Seanad Éireann - Volume 155 - 08 April, 1998

Adjournment Matter. - Community Employment Schemes.

[89] Ms O'Meara: This matter arises in the context of the review by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment of the operation of the community employment schemes. Ongoing review is essential to the operation of any effective scheme but I am anxious to bring a number of points to the Department's attention, arising from my experience of dealing with groups engaged in community employment activity and their sponsors, largely in rural areas.

The community employment schemes are a major success and there is a high level of demand for them. For example, there is a waiting list of up to 40 groups in north Tipperary at the moment. These schemes are taken for granted to a certain extent and it is assumed they will always exist, which I hope they will. However, the schemes are now operating against the background of a changed economic situation.

The schemes, which are largely known as FÁS schemes in rural areas, were developed in the context of a much higher rate of unemployment than the present rate. It is, however, worth pointing out that while unemployment continues to decrease we are now only at the level we were at ten years ago, which is still an unacceptably high level. We are still finding it very difficult to break the cycle of long-term unemployment.

The points I wish to make about the community employment schemes relate to their social value. In the context of the review, it is worth considering a number of changes which would recognise certain facts. For example, in places such as north Tipperary there are core groups of long-term unemployed, largely male and over a certain age who, because of their lack of skills and employment background, will probably never work again. For example, in Nenagh there is a group which was largely employed in Silvermines as manual labourers and whose only work experience is through the community employment schemes. They move from one scheme to another. Younger people no longer face a period of unemployment on leaving school as they did in the past due to the economic conditions because there is work for carpenters, builders, welders, etc. If young people have any skill they will generally find employment and need not participate in community employment schemes. Those who depend on community employment schemes are older males who are long term unemployed. It makes no sense to them to move from a scheme back to the dole. The money is coming from the same source, namely, the Exchequer, and there is no significant difference in the amount received on community employment schemes and on social welfare. They see no point having to come off schemes after a certain period and neither do I.

Another issue is the social value of schemes. I note from figures supplied today by FÁS that 44 per cent of participants are involved in community or social activity, including tidy towns, [90] tidy villages, amenity schemes, etc. Without these schemes such work will not be done. There are no people available to carry out planting and maintain graveyards and the appearance of villages such as Toomyvara or Silvermines. However, the social value of having these groups available is huge and there is much anxiety when schemes come to an end. There is also a failure to understand the level of bureaucracy and rules which dictates that somebody must be off a scheme for a number of months or that a scheme must be suspended. At present every tidy towns and tidy villages group is demanding to be recognised as this is the active time of year for relevant community employment schemes.

The Minister and the Government should consider that fact that in every area there is a core group for whom community employment schemes are the only way of being involved in work related activity in which they are delighted to be able to participate. Community employment schemes should also be examined in the context of where they are working best from the point of view of demand for schemes and their social value. Is an economic evaluation being carried out in relation to, for example, the improvement of a village such as Silvermines and the spin off effects on tourism? How can a village such as Toomyvara improve its appearance and amenities and, in turn, affect the numbers visiting the area? Has there been an evaluation of the social value of schemes, something which has probably developed by accident? Arising from the fact that schemes have become so popular particularly in rural areas, is consideration being given to a more imaginative and creative response to community employment? There should be recognition of the damage which could be done if there was a scaling down of the schemes.

We have a responsibility, particularly in economically good times, to those who are not participating in the economic prosperity of the country by virtue of the fact that they were unable to avail of education and skills training. Everybody is talking about the Celtic tiger, prosperity and what a great country we live in but they are not participating in this prosperity and probably will never work again. Their only way of contributing to their local community is through Government schemes. I hope there is recognition by those carrying out the review of the importance of community employment schemes. I am sure the Minister is aware of this importance in his area.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Treacy): Community employment is the main manpower intervention by the State in respect of the long-term unemployed. Given the cost of the programme, approximately £326 million this year, and taking into account that there is a limit to the availability of Exchequer resources, it is necessary to target the programme at the most disadvantaged of the long-term unemployed, i.e., those whose principal or only source of income is an [91] unemployment compensation payment or certain other means tested social welfare payments. This targeting helps maximise the availability of places. Its primary objective is to provide unemployed people with temporary opportunities whereby they could update skills which may have become rusty through prolonged unemployment, develop new skills and obtain a recent track record of work experience which is most important when convincing potential employers of their ability and suitability to fill vacancies. Community employment should not be seen as a substitute for mainstream work but rather as a stepping stone to mainstream work.

Under the programme local community and voluntary organisations, i.e., sponsors, who bring forward a proposal to provide quality temporary opportunities for unemployed people can obtain grant aid from FÁS. Suitable projects would include those which develop the work skills of unemployed people and enhance their prospects of getting a job.

While the sponsoring of individual projects can provide valuable secondary benefits to local community and voluntary bodies in helping them further their own aims and objectives and improve the quality of life for their fellow citizens, it should not be seen as core State funding for these activities, most of which would be outside the remit of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and FÁS. Funding of this nature would be a matter for the relevant Department or State agency within whose remit the particular activity falls.

As community employment has become very popular with both sponsors and unemployed persons and is at present operating at or close to capacity level on a national basis relative to available resources, it is not possible for FÁS all of the time to accommodate all sponsors seeking project approval or all persons seeking a place on the programme or to meet the needs of some sponsors in full. Nonetheless, the provision of opportunities for an average of 41,000 participants throughout 1998 is very significant and will be of considerable benefit to unemployed persons and local communities. To alter the programme to meet the specific needs of individual sponsors or areas would not alone be contrary to the objective of the programme but would also be at the expense of those for whom community employment is designed.

Deloitte and Touche has recently been appointed to evaluate the programme in terms of [92] meeting its objective, to consider its efficacy in the light of current and evolving labour market conditions and to make proposals to improve the programme within existing resources. That review should be completed by June of this year and its conclusions will inform future policy development in regard to community employment.

I concur with the sentiments expressed by Senator O'Meara. I come from a remote rural rugged area and assure the House that, as I said recently at a high powered meeting involving FÁS management and others, the only semblance of the Celtic tiger in rural areas is the activities of FÁS and the community employment programmes. I assure the House that the programmes have my full support and that of the Department. However, we are somewhat constrained by the conditions laid down and included by the previous Government in the context of these schemes. Everybody wants to place their own emphasis on the schemes and we have not tampered with those conditions. The purpose of the schemes is to provide employment opportunities, skills training and skill enhancement in order that existing skills can be geared for the marketplace.

The Celtic tiger has created a major boost for the transport industry. The lack of facilities in rural areas can only be improved through proper community employment schemes. I, the Government and the Department are committed to these schemes and I will place the observations of the Senator before Deloitte and Touche. FÁS has done an excellent job and has our full support. I would like to be able to enhance and enlarge these programmes and have increased participation on them. We must, and hopefully will, find and strike the right balance. Hopefully the report when published will pinpoint ways in which we can improve the schemes for sponsors, the community and participants.

Ms O'Meara: Does the Minister intend to publish the report by Deloitte & Touche after June?

Mr. Treacy: That is not my decision because FÁS does not report to me but to the Tánaiste. The internal request to review the matter was made by the Tánaiste and the Department. When that review is completed, the Tánaiste will take it to the Government which will then decide whether it should be published.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.20 p.m. sine die.