Seanad Éireann - Volume 157 - 09 December, 1998

FÁS Annual Report: Motion.

[958] Ms Cox: I move:

That Seanad Éireann welcomes the 1997 Annual Report of FÁS; recognises its major contribution to Irish life; and calls on the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to make a statement on the matter.

FÁS is one of the few agencies which reaches into every town and village and makes a significant contribution to Irish life and society. As an organisation, FÁS has developed and changed enormously in recent years.

One of the great things about FÁS is the way it adapts to changing circumstances. If we consider that in the 1970s and 1980s Manpower was responsible for job placement while AnCO was responsible for training, we can see how those two organisations merged to form FÁS and bring together training and job placement services under one umbrella. Since the early 1990s the economy, the employment market and the training culture in Ireland have changed and FÁS has managed to adapt and continue to serve society in carrying out its role.

On the training side, FÁS has responsibility for apprenticeship schemes, CE schemes, external and internal training programmes and the certification of many other programmes. The organisation has been responsible for major improvements in the area of certification and has become the trend setter in terms of the education standards which obtain in its internal and external programmes. FÁS has participated in developing Ireland's current training culture which, even in terms of Europe and the United States, is second to none.

The services to business section of FÁS provided many important services to the manufacturing industry. My one criticism of it is that service organisations were ignored by FÁS in so far as it was unable to supply the supports they required during the period in question. However, that section of FÁS was transferred to Enterprise Ireland and perhaps the situation to which I refer will be reversed.

The recruitment or job placement section of FÁS has responded well to changing circumstances in recent years. I compliment the dedicated staff of the recruitment division who, for many years, were obliged to deal with people applying for jobs or seeking assistance in that regard at a time when no jobs were available. Fortunately, the situation has changed and there are now many jobs on offer. This has changed the focus of FÁS which can now concentrate its efforts on the long-term unemployed.

For many years FÁS has operated a computer database and it has been able to respond to the needs of employers by checking that database in order to select suitable candidates for particular vacancies. I welcome the initiative introduced a number of years ago to focus on small groups of people by taking a “mind the pennies and the [959] pounds will look after themselves” approach. It is important to address the issue of long-term unemployment on an individual basis because no two people have the same problem. People are on long-term unemployment for different reasons and they have different needs and requirements.

Only by using an approach geared toward the individual will we be able to effectively address the issue of long-term unemployment. This will enable us to remove people from the culture in which they may have grown or in which they have languished for a long period and encourage them to enter the world of employment where they will receive a weekly wage in appreciation for the work they do. FÁS has done great work with these people in terms of confidence building, developing their assertiveness skills and providing them with counselling.

One of the difficulties for long-term unemployed people — this is recognised by FÁS and it is apparent in its training and placement courses — is that they find it difficult to return to work for a variety of reasons. It is sometimes difficult for these people to get out of bed in the morning or to be on time for an appointment. If you are not used to the discipline of the workplace it is difficult to acquire the habit of keeping to schedules or getting to work at a certain time each morning. The difficulties of people who have been unemployed for a long time need to be sensitively addressed and FÁS has been successful in addressing this issue.

I commend FÁS for addressing the problem of skills shortage which our growing economy is experiencing. Within the last year FÁS has established a database of the skills which are required by international companies based in Ireland. This is a pool of people with high skills and is an effective marketing tool for Forbairt or Enterprise Ireland when they sell Ireland to prospective employers. FÁS has a website and the organisation's information is updated daily on Aertel. Job vacancies can be advertised in local FÁS offices throughout the country and on the TV page. This is an excellent service for employers seeking to fill vacancies. Applications for the jobs which are advertised can be channelled through FÁS offices.

Many FÁS offices provide a telephone so that people seeking jobs can make local telephone calls. Those of us who have phones on our desks or in several places in our homes may forget that many people do not have access to this essential service. It is not always appropriate to answer a job advertisement from a call box and this basic service can be vitally important to job seekers.

In the year 1997, 96 per cent of participants in CE programmes were recruited from the designated long-term unemployed group. Many participants in CE schemes go on to full-time or part-time unemployment so that the cycle of long-term unemployment is broken. The Jobstart and Workplace schemes which are designed to help employers take on workers are vitally important [960] to the employment sector. Some have been very successful. For example. workers have been recruited by the Cadburys plant in Coolock, Dublin, under these schemes and have been reintegrated into the workforce. FÁS has also provided child care training. We have had very few child care training programmes and its provision is very worthwhile.

FÁS has been involved in cross-Border initiatives in the areas of unemployment, training and apprenticeships. This is particularly welcome in this new era of co-operation between North and South. FÁS has been particularly responsive to the needs of people with disabilities and special needs who wish to reintegrate into the workforce. They have made services available to individuals, encouraged employers to participate in schemes and co-operated with the National Rehabilitation Board and other organisations in the disability sector.

FÁS has done a marvellous job over the past number of years. However, I would like to see better co-ordination between the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and FÁS, continued emphasis on individual attention for the long-term unemployed and greater access to training programmes for women. Many women have great difficulty getting on FÁS training courses. I would also like to see access to training courses for people who want to change their jobs. The FÁS budget of approximately £479 million is considerable but it is money well spent.

I commend the motion to the House.

Ms Ormonde: I second the motion and welcome my good friend and colleague from Dublin South, the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Tom Kitt, to the House.

I may be handicapped this evening but I will try to sharpen my other faculties to compensate. I congratulate FÁS on this fine document which deserves our praise. The Director General's summary sets a positive tone which is no more than one would expect. I compliment him on the work of his organisation. Much work has been done to promote specific skills training, foundation training and guidance. I was very much involved with FÁS in my previous career and I am aware of the great service provided for young people by the Jobstart programme.

I congratulate FÁS on the success of the Opportunities 97 — Careers Planning Exhibition, an excellent exhibition of the opportunities offered by FÁS and of links with the national and international business world. While I congratulate FÁS on the Opportunities 97 exhibition and on the previous annual careers exhibitions, I wonder why these are only held in Dublin. I know guidance counsellors throughout the country bring students to Dublin to attend these exhibitions but why can they not be held in regional centres so that the excellent service provided by FÁS can be more widely spread? FÁS deserves praise for providing this great service.

