Dáil Éireann - Volume 571 - 01 October, 2003
Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.
Mr. Costello Mr. Costello
Mr. Costello: It is good to see the overwhelming vote in favour of retaining the benchmarking agreement. It would have been a disgrace to have done otherwise. I hope the message goes out to IBEC, which was reported in newspapers yesterday as stating that it wanted an end to the benchmarking process and non-payment by the Government and also 10,000 jobs cut in the public sector this year. I hope IBEC got the message on benchmarking and that a similar message goes out to it regarding its request for a cut of 10,000 jobs in the public sector.
My Adjournment matter relates to an issue that is causing fear among the most vulnerable communities where people have poor employment opportunities, there is endemic disadvantage and, in general, the Celtic tiger passed people by. The community employment scheme was established in the mid-1980s by Deputy Quinn, who at the time was Minister for Labour as it was known, to provide part-time work for those who needed to re-enter the workplace and were in long-term unemployment. It was especially valuable for women and single parents to re-enter the workforce and to allow work to be done in the community that would not otherwise be done. In the mid-1990s, Deputy Rabbitte introduced the jobs initiative which was aimed at people over the age of 35 who had been unemployed for four to five years and whose prospects of employment were slim. The purpose was to provide them with employment and some dignity while allowing valuable work to be done in the community that would not otherwise be done. Since then an enormous amount of valuable work has been done in areas with high crime levels and unemployment and poor child care in terms of after school, meals on wheels and senior citizens services and various forms of community maintenance and so forth were required. All these services provided an improved quality of life.
Since 1998, however, a period of just five years, the number of people in community employment has decreased by half, from 40,000 to 20,000. The schemes have been devastated by this rapid reduction in numbers, which has caused significant trauma and hardship to individuals and considerable damage to the services they were providing. A whole range of services throughout the State could go under if another savage series of cutbacks proceeds. It appears the first tranche of the latest cutbacks is due to begin on 17 October, as letters to that effect have emanated from FÁS. Some 5,000 jobs are at stake in the community employment scheme and the job initiative.
In my area of the north inner city, which is in the Taoiseach's constituency, jobs and services are under threat in all the disadvantaged communities – most of the communities in the area – whether in the community employment schemes or the job initiative. I would list all the schemes if we had time. They include the Sean McDermott Street senior citizens' day care centre, the after care service in Liberty House, East Wall meals on wheel's and day care centre, the markets area residents' organisations and a plethora of other schemes funded through the programmes. The Capuchin day centre in Bow Street, which provides 400 meals daily, is threatened with a 60% loss in staff from 17 October onwards, which would mean the Capuchins would no longer be able to provide a service they have provided for a century.
It would be a shame if we lost the current part-time and full-time employment opportunities available through the community employment and job initiative programmes, not only in terms of the job opportunities for the people affected but also in terms of the services they provide. Will the Minister offer us some hope that this is not the approach he proposes to take and that he will at least preserve the current level of services and employment?
Mr. Fahey Mr. Fahey
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Fahey): In accordance with the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure the community employment programme, participation levels have reduced over time. At the end of 1999 there were 36,579 participants in the programme. The average participation rate during 2003 is expected to be in the region of 22,500 with a projected year-end participation rate of 20,000. The number of community employment projects has reduced from 2,274 in 1999 to 1,503 projects currently. In many cases projects have amalgamated into new entities allowing the activity to continue on a smaller scale. This amounts to a reduction of around 5,000 places phased in over the year. These reductions reflect a strategic shift in policy in favour of training and other more appropriate supports.
The job initiative programme will have an average participation rate in the region of 2,466 during 2003 and a year-end participation rate of 2,200. Overall, there will be a reduction of 325 places on a phased basis in the course of this year. Participants exiting job initiative may avail of the high supports process designed to provide a flexible response for persons experiencing barriers in progressing from unemployment to employment in the open labour market and the FÁS local employment services with a view to securing further training or employment.
Community employment projects are prioritised based on the services provided. Drugs task force activity and child care service provision are ring-fenced from any reductions and projects in RAPID areas are given priority. The ring-fencing of places recognises the importance of the programme for some areas of service provision. All health service related community employment projects, including the provision of services for persons with disabilities, have been ring-fenced from reductions since March 2002.
Certain sponsor organisations have indicated they are experiencing difficulty in replacing participants who have completed their normal term on the community employment programme due to the lack of suitable applicants coming forward for the programme. In this regard, FÁS has confirmed it will give every support and assistance to such projects in recruiting suitable participants for the positions in question, thus ensuring ongoing service provision.
The community employment and job initiative programmes are currently under review. An overall appraisal of active labour market programmes is being carried out under the aegis of the standing committee on the labour market chaired by my Department. In addition, a cross-departmental senior officials group has been asked to consider options for the future of community employment, taking account of the link with the provision of community services. FÁS is also completing an internal review of the community employment and job initiative programmes, which is well advanced and should be finalised shortly.
Current progression rates to employment did not generate confidence in the effectiveness of the current community employment programme as an active labour market programme and a review was called for. To illustrate my point, in 2002 up to 69% of persons engaged in specific skills training with FÁS progressed to employment, whereas the corresponding figure for community employment participants was 32%. The outcome of the current review process, which is now nearing completion, will inform any decisions to be taken on the future funding and structure of the community employment and job initiative programmes.
I accept Deputy Costello's point that the community employment programme provides some very good services. The difficulty until now has been that services have expanded on an ad hoc basis. The policy was to implement the community employment programme as an active labour market programme. One of the new initiatives I will introduce will recognise the good services the programme has provided and place it on a much more structured footing.
We must also take into account that progression levels from the programme have been inadequate and improve its training element to ensure progression. We must also recognise that certain people on the community employment programme or currently unemployed are not capable of progression. We must try to find a niche for such people, a task which will form part of the new policy. I am confident that when we shortly roll out our new policy we will have a much enhanced community employment programme and will provide for the good services around the country, to which the Deputy referred, and for communities right across the spectrum which is currently not the case. We must also ensure that community employment remains an active labour market programme.
The difficulty with the job initiative is that it has only 2,200 participants and will cost €45 million this year. While I agree it has provided good employment and services, it is a narrow scheme confined to a small number of areas. I want to open it up by providing a better scheme in many more areas. It is for this reason that the job initiative is under review.
Dáil Éireann 571 Adjournment Debate. Community Employment Schemes.