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Private Members' Business. - Community Employment Schemes: Motion.

Tuesday, 3 December 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 558 No. 4

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Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan I move:

That Dáil Éireann:

acknowledging the work undertaken by community groups throughout the country with the assistance of the FÁS Community Employment Schemes;

acknowledging the deteriorating economic climate for people that are displaced from CE schemes in gaining access to other work;

recognising the deep concern of community, health and sporting organisations about the future of these schemes and the continuation of important local projects and activities;

accepting the contribution that these schemes make to the self esteem of the participants; and

calls on the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to ensure the continuation of these Community Employment Schemes, at the same levels of availability as 2002, and to ensure the continuation of training and employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups who will not otherwise have access to employment opportunities and calls on the Government to restore the expenditure in the Estimates for 2003 in respect of community, voluntary and local development schemes.

[937][938] I wish to share my time with Deputies Murphy, Connaughton, Crawford and Allen.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney A formidable team.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan The decision by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment to agree to the reduction of a further 5,000 places in the community employment schemes is heartless and unsympathetic. It is a clear indication that she is out of touch with the tremendous work that has been carried out in every community by people who are disabled, lone parents or the unemployed and who are unlikely to be gainfully employed in the open market. The schemes have made an enormous contribution to the self-esteem of the participants.

The Tánaiste is clearly demonstrating that she is out of touch with reality and out of touch with the communities in question. She does not wish to recognise or acknowledge the deep concern about the future of these schemes, or the tremendous work that has been carried out in the past on behalf of community, sporting and various other organisations in each parish around the country.

The Government has indicated that it wishes to invest in measures that have a primary focus on employability and, in deciding on the 2003 allocation in the Estimates for FÁS, it states that it was conscious of the need to maximise measures that would emphasise employment, training and opportunities. This is politically hypocritical when one considers the €35 million reduction in enterprise provision, arising from cuts in the budget of organisations such as the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and county development boards. This shows that the decision of the Tánaiste has nothing whatsoever to do with measures to increase employment or training, but has everything to do with mere budgetary arithmetic.

The Tánaiste has deliberately reduced the budget of community employment schemes in order to balance the books. She has identified vulnerable groups in community, sporting and disability organisations as soft targets to find savings. It must be remembered that these savings are the direct result of the failure of the Tánaiste, the Progressive Democrats and the Minster for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, to keep tight control on public expenditure over the past two years. The failure to keep expenditure under control is now leading to savings having to be made in vulnerable community, sporting and other organisations.

The people that are suffering from the irresponsibility of over-expenditure have made a major contribution to neighbourhoods, communities and activities that would not have been carried out were it not for the financial support of [939] FÁS through the various schemes. Of course, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs equally sold out on community, voluntary and local development schemes when he accepted a major cut in his Estimates for 2003. My colleague, Deputy O'Dowd, will be detailing the damage that will be done to those schemes in 2003 when he addresses this motion.

The Government has stated the reason that it is reducing the CE schemes is to recognise the significant reduction in the numbers of unemployed. This may have been the case up to the end of 2001, but it is certainly not the case in 2002. The numbers of unemployed have increased from 141,503 in October 2001 to 157,665 in October 2002. Additionally, the Tánaiste has expressed a willingness to allow a considerable number of immigrants into this country through the work permit scheme, which will put even greater pressure on the people who wish to gain employment in the open market.

The Tánaiste has also made great political play of the money that is being made available for the social economy programme. This is a completely different scheme which requires the sale of produce as part of the fulfilment of the criteria and has nothing whatsoever to do with community development for voluntary organisations throughout the country.

Let me give a few examples of how the decisions for which the Tánaiste is responsible are having an impact at community level. I received a letter from Kells Regional, Economic and Tourism Enterprise Ltd. in County Kilkenny. It has had as many as 20 participants at one stage and an average of 15 in recent years. Now there are only ten participants to cater for Kells and Stoneyford. The organisation has been involved in work improving the round tower, the mill, the high cross and many other historical sites which are visited daily by tourists from all over the world. I am told that its Sculpture at Kells exhibition is now a major international exhibition, which attracts thousands of visitors to the area annually and also allows local and national artists to exhibit and sell their work in a most unique setting. With ten participants on the scheme at the moment, the enterprise is under enough pressure, but what the Government is proposing to do is reduce this number further. This is a cause for worry. Kells is one of the communities that has benefited enormously from the scheme and it is stating to me and other public representatives that it wants to retain the scheme to ensure the developments that have taken place continue. They could only take place because of funding from the FÁS programme.