[961] I wish to focus on the reorganisation and remodelling of the FÁS apprenticeship scheme, about which I have serious misgivings. This scheme has see-sawed many times as regards how it has worked in the past and will operate in future. The old school of thinking on apprenticeships was the best, where one went into the local school and provided education and training. Students then emerged into the world of work while returning to school to follow training modules. The system now appears to fluctuate between three days on and two days out. Even the business community does not know how the apprenticeship scheme is supposed to operate; even in my other professional role, I still do not know how the scheme operates. The Minister of State should remodel it, perhaps in the old fashioned way. The students were brought in for training and then they get jobs. When the jobs dried up that system did not work because apprentices who had been trained had nowhere to go. Responsibility was then switched to the business community. FÁS trained the apprentices on condition that employers provided a place for them.

Now that employment is increasing again, I cannot understand why the Minister for State cannot create a panel of trainees, regardless of whether jobs are available. He should bring in a percentage of trainee plumbers, electricians, carpenters and metal workers. We have not looked at the service area either. They should be trained for training's sake.

If I need a plumber tonight, I will not be able to find one. I cannot look for a plumber in the business community. I cannot understand why FÁS cannot have a panel or list of plumbers, electricians, painters, etc., so that when necessary I can phone for one. There should be a panel of such people in each FÁS branch area, be it in Finglas, Clondalkin or Rathfarnham, so that local residents can avail of their services.

There was a time when trades people were highly rated. Now we have third level courses and one does not think about apprenticeships any more. That is considered to be a substandard type of work and we are told that people must be trained for entry to third level education, including the technological area. I would like to see young people being trained after the junior certificate. A link could then be created, involving co-ordination between the education sector and FÁS as to how best our school leavers can take up an apprenticeship in the areas they wish to pursue as a career. I do not wish to be negative because I am aware of the work FÁS is doing. However, I would like to see FÁS remodelling the apprenticeship scheme in the manner I have outlined. I could speak for another half an hour on this subject but I only have ten minutes.

I also wish to mention the service trades because I think the Minister of State has slipped up when it comes to the catering sector. There may be an overlap between catering and the apprenticeship scheme because something is not [962] working properly in that area, which I would like to see tidied up.

Why can the Minister of State not do a hard sell in schools concerning trades? That is not being done, but if it was we might take a fresh look at reorganisation of the apprenticeship scheme. Great work is being done and big money is being spent on the scheme. While some areas can boast of success stories, I am not convinced that the apprenticeship scheme is one such area. I would like to see it being remodelled; perhaps we can discuss the matter on another occasion.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. T. Kitt): I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad. I thank my colleague, Senator Ormonde, for her warm words of welcome. I wish her a speedy recovery and wish her well in the forthcoming elections.

I also wish to thank Senator Cox, from my county of Galway, who opened the debate. I noticed that she was accompanied by a major touring party from Galway. I am glad she found the time to attend the House for this debate.

I welcome the opportunity to make a statement on the role of FÁS, the national training and employment authority, and its contribution to Irish life. I want to assure Senators that any proposals and suggestions arising from this debate will be filtered through both the Department and FÁS. I found it a very enlightening experience to have worked with FÁS over the last 18 months and getting around the country to places as far away as Donegal and Sligo. I have seen what is happening throughout the country. I will try to address many of these issues but no doubt, as Senator Ormonde said, we will discuss them again. We will continue to monitor how things are operating, especially now that there is a huge drive in the economy, and will ensure that all the services are working to their full potential.

FÁS's role is well reflected in its recently published annual report, to which Senators referred. I would now like to outline to the House some key features of the report. Approximately 92,000 people completed FÁS employment, skills and enterprise programmes in 1997 compared to 84,000 in 1996. One of the most positive developments of 1997 was the sustained improvement in the levels of apprenticeships being offered by employers. This was referred to by Senator Ormonde. A total of 5,569 new apprentices were registered compared to 4,135 in 1996.

FÁS continued to make progress in establishing traineeships. This skills development programme, which is run in partnership between FÁS and employers, addresses equally the skill needs of employers and the training needs of new entrants to the labour market. A total of 58 traineeship courses were piloted in 1997. Approximately 500 people completed traineeships in 1997, of whom 402 subsequently secured jobs.

[963] During 1997 a total of 11,921 unemployed persons completed specific skills training courses. On completing their training, 73 per cent secured employment in a diverse range of sectors. Specific skills training courses are focused on the specific needs of local employers, with special attention being given to the software, computing, electronics and related high-technology areas.

Targeting of community employment on the long-term unemployed resulted in a significant shift in the profile of participants. At the end of 1997, 96 per cent of participants joining community employment programmes were recruited from the targeted long-term unemployed group.

The Jobstart and Workplace schemes, developed in 1996 as part of the Government's employment support measures to help unemployed people secure work, expanded significantly during the year with a total of 2,083 jobs being supported. The training support scheme provided assistance to 2,084 firms for the training of 21,889 people in key business skills. The scheme gave special consideration to small enterprises with fewer than 50 people.

During 1997, FÁS embarked on a major programme of reorganising its service delivery structure in its ten regions. These structural changes were aimed at achieving a better focus on key customer groups and improving the efficiency of its support and administrative activities.

I would now like to reflect on some of the economic and labour market factors impacting on FÁS's role and the challenges facing it as a consequence. Ireland's gross domestic product — GDP — grew at an annual average rate of just under 7 per cent between 1990 and 1997. This compares with a growth rate of less than 2 per cent in the EU overall. As Senators can appreciate, that is very impressive indeed.

Our GNP achieved a cumulative growth of over 60 per cent in GNP between 1990 and 1998. It is gratifying that we have been successful in translating this economic growth into jobs growth.

In recent years, employment has grown by a yearly average of 4 per cent. This year we have exceeded that and have created an additional 95,000 jobs. Unemployment has been halved from the 1993 level of 15.7 per cent to a current 7.8 per cent. Proportionately, long-term unemployment has fallen even more dramatically — down from 9 per cent in 1993 to 3.9 per cent now.

This provides the backdrop against which FÁS is working. It is different from that which prevailed in the years immediately following the establishment of FÁS. In the 15 years from 1975 to 1990, we barely matched the EU in economic growth and our employment performance lagged behind that of other member states. Irish employment levels were falling for much of the 1980s and unemployment and emigration had reached critical levels by 1987-8.

