training opportunities for the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups. The aim is to assist participants to progress to a job in the open labour market. The number of participants on community employment schemes increased during 2004. It stood at 19,848 in January 2004 and increased to 22,194 by the end of the year. There was an overall increase in the calendar year 2004 in the numbers of people on community employment. I stress that the FÁS employment programmes, which comprise community employment, social economy and the job initiative, will provide a total of 25,000 places in 2005.

A total of €351 million was allocated to FÁS employment programmes in 2004 which was similar to the budgeted amount provided in 2003. In the region of €369 million will be spent by FÁS administering the programmes during the current year.

Community employment is an active labour market programme. It aims to assist the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged persons to progress into the labour market. A secondary objective of the programme, as Deputy Healy fairly pointed out, is to support service provision in local communities. The reduction in the level of places available during the years 1999 to 2003 reflected a refocusing of available resources [1097] towards training and other more appropriate supports and came as a result of the significant decline in long-term unemployment which stood at 8.9% in 1993 and decreased steadily from 1998 onwards to 1.4% in 2003.

On foot of a review of FÁS employment schemes, which included detailed consultations with the social partners, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment introduced the following changes with effect from 10 November 2004. The three year cap was removed for persons aged 55 and older, and those over the age of 55 are now eligible to participate in community employment for a maximum of six years. In the case of persons advancing beyond the age of 55 during their normal period of service in community employment, participation can be extended for up to a maximum of six years.

This change is designed to address the particular difficulty of finding replacements to participate in community employment schemes in certain rural areas. It will also help secure the continuity of community services generally. Combined with the rural social scheme, under the aegis of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which has 2,500 places available, the existing community service support framework will be maintained.

Current ring-fencing and prioritisation procedures for the essential services of child care, health-related services and the drugs task force are being maintained.

Community employment will remain an active labour market programme with emphasis on progression to employment. For those under the age of 55, the normal service of up to three years maximum will continue to apply subject to the current flexibility guidelines administered by FÁS.

The continuation of ring-fencing and the extended participation in community employment by older workers will help secure the continuity of community services in general and will ensure that the existing community service support framework will be maintained.

In addition to the changes introduced in community employment, participants remaining on the job initiative, approximately 1,900, will have their contracts renewed on an annual basis. Participants who voluntarily leave the programme will be replaced by community employment participants to support the service being provided.

There will be no compulsory cessation of social economy programmes, which play a very valuable role in communities throughout the country. When an enterprise makes the decision to cease activity, affected employees will be assisted by FÁS in finding alternative employment.

I assure Deputy Healy and the House that there will be no large-scale closure of schemes during 2005 and that overall numbers will be maintained during the year. The Government will continue to support the positive role of community employment in meeting the needs of the [1098] long-term unemployed and in the provision of essential services within such communities according to the level of resources available.