A single person on a CE scheme earns €143.20. A single person on social welfare earns €118.80, so the extra cost per participant on a CE scheme is €24.40. That is an extra cost of €1.25 per hour to the State to employ a participant. Is it better to employ someone at an extra cost of €1.25 per hour to do worthwhile community work or should [940] he be paid social welfare to do nothing? Also, each scheme gets an allowance of €15.24 per participant for the purchase of materials that are necessary to the successful running of the project. As well as boosting the local economy, half of this fund is returned to the Exchequer in the form of VAT. Depending on their status, some participants pay income tax while others, supervisors for example, also pay PRSI. Therefore, it makes no sense for a party like the Progressive Democrats, which I though was in favour of community enterprise, to look at a scheme like this in a very arbitrary way and abolish it although it is responsible for training and employing people gainfully rather than having such people opt for the inertia of individuals on the dole.

I came across another group recently in Inistiogue in County Kilkenny which was recently presented, to a fanfare of publicity, with a national award from FÁS because of their great work in community and environmental development in that lovely village. About 25 people who were participating on the CE scheme in the past year or two will see this number reduced to just ten or maybe less, all because of this arbitrary reduction of 5,000 nationally. We are prepared to give a group a national award and punish it for winning by reducing the number of places on the community employment schemes.

Castlecomer, in north County Kilkenny, had 30 people involved in a community employment scheme doing a range of activities in the area. The number on the scheme is to be reduced to 18 or less in 2003. The town has been the recipient of very bad news recently because of the loss of 160 jobs in the local textile factory, Comerama. They have been the recipient of bad news recently with the loss of 160 jobs in their textile factory. This scheme will be reduced to 18 participants in 2003 and the numbers involved may be even further reduced. These examples are replicated around the country. Other speakers will give further illustrations of the damage to the morale and confidence of the participants and communities who have been involved in these important schemes.

The continuation of community employment schemes at the 2002 levels of availability is vitally important to allow everyone the opportunity to work. Fine Gael is in favour of giving people the opportunity to work and we have resisted the attempts in the past, in Government and Opposition, to act otherwise so as to ensure that this principle is enshrined in our philosophy. The deterioration in the economy and rising levels of unemployment will mean that those displaced from these schemes will not easily gain work on the open market. It is essential to continue training and employment opportunities for the long-term unemployed and those with disabilities who otherwise would not have access to them.

The viability of the projects and activities of every community group are now dependent on the participation of people in community employment schemes. Almost every community hall, parish hall, sporting organisation and health care [941] facility in every parish is depending on the part-time employment of local people through the FÁS funded schemes. I and my party acknowledges the great work done by the many community groups throughout the country with the assistance of these schemes.

We on this side of the House are committed to maintaining the participation of these schemes at 2002 levels. That recognises the financial position in the country, which has changed since the general election. Many small towns and villages are totally dependent on these schemes.

The way times have changed since the general election, when there was no problem with these schemes, nor with the amount of money available to them, is reflected in an article today in a national newspaper detailing the number of schools that will no longer receive funding for refurbishment. During the general election campaign the Minister and the then Minister of State, Deputy Tom Kitt, engaged in ridiculous squabbling over the future of these schemes. Deputy Kitt gave a guarantee that no community employment scheme place would be lost. On the “Liveline” radio programme on 15 May 2002, two days before the election, he said he was acting on the direction of the Taoiseach, a very honest man. He went on to say his party had not been consulted on the issue of the schemes and that it would insist that they continue. However, the Minister said the restructuring of the schemes and the reduction in the number of participants was a Cabinet decision. Deputy Kitt said there were ideological differences between Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats on this issue but these comments were dismissed as electioneering by Progressive Democrats sources.

The Minister now has the opportunity to set the record straight regarding her bona fides before and since the general election. Her action today does not give me confidence that she will acknowledge the work done by participants in these schemes and the different economic climate in terms of job opportunities and participation. The motion gives Government politicians the opportunity to put up or shut up. They are speaking from both sides of their mouths on a very important issue for their local communities by telling them they will be looked after, yet when difficulties arise they will be told that FÁS is unable to meet the demand by community groups to maintain these schemes. The vote on this motion will give Government Deputies the opportunity to maintain the number of participants in these schemes at 2002 levels. Otherwise they should tell their constituents that they have failed to convince the Minister, who is out of touch with community groups, is unaware of the importance of these scheme and is bent on maintaining the budgetary arithmetic rather than the important social and economic contribution made by the schemes to many communities.

Mr. Murphy: Information on Gerard Murphy Zoom on Gerard Murphy Community employment schemes have made a huge contribution to people's lives [942] over a wide range of services, including health, education and the environment. The Minister claims that many of the services provided by the schemes in the educational sector have been mainstreamed into the education budget. This budget has been transferred from FÁS to the Department of Education and Science and while a semblance of a service is provided, the new system is not as effective or as flexible when it was administered by community groups working in co-operation with the schools. Similarly, the mainstreaming of community employment schemes into health and child care services is also unsatisfactory. The money to be transferred from FÁS will be lost in these underfunded services.