In the climate of the 1980s the overriding goal was to tackle the significant unemployment problem. [964] Fighting long-term unemployment and social exclusion in particular remains a key policy priority, but the context has changed. The challenge now is not just to address the unemployment issue but also to ensure that our human resources and labour market policies support continued economic growth and rising living standards.

Human resources fuel the engine of growth. We are moving into an era where, as the economist Paul Krugman put it, trade is becoming lighter. Old heavy industries are being supplanted by brainware businesses, such as software and electronics. For example, jobs in international services have trebled since 1990 from just under 10,000 to almost 30,000. This transformation is taking place in the context of globalisation, which can be described as the increasingly free movement of goods, capital, information and ideas across national and continental boundaries. All this creates threats and opportunities.

On the upside, our commitment to education and training has helped us develop young people with the skills and flexibility to succeed in these new industries. This is graphically illustrated by the increase in the numbers of people working in international services. The skills of our workforce have been critical to the development of this sector and to our entire drive to secure foreign direct investment. The downside is that many traditional sectors will face continuing competitive threats. We are seeing that now in County Donegal. In addition, the pace of change in knowledge based industries is such that they too must constantly upgrade and adapt to survive.

A second concern is that we will become victims of our own success. The strength of manufacturing and international services can be encapsulated in the fact that we trade more than 140 per cent of our GNP. The increased wealth and living standards which arise from this out-performance is driving a massive increase in domestic services demand. People are spending more money on consumer goods and buying more domestic services.

If we are to continue to grow, we need to have the human resource base which can respond to these demands across all sectors of the economy. Unless we can do this, we run the risk that the Celtic tiger will cannibalise itself. We must, therefore, ensure that unemployed people are provided with pathways back to employment and with the skills to access them; that new labour market entrants have the right skills mix and that enterprise constantly upgrades its base of skills and competencies. FÁS has played, and will continue to play, a key role in all these areas.

It has been a major concern of the Government since it came to office to see FÁS focus on the needs of the long-term unemployed. This is particularly important at a time of economic well being. Probably for the first time in the history of the State it is within our grasp to redress the problem of structural unemployment, provided we pursue the right strategic mix of policies. This [965] means we should increase participation by long-term unemployed and socially excluded persons in those programmes with the best employability outcomes, reduce participation in those programmes with poorer employability outcomes and enhance the training and progression element in those programmes. We should increase the participation by long-term unemployed and socially excluded persons in specific skills training, reduce participation in community employment and enhance the progression and training element within community employment.

Ireland has in excess of 80,000 active labour market programmes and supported employment programme places. There is a ratio of one such place for every two persons in receipt of an unemployment payment and looking for a full-time job. This is a much greater quantum of support than envisaged in the 1995 report of the task force on long-term unemployment which provided much of the rationale for expansion of community employment in different employment circumstances. The Government has no intention of reducing such supports but it has the objective and the duty of refocusing such supports.

FÁS and the economy do not operate in isolation. I have already mentioned globalisation and, in that context, we must have regard to the operation of labour markets in other countries and to the operation of the benefit and job broking functions. This is particularly the case with regard to our EU partners. Like the other member states, we have signed up to the EU employment guidelines and this is given effect by the adoption and implementation of a national employment plan each year over a five year time horizon. The guidelines and the employment action plan represent a critically important development in Government policy on unemployment. For the first time we are adopting a policy of preventing people from falling into long-term unemployment as well as providing supports and progression to persons already long-term unemployed.

FÁS and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs are the key agents of delivery of the employment action plan. The first phase of the systematic activation programme, dealing with 18 to 25 year olds approaching six months on the live register, came into operation on 1 September this year. Under the programme, the persons concerned are provided with quality supports on the basis of individual need to help secure a job or other employability support as appropriate. The intention is to extend the systematic activation programme to over 25 year olds approaching one year on the live register.

It is too early to come to a definitive conclusion on the success of the activation programme but the initial results are promising. For example, the position at the end of October 1998 of persons referred to FÁS in September is that almost 41 per cent, or 345 out of a total of 852, had signed off. Of those interviewed by FÁS, 12 per cent [966] were in jobs and a further 30 per cent were in training or about to take this up.

Implementation of the employment action plan requires significant resourcing of the placement service within FÁS and this has taken, and is taking, place. Programme places have been ringfenced for the 18 to 25 year olds and a similar approach will need to be adopted for the over 25 year olds. This will be in addition to the positive action programme on training for the long-term unemployed which aims to double participation by the long-term unemployed in mainstream training.

As regards developments for the future, it is relevant to note the recommendations of a review of our public employment service by the OECD which was published earlier this month. It makes the case for better linkages between FÁS, the local employment service and the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs. These trends are already under way in national policy. It also calls for proactive engagement with employers with regard to vacancies and for more frequent interviews with unemployed persons. The report calls for the scaling down of large scale job creation programmes in the public and community sector as the economy improves and for greater emphasis in programmes on progression to unsubsidised work and on job search supports.

FÁS has shown itself to be flexible and responsive to labour market circumstances in the past through, for example, greatly increasing the proportion of women on both training and community employment from a low base to a point where there is parity of participation with men. Similarly, it has been possible to resource the drug strategy teams in part through FÁS. I expect FÁS to be equally responsive both to supply and demand in the labour market in the future.

There is a need for us to constantly review the needs of clients, job seekers and customers to see if we can respond to them in an imaginative way. It is this position of reflecting on how to deliver more targeted supports that is leading us to introduce a dedicated social economy programme from early next year. This will replace an element of community employment with a programme which is more flexible from the point of view of the employer or sponsor and we hope it will develop economic activity in disadvantaged communities.

I reiterate a continuing commitment to a substantial community employment programme with a more focused element of progression for participants. The resources devoted to FÁS are vast; they will be substantially in excess of £400 million in 1999. For that investment, it is critically important we get targeted programmes attuned to labour market conditions and responsive to the need for measures which tackle long-term unemployment and enhance social inclusion.

The strategic direction of this policy approach is reflected in the budget. In addition to supports for ongoing programmes, the budget saw 8,375 [967] additional active labour market programme places in targeted initiatives at a cost of £13.75 million. These are directed at supporting the integration of groups at most remove from the labour market, such as over 35 year olds who have been unemployed for five years and lone parents.

