Seanad Éireann - Volume 176 - 01 April, 2004

Training Centre Closure.

  Mr. Bannon: I thank the Minister for coming into the House to take this matter on the Adjournment which relates to the closure of St. Mel’s training centre in Longford. I thought we would have a celebration in Longford today as this is the proposed starting date for the refurbishment of the courthouse. The Minister saw the plans for that recently. However, the date [151]seems to have passed without anything being done. Perhaps that is not surprising given that it is April fool’s day. I hope it will start in the coming week.

The cuts in funding for St. Mel’s training centre in Longford over the past 12 months have been in excess of the national trend of funding withdrawals for community employment schemes. These cuts have resulted in the schemes being reduced from 11 participants and supervisors to six participants and no supervisors. This situation is most unfortunate given that the cutbacks and the resultant threat to the future of this centre affect one of the most disadvantaged groups in our society, namely, the Travelling community.

St. Mel’s education and training centre opened on 1 September 1987, under the management of the Travellers Resettlement Committee, and had an initial group of 24 participants — 12 boys and 12 girls. At that time it was operated under AnCO, as FÁS was then known, and the emphasis was on skills or vocational training. The centre was one of 30 similar ones nationwide. With the improved participation in national schools by the Traveller community, the emphasis in the centre moved towards education. The takeover of the centre by County Longford VEC and the setting up of the further education section within the Department of Education and Science reflected the change, as did the setting up of FETAC, the Further Education and Training Awards Council.

St. Mel’s centre has evolved over the years and taken on a number of large scale projects, chief among which was the building of Michael Neary Park. This was undertaken in conjunction with Longford County Council, which provided the site, and in partnership with FÁS. During the course of the construction of the dressing rooms, showers and meeting room, a group of trainees, all Travellers, received training and certification in construction skills. This facility was opened in 2002 and provides a centre for Longford Wanderers FC, the local Travellers team, and is also used as a centre for homework clubs and so forth for the Traveller community. The striking monument on the Dublin Road roundabout at Kilnasavogue is notable for three black steel figures which greet the traffic approaching the town from the Dublin direction. It was entirely designed and made in St. Mel’s and erected by the students and teachers.

Up to 2002, the centre had a community employment scheme of many years’ standing. However, at the end of this year the scheme was vastly reduced. In fact, the scheme was subsumed under a much larger scheme known as Longford town suburbs. This arrangement lasted a mere 12 months up to last December. When the scheme [152]was renewed in late January 2004, it was reduced to six participants.

This is a valuable and worthwhile project, which gives hope and dignity to one of our most vulnerable groups. Funding is the lifeline of any scheme but in this case it is the lifeline of a culturally and historically much marginalised section of our society. I ask the Minister to restore and enhance funding for this vital scheme. To see the work of years destroyed for lack of financial input is heartbreaking for the people who have given so much of their time and expertise to creating such a worthwhile endeavour and to those whose futures depend on their expertise.

I acknowledge the huge input of Sean Stakum, Josephine O’Donnell, the county manager and my colleagues on Longford County Council. We have wholeheartedly supported this scheme for a number of years. It is a huge blow to those seeking progress for our county to see cutbacks of this nature occurring. The Minister has a big soft heart, so I am sure he will ensure that funding is provided for the continuance of the scheme. It is important for the people of Longford and particularly for the most marginalised in society. I would appreciate a positive response.

  Mr. M. McDowell: I am grateful to Senator Bannon for raising this matter. I am replying on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who has responsibility in this area. The Department of Education and Science and Longford Vocational Education Committee provide core funding for St. Mel’s training centre in Longford. The project in question is also supported by FÁS under the community employment programme.

Community employment or CE was introduced in response to a sustained period of high levels of long-term unemployment. It is a temporary employment measure whose primary purpose is to provide temporary opportunities for unemployed persons whereby they can develop their skills and obtain a recent track record of work experience with a view to taking up employment in the open labour market. When CE was introduced in 1994 there were over 128,000 people or 9% of the workforce out of work on a long-term basis. This is no longer the case. At the end of 2003, the long-term unemployment rate was 1.4% or 25,900 persons.