The Minister rightly argues that retraining for full-time employment should be the primary concern and objective of the community employment schemes. This should continue to be the main focus, especially for younger participants. However, regardless of whether the Minister acknowledges it, a substantial number of current and former participants will find it impossible to secure positions in mainstream employment. Between January and October this year, 19,000 people left community employment schemes, of which almost 4,000 were over 50 years of age, almost 3,000 had a disability, almost 6,000 were lone parents and 600 were widowed. The vast majority of people in these categories have returned to the live register. Social difficulties and unique family circumstances are contributing to this, but a major problem in rural towns and villages is that very few jobs are available. There may be some employment opportunities in the bigger centres but with no public transport and no way of buying a car or affording insurance, many of these people are condemned to a lifetime of unemployment.

At present increasing numbers of appeals and reallocations for unemployment assistance are being made by people in rural areas. Those in small towns and villages who are barred from participating in community employment schemes cannot find work locally, are unable to travel to work and are being refused unemployment assistance. They would be only too willing to participate in a community employment scheme that would give them the dignity of a job and provide their neighbours and communities with invaluable support and services.

There may be a need to establish a social employment scheme in conjunction with community employment schemes which would be more suitable for the participants and the communities they serve. I understand that FÁS has been undertaking a review of this area. At our meetings with FÁS we have advocated this dual approach. Community employment schemes should continue with an emphasis on the training aspect while a type of social employment scheme should be developed which would be more employment orientated. We hope the Minister will encourage this approach as it would be helpful in the current economic climate. A transfer [943] of resources from the Department of Social and Family Affairs to FÁS would finance up to 80% of such schemes.

The Minister has not addressed the work done by participants in community employment schemes in environmental projects, including town and village renewal programmes, tidy town projects and the upkeep of sport and leisure facilities. Over the past ten years enormous funding was provided to community councils to develop badly needed facilities and great work was done. Exceptional value for money was achieved. However, many of these projects are at risk because of the demise of the community employment schemes. Much voluntary work is still necessary but because, increasingly, two members of households now work it is more difficult for them to give time to voluntary organisations. They need the back-up of community employment schemes to ensure that these projects survive. Local authority funding is going to be scarcer over the next number of years and there will be no discretionary funding available. Local authorities are broke. If the Minister does not act, millions of euro worth of projects will be put at risk. If the will is there the problem can be solved. There are people who are willing and ready to do the work. Most of the funding required can be secured by transferring resources from one Department to another. There are very anxious voluntary groups awaiting the Minister's decision in the hope that they can continue their valuable work for their communities and for society.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton I thank my colleague, Deputy Hogan, for putting down this motion. On the scale of things this is as important a debate as we will have in this House in this session. When I look around the Chamber I find it very difficult to understand where the Fianna Fáil backbenchers are. I know that they are not too fond of sitting either behind or beside the Tánaiste on this issue because they seem to be able to shower the entire blame on her when they go around the country.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan They are at it everywhere.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney I am responsible for all the bad things.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin That is true.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton We are giving them the opportunity tonight to speak on a huge social issue that has a connection with every single parish, town and county. We will give them an opportunity on Thursday morning to walk into the lobbies and to explain how they can say last week to 600 people in Ballinasloe that they are against the Minister's proposals and then come in and vote with the Government on Thursday morning.

[944]Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan See the big crowds they bring to the halls.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton I have been very closely involved with the FÁS business efforts down through the years I say to the Tánaiste that the persistent efforts of herself and the FÁS management show that she is hell bent on downgrading the community schemes. She made a terrible decision on 1 April 2000 when she decided to cap the CE schemes at three years and irrespective of what is decided now they will be coming to an end anyway. It appears to me that, as Deputy Hogan pointed out, this is a book exercise; the Minister wants to balance the books irrespective of the consequences on the ground. The 5,000 jobs in question are real jobs for the people concerned. If ten firms shed 500 jobs each between now and Christmas, there would be a hue and cry all over the country and in this Chamber. For some strange reason and because many of the people are at the lower end of the social scale as the Minister sees them, it is all right to throw them out on the dole. It depends on one's philosophy. The philosophy of the Progressive Democrats on this issue is sickening many people around the country.

The Minister is planning to make 5,000 people redundant next year. It is demeaning to the workers themselves because they are being told that their work is not important. It is demeaning to the people in the development organisations who are the sponsors of the scheme. The Minister is saying to them that this work is not important. As far as the disabled are concerned, no other agency will step in once those workers are pulled out. I do not think the health boards will step in. Who will carry out the tremendous work being done in every parish in the country? It certainly will not be the county councils or the corporations because they do not have the money.