I thank Senators for the opportunity to address them. I regret I do not have time to speak for longer, but I appreciate the restraints on my time as Senators are anxious to get involved in this debate.

Mr. D. Cregan: I welcome the Minister of State. I also welcome the fact that his presentation is very different to the FÁS report because it means that he recognises there are areas within the structure of FÁS that need to be restructured. He also said that over £400 million will be allocated to FÁS in 1999 so they can continue to do their work and diversify their activities in certain areas. We must acknowledge that £479 million was spent in 1997 which was 9 per cent more than the 1996 figure of £43 million.

FÁS has done what was most needed during the 1980s and the early 1990s but there is now a need for a big change. I do not want to see glossy reports which give the impression that everything is rosy in the garden because we had a growth rate of 7 per cent per year from 1990 onwards and job increases in every sector of the economy. Unfortunately, I have witnessed cost increases in many areas, particularly in the construction industry where there is not enough skilled labour. I wonder why this is not happening even though we are spending almost £500 million or perhaps more indirectly.

Senator Ormonde made very strong points. In many ways we may think we are old fashioned but I do not. I can get a doctor for £20 within ten minutes, I can get an accountant within an hour, I can see a dentist if I am prepared to pay £25 to put a filling in my tooth and I can also employ someone indirectly or from the black economy to look after my child if I require child care. Senator Cox should not blame me because the Government did not do something about child care in the budget.

Ms Cox: We are not blaming the Senator.

Mr. D. Cregan: The Senator should not give the impression that this area is being looked after; it is not.

The Minister of State knows skilled people are not available in the general services area. That is very worrying. This is not emphasised but glossy reports are produced. I welcome the section on the training sector. That has helped many people and provided the facilities for people involved in the high technology area. Are we training FÁS tutors? Are the skills of FÁS trainers being upgraded? In the old days teachers did not receive extra training and they lagged behind, but that was not their fault. Unfortunately, I do not [968] have enough time to talk about facilities that are not available.

The Minister of State referred to community services and schemes. We should be considering if we can provide these services for areas where there are real jobs. There are many real jobs out there. There are many real jobs available in the services sector, even the construction industry, and they are not being taken up. There are vacancies in CERT, in the service areas such as hotels, restaurants, etc. This problem is not just in Dublin. Senator Ormonde correctly pointed out that there may be centralisation and the impression may be given that there are no problems elsewhere. There are jobs available but people are not taking them up.

There is a 40 per cent drop-out rate from FÁS schemes. This is very serious. Why is there not a proper relationship between the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs and FÁS? There should be more co-operation; there should be a proper linkage. I know people who have gone to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs but they did not meet anyone who had worked in FÁS. This is a very important point. In my day everything was done in the one place. You went to one place for a job, they told you if you got it and then you were referred back to them. Now you get social welfare payments in one area and you get training, or a job, at another location. Things are not as rosy as Senator Cox said. The impression is given that you can go to a FÁS office and everything will be available but that is not happening in the Cork area I represent.

When I talk to FÁS people I am left with the impression that they do not have the answers. They cannot provide what people are looking for and these people want to go to work. The Minister of State said that between £400 million and £500 million will be spent this year. Let us split the difference and say £450 million will be spent this year because £479 million was spent in 1997. We need to ask what are we getting in return for this outlay. I am not saying there are no opportunities within FÁS but the way I see it the chairman and chief executive officer say they can provide facilities but at cost. I do not think they are providing the skilled people who are badly needed. Are we saying we are on top of the problem? I do not think we are. Are we saying we can provide services for people in the private sector or in the services area? There are many jobs available and not enough people to take them up. What is the answer? How can we tell the public that we are in the process of spending £500 million but we still cannot provide the services or the people?

I am delighted the percentage of long-term unemployed has decreased from 9 per cent to 3.2 per cent but it will still cost us £450 million to look after them this year. Is that what we are saying? The cost should be reducing. The problem is we have set up a structure and the people [969] involved will enhance what they are doing. That is unfortunate in a semi-State body.

FÁS did excellent work providing community services and community works schemes when there were no jobs available but that was filling in a hole just to empty it again. FÁS continues to run these schemes but employers cannot get people to work for them.

There is need for a big change. We should not be afraid to change because if we do not the Celtic tiger could cannibalise itself and I would not like to see that happening.

Mr. Mooney: I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for responding to this debate.

I have always believed that the main reason FÁS has been able to create such a huge empire was due to the flow of European funding. I am sure the Minister of State has been exercising his mind and that of his Department as to where the money will come from post 2000, what will happen to all the wonderful offices, all the personal structure that has been put in place and all its expertise. I am sure the Minister will come out fighting when the occasion demands and will be able to maintain and continue the success story of FÁS in certain areas. FÁS is a bit like the curate's egg in that the Minister of State's statement and FÁS themselves confirm that it has been remarkably successful in a variety of particular areas, especially the focused approach that it has taken over the past six months.

I have often wondered why FÁS services have never been expanded to create what they started. For example, I was involved in the employment agency business in London for four or five years in the early 1970s. I dealt mainly with professional Irish people seeking jobs in the banking and insurance sector. One of the attractions of going through an employment agency is that one is given a one-to-one interview. I had a professional qualification in that area, as did my colleagues. The advantage of this process is that one has the academic qualifications of the applicants available to them and, therefore, can develop their personalities. I was in a position to find out what made the applicant tick and spend time with him or her to decide what type of job he or she should apply for. As a member of a large group, one could use contacts to set up interviews. This was a very successful process and many hundreds of Irish people passed through during my time in the agency. I would like to think they were all successful subsequently.

I do not believe FÁS developed that type of system. An attempt was made in the mid 1990s to establish a local employment service to incorporate the various local agencies, including FÁS. This included the education sector and those in the corporate sector who operated in the area in which the local employment service was being set up. It would have involved an inclusive approach by all those concerned. However, the concept did not get beyond the pilot stage. It certainly did not get blanket coverage throughout the country and [970] it came under the Minister of State's Department. Perhaps he will reflect on the worth of that service in light of the changes that will inevitably take place in funding mechanisms and the conditions Europe will place on us in terms of how we use our money in the area of skills and employment post 2000.