At its height, up to 40,000 people were employed in temporary positions on CE. In accordance with the Government’s decision in 1999 to restructure the programme, participation levels have gradually been reduced over time to the current level of 20,000 places. This reduction is in line with the reduced levels of unemployment and a strategic shift in policy in favour of training and other more appropriate supports from which there is a greater level of [153]progression to employment. In addition to CE, in the region of 2,300 places have peen provided on the social economy programme and a further 2,200 places are available under the job initiative. The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs plans to introduce a new rural social scheme during 2004 with up to 2,500 places, which will provide additional support for low income farmers and fishermen in rural communities.

The allocation of CE places to individual projects is a matter for FÁS locally. FÁS is attempting to allocate available places as equitably as possible. Certain services are ring-fenced and places on these projects have been maintained, for example, CE health related services, child care and drugs task force places. Projects in RAPID areas are prioritised. The ring-fencing and prioritisation of certain services has resulted in the level of participation on other projects being reduced at a higher than average rate.

A number of CE projects in Longford and, indeed, countrywide have been required to amalgamate with neighbouring projects due to the reduction in participation levels. The supervisory position is dependent on sufficient numbers of participants being employed on a project and it is not possible to retain every position of supervisor under these circumstances. St. Mel’s training centre has already benefited from CE funding for over ten years. While it will not be possible to maintain the same level of funding in 2004, FÁS has indicated that eight participants have been allocated to the centre for the coming year.

The total funding allocation for employment schemes in 2004 has been fixed at €351 million, which will support up to 25,000 places across the three employment schemes — community employment, job initiative and social economy. FÁS is being given some flexibility in the management of this financial allocation to maximise progression to the labour market while at the same time facilitating the support of community services. This allocation of €351 million is similar to the budgeted amount provided in 2003. Accordingly, there will be no further reductions in participation levels this year.

The commitment to fund a continuing pool of up to 25,000 places across the three schemes brings clarity not only to the levels of activity which can be supported but will enable FÁS to give a clear commitment to the support of local community services over an agreed period of time. The future structure of the community employment programme is currently under review by a group of senior officials and FÁS, and this group is expected to report to Ministers on the outcome of its deliberations in the near future. The outcome of this review will inform any future adjustments in the structure and the [154]terms and conditions of participation on community employment.

The Senator referred to the Longford courthouse project. That is going ahead. Some mischievous persons——

  Mr. Bannon: Not me.

  Mr. M. McDowell: ——have suggested that this was a type of pre-election stunt on my part. That is far from the case. It will proceed. All the naysayers and back stabbers who believe I have an illicit motive in announcing the commencement of that work will see in the next couple of weeks that I am correct and that the project is proceeding. That is also the case with the Prison Service facility in Longford, which I hope will be the subject of accelerated planning processes. It is hoped the construction process will commence in the autumn. It is likely to be the first of the decentralised projects. I am grateful to Senator Bannon for attending the opening ceremony and to the local county manager for his efforts to ensure all these projects are supported and assisted and that Longford, which was disappointed by the Cardinal Health decision, will be adequately compensated by other sustainable, long-term jobs and short-term construction projects. I am doing my bit to ensure Longford does well economically.

  Mr. Bannon: It is coincidental but I have been involved in the historical society that was instrumental in moving a motion at a council meeting in 1995 which ensured the courthouse would be preserved for court facilities. We did this because we did not see funding coming from any other quarter for the retention of a fine historic building constructed in 1798 in the centre of Longford town. I appreciate the great work the Minister has done to ensure that has come to fruition.

2 o’clock

I am a little disappointed with the response to this matter. The people involved in the scheme achieved great dignity through a sense of belonging to the community and through their involvement and participation over a number of years in training at St. Mel’s. It was a worthwhile project. There are isolated projects throughout the country which should be looked at separately and maybe some funding should be sought to ensure their continuance. There are 30 such projects in the country and they are important to rural communities, for inclusivity and to provide for the involvement of people, irrespective of creed or status in society. A vulnerable section of the community which always felt marginalised was being supported by this project. Perhaps projects of this type should be looked at differently from the overall community employment schemes. It is something the Minister might take on board at a Cabinet meeting.

[155]  Mr. M. McDowell: The Senator raised one possibility and has tried to assist it by appealing to my well-known generosity. If there is any way a portion of the work to which the Senator paid tribute, which is work with marginalised sections of the community, could be assisted under the guise of equality and through any of the [156]programmes the equality section of my Department operates, I would look well on any application which could be stood up in that area. That is something the Senator might consider.

  The Seanad adjourned at 2.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 6 April 2004.