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Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Scheme.

Thursday, 17 October 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 555 No. 4

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Mr. Rabbitte: Information on Pat Rabbitte Zoom on Pat Rabbitte I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for giving me this opportunity to raise the issue of the dismantling of the community employment scheme by the Government. Without disrespect to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, I regret that the Tánaiste is not here to answer the important questions that arise. She has been evading these questions in parliamentary replies since the Dáil resumed.

There is widespread concern abroad about what is happening to community employment schemes and what it is believed will happen next year. The Government has resolved that community employment will be effectively dismantled after budget day. Agreement apparently has been reached between the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Finance that numbers will be reduced to 15,500 next year.

If cuts as savage as that are to be imposed on the most vulnerable sector of workers and the most disadvantaged communities in the State, it is a disgrace and amounts to an effective dismantling of the community employment scheme that has served these communities well and done much productive and meritorious work. That work has a valuable social dimension and these cuts will break the morale in those communities, not to mention disqualifying some people who expected to have their programmes extended. It is little short of disgraceful given the meritorious work being done in the community, including valuable heritage and restoration work.

The dishonesty of the official position is exacerbating the hurt in the community. The Minister is sheltering behind replies which abstractly talk about “FÁS currently undertaking an internal review of CE,” and “the outcome will inform the Government's consideration of options for the future delivery of community services”. What does that mean? It is deliberately misleading and deceitful nonsense. The Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment knows well that the CE scheme for 2003 will be savaged on budget day. Cuts have already been made, meritorious projects have been refused and the grossest deception is that FÁS is being reduced to communicating informally and unofficially with scheme sponsors. The CE scheme is being gutted in 2003 for budgetary reasons and Fianna Fáil backbenchers, whose revolt was easily [1125] quelled, ought to revert to revolt mode if they are to retain their seats and if the communities most seriously affected are to be looked after. Community morale is being destroyed in seriously disadvantaged areas. Sponsors cannot plan the future of their work, schemes are being continued by FÁS on a month-to-month basis and no new schemes are being allowed.

The most successful community enterprise organisation in the country, Partas, formerly known as Get Tallaght Working Limited, is in my constituency. The chairman of the organisation, in response to a request by me for information, told me that although he was advised to recruit two additional people, the order has since been countermanded by FÁS. Furthermore, he has been told that the total participation in the Partas scheme will be reduced to nine participants by November and by a further five by April 2003. The chairman of the organisation told me that it would normally begin a new contract year in April, but he has been told that it is being closed down instead. Rather than supporting community employment and the job initiative scheme, the establishment of which I was involved in as Minister of State, this Government action cripples, in effect, the Partas scheme and many others. The problems faced by Partas will be encountered on a wide scale in disadvantaged communities in urban Ireland.

It is disgraceful, particularly given the platform on which it was elected, that the Government has chosen to strangle the community employment scheme by making it the focus of cuts. When one considers that a great deal of work in communities could not be done without the CE scheme and that many people have been given a pathway back to employment as a result of it, it is wrong that it has been targeted for cuts of this scale. The Minister, Deputy Harney, refuses to come to the House to answer questions in an honest manner, as she seems to prefer to shelter behind a brand of officialese which contradicts the statements her officials make in telephone calls to FÁS. It is a disgrace. I ask Fianna Fáil backbenchers to have a word with the Minister before this goes any further.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Fahey): Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey I thank Deputy Rabbitte for raising this issue. I wish to clarify that I am responsible for community employment schemes, so it is unfair to suggest that the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment is afraid to come to the House to deal with this matter. I am working closely with the Minister on developments in respect of such schemes.

The primary purpose of community employment is as a transitional programme to provide work experience and training to the long-term unemployed, with a view to reintegrating them [1126] into the open labour market. In accordance with the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure community employment, participation levels are being reduced gradually, reflecting the significant reduction in the numbers of the long-term unemployed, and the emphasis is being shifted away from work experience programmes to training, from which there is a greater level of progression to employment. The National Employment Service assists participants, as they finish their term on CE, to source employment in the open labour market or to avail of further education or training opportunities available locally.

The PPF contains a commitment to reduce numbers on CE from 37,500 in 1999 to 28,000 by 2003, by reallocating funding equivalent to 5,000 places to the social economy programme, as well as by reducing the numbers on CE schemes by 4,500 places, in accordance with the Government's 1999 decision. There were 30,809 participants on CE at the beginning of 2002 and it is anticipated that there will be between 24,000 and 25,000 participants at the end of the year, depending on the rate of inflows and outflows. Most of the CE reductions in 2002 will be due to restructuring, reflecting the drop in the numbers of long-term unemployed, budgetary constraints and the continuation of the mainstreaming of CE school services, amounting to about 1,400 places.

It is important to view community employment participation levels in the context of the general labour market, a point the following statistics help to illustrate. There are currently 21,600 long-term unemployed persons, a reduction of 51,000, or 70%. The unemployment rate is currently 4.2%, which is a marginal increase on 2001, and the long-term unemployment rate is 1.2%. Total employment has increased by 230,000 and the number of work permits issued has increased from 6,000 in 1999 to over 36,000 in 2001. There are more CE places than there are long-term unemployed and many low-skilled jobs continue to be filled by people from the EU and further afield. In this regard, some 33,000 work permits have been issued to date this year.

FÁS prioritises projects according to the types of services provided and levels of unemployment in the locality. Reductions in CE schemes are being co-ordinated to minimise negative effects on the groups and services most in need of CE. Priority groups that are ring-fenced include CE places that provide services under the national drugs strategy action plan, CE places that provide child care services as part of the process of assisting unemployed parents in accessing labour market services and CE schemes involved in the provision of school services and the possible mainstreaming of health related services. In addition to the above categories, CE schemes in RAPID programme areas are prioritised in terms of maintaining places. Reductions will only be [1127] made after reductions have been made in areas outside the RAPID programme.

FÁS is currently undertaking an internal review of community employment, including an assessment of the role of the programme in regard to the provision of community services. The PPF-mandated review of active labour market programmes is being progressed under the aegis of the standing committee on the labour market, chaired by my Department. The Indecon International Economic Consultants group has been commissioned by my Department to facilitate a rigorous assessment of the overall effectiveness of existing programmes to help inform the deliberations of the standing committee. The assessment is near completion. In addition, a cross-departmental senior officials group has been asked to consider options for the future of CE and the provision of community services which may be affected by further reductions in CE places.

I assure Deputy Rabbitte that no decision has [1128] been taken on the community employment funding level for 2003. The outcome of the various initiatives under way will inform the Government's consideration of options for the future delivery of community services and appropriate levels of CE for the future, in the context of current budgetary constraints. The points made by the Deputy have been well made by Members from all sides of the House, including one of his constituency colleagues. While nobody disputes that CE schemes provide good services, the community service being provided has become an issue. Deputy Rabbitte is well aware that CE was introduced as a labour market mechanism at a time of long-term unemployment. It would be wrong of the Government not to review the process in these changed times. I assure the Deputy that every effort will be made to ensure that an effective labour market programme can continue and that we address the important issues of service to local communities.

The Dáil adjourned at 5 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 22 October 2002.

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