The Minister of State referred to the employment action plan, which reads as follows: “The persons concerned are provided with quality support on the basis of individual need to help secure a job or other employability support as appropriate.” Perhaps there is a need for further expansion in this area. I am thinking of areas where people are fortunate to have jobs on tap and where there could be a correlation between local industry, the educational establishment and FÁS offices.

I read with horror the report of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul published in the last few days. We had a very successful budget — the Opposition must pick holes in any budget. There were legitimate criticisms of certain aspects of budgetary policy. This is only right because much needs to be done. Nevertheless, the report came as a shock to me, given the unprecedented economic growth. The biggest complaint, apart from the lack of adequate child care facilities, was about VRT — a row about affluence and cars. Yet the Society of St. Vincent de Paul stated that it spent more than £16 million last year on the socially disadvantaged, dysfunctional families and the long-term unemployed. The report stated that a significant number of people have difficulty finding employment because of family and personal problems and lack of proper skills. Are those people falling through the net? Are organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul discovering problems that FÁS and other State agencies are not? Surely this needs to be addressed. Perhaps organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul could become more involved in FÁS, rather than operating as a net-minder. There are many other fine organisations, but I am quoting the Society of St. Vincent de Paul because it has a high profile and operates in almost every town and village. In the context of this report, there is a great need to identify those individuals who could be given help to enhance their job skills or obtain new skills. This would address some of the problems referred to in the report, but we will never be able to solve the problem in its entirety.

This is a social issue as well as a sound economic argument. People who, for whatever reason, do not have the personality or motivation to request help from State agencies and rely instead on organisations such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul represent a loss to the economy. They also contribute to the social problems in society. FÁS is doing other good work, not least the local community employment schemes. Coming from Drumshanbo, County Leitrim, I must say that if community employment schemes were not sponsored by local voluntary organisations and local [971] authorities, a great deal of work would not be done. There is a shift in focus in the Department which suggests these schemes should not be seen as little more than environmental clean-up schemes which contribute very little. It is felt these people should be given managerial skills that would lead to other jobs. What does one do in a rural environment where there are no other jobs, where the only option is to either stay in bed all day or go out and work in the interests of the community? Consequently, I support the concept of community employment schemes. These schemes have contributed to environmental enhancement, improved towns and villages and contributed enormously to the success of the tidy towns competition. They provide a valuable social as well as a sound economic need. I hope the Minister of State will not disband this service.

I commend the Minister of State's work in this area. He has brought an individual style and philosophy to the job which will continue to bear fruit. I wish him well.

Mr. Norris: I am happy to contribute to this debate because I am a fan of FÁS. I am rather distressed that so far my colleague, Senator Ross, has not materialised. I anticipated a certain division of opinion on this side of the House. I have been reading some of the articles he wrote in the last year or so which consistently attacked FÁS. For example, he referred to the creation of fairyland, a place in which one would imagine I would feel quite at home.

Acting Chairman (Mr. Costello): It is out of order to refer to a Senator in his or her absence.

Mr. Norris: I am sorry the Acting Chairman drew attention to the fact that the Senator is not present. I wish it could be removed from the record, but that is not possible, even with the assistance of a FÁS scheme. However, the absence may not be permanent. He might arrive and make an important contribution. Perhaps he is listening.

I know from reading Senator Ross's articles that he is concerned about waste in the system and no doubt, there is some waste. This is inevitable in an operation of this size. Not everyone is as prudent as Members of this House. It is worth putting on the record that I have access to figures, the details of which are confidential. It is interesting to note that while FÁS made an important contribution to the industrial and commercial life of this country, nearly £80 out of every £100 goes directly to FÁS trainees as allowances, job subsidies or as wages and materials in community employment projects. That point needs to be made up front so that people realise we are getting value for money from FÁS.

It is easy to laugh at these kinds of agencies as times and circumstances change. I well remember an item on The Pat Kenny Show where somebody, [972] who may have been on a FÁS scheme, stated that they there being trained in how to apply for jobs. I see by his expression that Senator Mooney appears to remember this one. There were not enough telephone instruments around so they were given a banana and an orange. This may be an urban legend, it indicates a certain wry humorous approach to FÁS, but it is a deeply serious operation despite these comic remarks.

It is also important to remember that it is a European requirement that we have an employment agency funded partly by the State and partly by European money. Ireland has been pretty successful in its management of this kind of scheme to such an extent that a major European training centre in Trieste is run and managed by FÁS. In other words, our European colleagues in training their trans-national operatives in this area feel that the Irish expertise is sufficient to be considered useful to run this particular enterprise in Trieste.

Having read the annual report and the various other reports — in fact, there is so much material from FÁS that it is not possible to deal with all of it in eight minutes — I would say that the authority has proved itself to be responsive and flexible to the changing needs of the Irish labour market.

There were times when community employment and FÁS schemes of various kinds were over-subscribed and the people involved were of a high calibre. Now it is much more difficult if one is involved in community employment schemes because the employment situation has changed and a FÁS or CE scheme is no longer the first option for many young people.

It is also useful to point out the manner in which FÁS has intervened in areas at times of high unemployment by providing the resources for individual entrepreneurs, co-operatives and local communities to develop and provide much needed jobs. It has offered alternative routes back into gainful employment to those who, through no fault of their own, find that vacancies require a particular range of skills which are in short supply. There is hardly a town, village or urban community which has not had experience of this.

From my own experience, we have had a successful community employment scheme in the James Joyce Centre in North Great Georges Street. We are grateful to FÁS for assisting us in this way. We have noticed the changes. We have noticed that it is now not always easy to get the right kind of recruits but that is a tribute to the energy of this economy and we have no complaints with it. As chairman of the board of the Joyce centre, I would say that we have been constantly looking forward to the day when we will no longer be relying on the FÁS scheme. It was enormously beneficial to us when we were starting up but the time is coming when we must rely much more on ourselves. That is better for everybody in one sense because one of the difficulties [973] with FÁS schemes is that you have the person for a section of the week so you cannot slot the person into a schedule so easily. There is not always that degree of consistency. Then you get talented people and they must move on to something else. At least 50 per cent of our people went on within the allocated time to full-time paid employment in the community. That is the triumph of the FÁS scheme but it also creates headaches for the sponsor.

Nowadays, through its intensive and wide ranging programmes of well focused industrial training, FÁS is supplying the type of staff employers need while its traditional role of apprenticeships has been redefined and developed. I understand there are a record 16,000 plus young people registered in the different phases of apprenticeship training. This augurs well for the increasing skills demand in the construction industry and elsewhere.

Incidentally, over the past few years it has been obvious that the construction industry did not have the kind of prophetic powers of FÁS. It did not anticipate this boom. FÁS anticipated the boom and produced the apprenticeship schemes. It is out looking for skilled people as is evident from the FÁS advertisements in the newspapers looking to bring people home from England.

FÁS has recently enhanced its recruitment service with placement consultants availing of third level courses in modern placement and career guidance techniques. FÁS placement service handles about 70,000 vacancies a year. FÁS cooperates with its sister agency in the North of Ireland, the Training and Employment Agency.

The remarkable round tower and peace park inaugurated by the President at Messines Ridge in Flanders in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and the King of the Belgians was built by FÁS people.

By and large we must accept that FÁS has played a significant and vital role in the changing economy and has shown its capacity to anticipate these kinds of alterations in the economic structure. It continues to play a vital role with the apprenticeships and traineeships about which there is so much more to say than time allows. It can be probably determined from these few words that I support FÁS and welcome the report. Both partners in Government have played a significant role in strengthening this useful agency of State enterprise.

Labhrás Ó Murchú: I could not improve on the compliment paid to FÁS by a local commentator and satisfied sponsor who said that if anything happened to FÁS, rural Ireland could close down. It is obviously an exaggeration but it is motivated by admiration and gratitude for the work FÁS has provided to so many local communities throughout the country.

In every village and town we can find a landmark relating to FÁS. It may be the restoration of a local historical building, the building of walls, the building of a community centre, the beautifying [974] of a town or landscaping. There are so many things which we take for granted and we forget it was FÁS who made all those things possible.

One of the reasons FÁS has been so successful is that most of its officials come from the real world of employment and business. They do not arrive in the context of theory. They understand the difficulties of keeping any project or business viable. They understand the difficulties of finding trained people for jobs when they become available and they understand what it means to motivate.

The image of FÁS has changed immensely since it came into existence with the merging of a number of agencies. It no longer has an image of cutting nettles in graveyards — not that I object to that. It has a much more progressive image because FÁS has been far seeing in regard to the changes which were taking place in social, sporting, cultural and community life.

It would be wrong to suggest that FÁS has not kept step with the changes in technology and new approaches to employment. I have experience of a number of young people who have come through secretarial courses, for instance, and they would be quite well trained theoretically. However, they do not have the exposure to the work ethic and the responsibility which goes with occupying a post which is particularly important to them. I have seen those people come through the computer course, take the examinations and receive City and Guilds certification. Placement rates in these cases have been as high as 95 per cent. If the quality of life has improved so much in those communities, and if we have become dependent on FÁS, what would happen if there is radical change, a diminution funding or an overhaul of the organisation?

It is important to bear in mind that local GAA and soccer clubs, cultural bodies and social services have become dependent on FÁS. There should be an informed and lively debate on FÁS, but negative comments about the organisation generally relate to the amount of money involved — £400 million or £500 million — as if someone wants to centralise that money. As a result of FÁS, the spin-offs of the Celtic tiger have been decentralised. No other structure could be put in place which would ensure the smallest villages, towns, townlands, cities and rural Ireland would benefit.

I am not suggesting we should not keep pace with change. However, it has been correctly mentioned that one of the difficulties is the availability of personnel. This is a tribute to the Government and our economic standing. However, we cannot define this as progress on the one hand, while undermining that progress on the other. We should look closely at the initial vision for FÁS and how it evolved. Was it a reaction to demands for training? Was it an overview of requirements at the time? Was it a result of demands from local communities which required some means of subventing their work?

[975] I know many dormant communities which, through the existence of training, community employment or response schemes, were energised and often united by the existence of FÁS facilities. How does one put a social value on that? FÁS is not given over to excessive red tape or constrained by the official bureaucracy of which some centralised agency are victims. Were it not for that flexibility, it would be impossible to achieve much of what has been achieved.

We talk in terms of 11 month training schemes. It is not correct to select an arbitrary number of months. There is nothing sacrosanct about that figure. I have seen young people with talent, ability and potential who would have benefited if there was flexibility with regard to the 11 month embargo. In responding to this annual report, it is important that the House acknowledges the improvement in the quality of life in Ireland and the commitment of the entire FÁS organisation, and to encourage it in word, legislation and funding to ensure it can continue its work.

I sound a note of warning. I would be concerned if there was a radical overhaul or change in FÁS for the sake of it. There is always a danger that the negative aspect of the organisation will float to the top and all the positive work would be taken for granted. I cannot praise FÁS enough for its wonderful work at local level.

Ms O'Meara: There was little said by Senator Ó Murchú with which I could disagree. I support his remarks on the role of FÁS, particularly in rural life, and the contribution of community employment schemes to supporting voluntary and community organisations. FÁS is a wonderful and highly successful organisation. It is probably more successful than could ever have been envisaged when it was established and when the concept of the social employment scheme was mooted by Deputy Quinn as Minister for Labour.

The development of community employment schemes and their take-up is testimony that communities and voluntary and community organisations need support. When they get that support from an agency as flexible, creative and imaginative as FÁS, and with such a brief, they put it to positive use. There are monuments to this around the country — community centres, fabulous looking villages and heritage centres. A huge body of work has been carried out by the partnership between FÁS and the community it serves.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his fine speech. We are discussing the annual report of FÁS which has a wide brief. I was disappointed that the Minister of State did not spend more time discussing FÁS's brief concerning long-term unemployment. Neither did he mention, to any great extent, the recommendations contained in the recent Deloitte & Touche report. I had to contact the Department to obtain a copy of this report even though the recommendations were published in the newspapers. Journalists were briefed on the report, yet it was not circulated to [976] Members of the Oireachtas. Perhaps the Department could take that into account. It has a habit of leaking reports to journalists before publishing or circulating them. In this case the report was not even circulated.

The Deloitte & Touche report is excellent in that it is highly analytical and well based. I agree with a number of its recommendations, but disagree with others concerning the operation of community employment schemes. It is extremely important at this stage of our economic prosperity to remind ourselves that the market is not king. Feeding the Celtic tiger is important to our continued economic prosperity, but it is not the priority. The priorities are people, the social fabric of society and communities.

The Minister of State referred to the potential cannibalising effect of the Celtic tiger. However, in constantly seeing the market as the first and major priority, we can easily loose sight of people's needs, particularly those of the long-term unemployed. This thinking seems to underline the Deloitte & Touche report, although that is hardly surprising given its terms of reference.

Despite our superb economic record, unparalleled job creation figures and an economy which is operating to the best of its ability, we still have long-term unemployment. In every community, rural and urban, there are those who are not touched by economic prosperity and who, despite everything, are not in a position to get a job. This is where the role of FÁS and its commitment to the long-term unemployed comes in, as does the Government's commitment to the long-term unemployed and our determination to ensure those who have not succeeded in getting work, through no fault of their own but because they were not well educated and were badly placed in terms of family circumstance, are not failed or forgotten.

In that context, it is important to remember that long-term unemployment is due to poverty and exclusion and not to people sponging and not wanting to work. The success of the community employment scheme and the fact that people want to get on the schemes show that people want to make a contribution to their local community and they want to work. Over 80 per cent of the schemes are managed by voluntary committees. Without intervention, support and training, those who are low skilled — and the vast majority of long-term unemployed are — will never be in a position to get a job, particularly in the current market. The Minister talked about the hi-tech economy. People with no skills, training or support will never be in a position to get any of those jobs.

There is a case for increased services for the long-term unemployed, particularly when we have a buoyant economy and the ability to invest in the long-term unemployed. We should not wait for a period of high unemployment to do that. The response of successive Governments through FÁS in terms of meeting the needs of the unemployed, particularly long-term unemployed, has [977] been very valuable. However, there is still a core group which we must constantly consider and ensure they are not made to feel they are left outside as spongers because they are not currently working.

I do not want to see a cut in intervention or training. I would like to see greater assistance to the long-term unemployed. The community employment scheme is one of the most effective ways of doing that. I am concerned about the recommendation in the Deloitte & Touche report to cut places. I would like to ask the Minister if that recommendation is being taken on board. Is the number of people on schemes being cut? Are county councils and local authorities being told not to use these schemes in the future? The report recommended that under 25 year olds should not participate in schemes. Is that recommendation also being implemented? It is too easy to say they should get training. Someone living in Borrisokane or Borrisoleigh is a long way from a training centre in Limerick and getting there would not be easy. This is an issue in rural communities and it should be taken into account.

There are a number of very good recommendations in the Deloitte & Touche report. Perhaps the Minister could let me know if the recommendations are being implemented and if an announcement will be made in that regard.

Ms Leonard: I also offer my support for and acknowledge the contribution of FÁS to society. I have listened to other speakers and there are a number of points to which I would like to draw the Minister's attention. Some are slight criticisms and others are very positive.

An extremely important aspect of FÁS is the part it plays in the housing aid for the elderly scheme. This is administered through health boards but the work is actually carried out by FÁS. It has low funding. In my county there are unfortunately hundreds of people on a waiting list. The foremen and workers are from FÁS. There are two teams in my county. Unfortunately the numbers were cut so that where we had three teams carrying out the work, there are now two. The scheme is for those who have contributed so much and get so little back. Many elderly people are prepared to pay for the work. FÁS carries out the work and provides training for those involved. It may be slower than a contract worker but in the long term it provides employment and it provides an essential service and comfort for elderly people. Due to the way FÁS is changing, unfortunately people such as the elderly are left behind. I fully support the work it does but I criticise the number of people involved in the scheme being reduced.

Sometimes we forget the role the FÁS community employment scheme plays in our education system. Schools get classroom assistants, caretakers and secretarial assistants through FÁS. We forget the value of their role. At this stage we have become totally dependent on them. They are not assistants but an integral part of our education [978] system. I am sure this was not originally intended. In some cases this is being reduced because it was not initially intended to be their role. However they have become an essential part. With a shift in the role of FÁS, I would not like to see such services being reduced in the education system.

Other speakers have quite rightly stated that FÁS is part of the nuts and bolts of local communities. Small rural areas are totally dependent on it. Twenty or 30 years ago all work carried out in local communities was voluntary. Local halls were built and football fields were prepared by voluntary work. Unfortunately there is no such thing as voluntary work in any community now. As a result, we are totally dependent on those who carry out work under FÁS community employment schemes.

In my home town, those involved in this work take great pride in it. We are living in a booming Celtic tiger economy and everybody wants to have high power jobs with big titles, but the work on the ground which copperfastens the community spirit is disregarded. Sometimes we forget its important value. Every tidy town and football club relies on the work carried out by FÁS and the pride those people take in it.

On community employment schemes, the Minister stated that 96 per cent of those participating are long-term unemployed. These people were forgotten by society and were not really wanted. Often they left school early and did not have the education, skills, self-confidence and self-belief to push themselves forward for any job. In this day and age there is no scarcity of work but often they do not have the confidence to put themselves forward. FÁS has been very important in getting these people back into the frame of mind to work.

I am a firm believer in people working for their money. It does not matter whether they are painting the seats in the local village or, as another Senator stated, cutting the nettles in the local graveyard. It does not matter what they do. I firmly believe that if people work for their money, they appreciate it all the more. That is the idea behind the FÁS community employment scheme.

Although one hears negative things about FÁS, it is important to remember that often those involved, particularly the long-term unemployed, never had a chance at any other work. This gives them a start and makes them confident. They are recognised for their skills. They may not be academically minded, but through training they have developed skills and shown potential. They are recognised by employers and often go a great deal further than someone with a number of degrees or letters after their name.

I am in favour of FÁS, which has done terrific work in rural communities and urban areas. However, the only aspect of FÁS of which I have a slight criticism relates to mothers in the home. They are discriminated against as they are not considered long-term unemployed. Many mothers working in the home are not aware they [979] can sign on for credits and that they may be entitled to enrol on schemes. Women's groups are being set up around the country to give a service to women in the home. FÁS is discriminatory towards women in training and recruiting.

I welcome the annual report of FÁS. It has changed a great deal with the times. With our tiger economy we sometimes forget that basic jobs have to be done, regardless of how affluent is society. In that regard, FÁS makes an amazing contribution.

Mr. D. Kiely: I welcome this debate. I compliment FÁS on the work it has done through the years. One of the criticisms I have is that it did not go far enough with its training programme in earlier days when we were looking for trained people. Twenty years ago I started a community scheme of four old folks' homes in my village, which are now a credit to our parish. It took us a great deal of time to convince FÁS that this scheme would be practical in training young people in carpentry, blocklaying, plastering, etc. I am glad to say this scheme has progressed and has gone from strength to strength.

I would be critical of the restrictions in FÁS where a young person developing a skill must be taken on by an employer. While that is understandable, in a rural area in some trades, particularly electrical, carpentry and blocklaying, employers are reluctant to train young people as they feel that as soon as they are trained they will be competing with existing contractors. There is a lack of skilful people in the labour market. FÁS should have been helping to train people. Younger builders would encourage competition in the market which would be very beneficial.

I have experience in one field in particular. It is virtually impossible to get a fitter at the moment. At the same time, it is virtually impossible for a young person to get an employer to take them on as a fitter. We are now bringing fitters into the country. Semi-State bodies, such as the ESB and Iarnród Éireann, take on a few young people every year. They should be taking on more young people and training them as fitters, toolmakers or whatever skills are needed. At the end of their four or five years' training, the company would not be obliged to take them on unless a vacancy arose. At least they would be trained to move elsewhere.

For example, it is virtually impossible for a young person to train in the electrical trade unless they get a sponsor. Every day there are advertisements seeking commis chefs with two or three years' experience. Once they have that experience, employers are anxious to take them on. However, they will not take them on to train them initially. FÁS should take people on for a year or a year and a half to give them basic training without needing a sponsor. I look forward to that happening.

There should be more improvement and expansion of FÁS training schemes in local authority [980] areas. They have been successful. Many communities have changed their image as a result of FÁS schemes. The appearance of towns has improved and they have better footpaths and entrances. A great deal more work can be done in this area. More flexibility should be given to local authorities to try to secure more FÁS training schemes.

There should also be expansion in the area of renovating old homes for people who live alone or who qualify for disabled person's allowance. It is now virtually impossible to get contractors to do any of this work. FÁS should get grants to do this work and take on young people to help. Contractors are shying away from smaller jobs which cost £4,000 to £8,000. However, these benefit the old and needy we should be supporting.

FÁS has played a leading part in developing community centres. I compliment and congratulate it on that. I would like the Minister and the Government to look at the expansion of semi-State bodies so they can take on more trainees, particularly in toolmaking, fitting and the electrical trade. Many young people cannot get sponsors and have to travel vast distances — sometimes 250 miles — for someone to take them on.

Ms Cox: This has been an excellent debate and there have been a number of valuable contributions. If they are taken in the manner in which they were made, there is a great deal of helpful information for FÁS. Knowing how responsive it is to constructive criticism and new ideas, it will probably react well.

Senator Ormonde suggested the regionalisation of the career guidance, planning and employment exhibition. That is an excellent idea and I hope something will be done about it in the future. As regards the apprenticeship schemes, there has been a massive increase in numbers to more than 13,000 places this year. Training is substantial and consistent. Thirty weeks training is provided by FÁS and further substantive training is provided in institutes of technology. A new framework has been put in place to provide a flexible approach to apprenticeships. We need to get skilled people into the labour market faster. This is one of the reasons for the changes in the framework and the manner in which we are providing training. People will become available to work much sooner.

The idea of preventative maintenance for people who are long-term unemployed tries to address the issue at the beginning rather trying to fix the problem after a person has been on the live register for four, five, six or seven years. Substantial measures are being introduced for those over 25 years of age and who are heading towards one year on the register. The Tánaiste announced some of those measures recently. We are becoming more proactive.

As regards the Deloitte & Touche report, there will be a small reduction in the number of CE places planned for 1999 from about 39,000 to 40,000 to around 37,500. It would be unfair to say [981] this reduction attacks opportunities for the long-term unemployed. As the Minister said, it is a measure which refocuses the resources of FÁS on schemes with better employability prospects. At the end of the day, the objective of any scheme is to address the issue of the long-term unemployed and to facilitate and encourage them to get back into the work environment so they feel they are making a contribution and are getting paid for it.

The Tánaiste secured an additional £0.5 million for FÁS to enable it to employ more placement officers. Some £2.5 million is being provided to facilitate 4,800 new job club places for the long-term unemployed; £4.35 million is being provided for 1,500 new places on bridging programmes for the long-term unemployed while £4.9 million is being provided to create 875 new places on the jobs initiative.

Some £1.8 million is being provided to create 800 new places on a specially tailored training programme for lone parents. Lone parents carrying the burden of bringing up a family on their own need special help and assistance in getting back into the workforce. It is only by getting back into the workforce that they will be able to provide the type of upbringing they would like for their children and perhaps ensure their children do not end up unemployed and unable to get into the labour market. Some £0.2 million has been announced to facilitate the provision of 400 new job club places for lone parents in the FÁS regions of Dublin North and Dublin West. All these initiatives underline the commitment of the Government and the Tánaiste to addressing long-term unemployment.

A Member mentioned the need for big changes in FÁS. FÁS is an organisation which has enjoyed big changes. It is very flexible and adaptive and we can see how it has changed. FÁS is training the trainers and it has a good programme which sets the standard for many training organisations to follow.

A number of Members mentioned CERT. It is important to point out that CERT comes under the auspices of the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation and maybe we need to look at whether it should be under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. That is an issue for consideration at another time. The Minister of State indicated his willingness to come back to discuss this subject in further detail and perhaps we will take him up on it.

Perhaps we can debate the Deloitte & Touche report when it is published in the manner in which this debate has taken place. It has been a very constructive and progressive debate and has rightly given credit where it is due. These measures and Members' ideas are certainly welcome. It has been a great debate and I commend the motion to the House. I thank Members for taking part.

[982] Question put and agreed to.

An Cathaoirleach: When is it proposed to sit again?

Ms Cox: At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.