Like many other Deputies, in a previous existence I was the chairperson of the town development association in Mountbellew. For years we had no shortage of plans and designs for the future of our town and area – we had a barrow full of them. The minute we left the community centre we had nobody to execute the plans and that is where FÁS workers on CE schemes came in. It meant we had somebody available to carry out the jobs. If the Minister decides to pull out the struts from under this scheme now there will be a huge vacuum in every parish. It is like taking up the railway tracks: somebody will ask why this was allowed happen and in whose name it was done.

I remember being in this House in 1985-86 when this measure was introduced. We all know why it was introduced originally, namely to ensure there would be a level of training for a certain type of person who was finding it extremely difficult to find work and to give dignity back to people. It was a way to take as many as possible off the dole and to get a return for the [945] community from the money being paid. I believe they are still good reasons.

There is a huge cohort of workers who are over 50 years of age. They are particularly good at what they do; for the first time in their lives they have found out that they are of considerable use both to themselves and to the community in which they work. This is thanks to the various training mechanisms administered by FÁS. What will happen those people when they are forced to go back on social welfare? Where will they go? The Minister and her Department put a spin on this by saying there are not enough people to fill the available schemes. This is true for some parts of the country because of how the Department has organised the scheme. It means that workers are a year on and a year off and the small population in some areas means that there are not enough people to take the places. At the same time the very people who want to work are at home on the dole. It does not make sense.

I have met many community employment workers over the years. They take a pride in what they do and they have benefited from the schemes in their personal development. At the height of the scheme it employed almost 40,000 people. There will be 25,000 at the end of this year and it will be down to 20,000 next year now that the Minister has got her way in the Book of Estimates. In another year the numbers will be down to 10,000 and a huge vacuum will be created in every town and village. There will be nobody left to continue the important work.

There are 14 workers on the scheme in my parish of Mountbellew and they were told that they would lose their jobs this week. It was expected that they would be employed on another scheme but that is not to be; they have been told the new scheme will not be in place until next August or September. In the greater Tuam area, I understand that 150 jobs must be suppressed from the scheme before the end of this year in order to meet the targets. That will create hardship for people between now and Christmas.

I am aware that the schemes change over time. The Minister and her officials are turning a blind eye to the people I am talking about. Deputy Murphy referred to the changes and I acknowledge that many people will go on to do better for themselves in sustainable employment, but there must be something the Minister's Department can do for that cohort of workers who have no place to go and who have done well on community employment schemes, which have been good for their communities. By removing 5,000 workers from the scheme, the Minister saves €6,000. She has sold 5,000 workers for €6,000; the figure is that small based on what we have been told. What the Minister has done is a disgrace.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford Zoom on Seymour Crawford I thank Deputy Hogan for the opportunity to speak on this important motion. Community employment schemes are at the heart of rural areas and have played a significant role in what rural Ireland is today, although I know [946] they are relevant in all areas. I wish to speak about the towns, villages, parishes and half parishes which have been changed by the introduction of community employment schemes which have worked well. One only has to look at small villages, parish churches, graveyards and surrounding areas to see how they have changed so dramatically. Instead of doing nothing, the people on community employment schemes have pride in what they have been able to deliver.

I know unemployment figures have come down dramatically over the last eight to ten years, and we will hear that from the Tánaiste in a few minutes. However, I wish to spell out to her that there is a cohort of workers, many of whom are in their fifties, who do not have an alternative. I am thinking of a young man with a handicap who is not capable of working a 40 hour week but who has enjoyed his five years with FÁS. Now he is doomed at 40 something years of age because he will not be able to get back on a scheme. There are no alternatives and the Tánaiste should not tell me there are. I have examined the matter for him and while some things may be possible for some people, they are not for him.

There is a market house in my village of Newbliss. One day the people who owned it, the church body, received a letter from the county council to say it was an important listed building and another letter from a different section to say it was derelict and that it needed to be dismantled. That community with the support of FÁS workers and other help transformed that building into the centrepiece of our village. If a few houses were built on a vacant site, it would revolutionise the village completely along with the other work FÁS has done.

Inniskeen is the home of Patrick Kavanagh, one of the renowned Irish poets who maybe was not thought so much of during his time on this earth. I attended the Kavanagh weekend last weekend and it was a privilege to see the building and structures in that area as a result of community involvement. There are 15 people over 50 years of age in the half parish of Inniskeen who could help to maintain that property and the work for which IFI and others provided funds. Without FÁS, it could easily close.

Clones was devastated during the Troubles and there was only one road into it. A factory there is under pressure at present. Some 40 workers have been let go while the jobs of 100 more are under pressure. I received a letter from a young man working on a FÁS scheme there. He said:

By taking part in the CE project at Clones Chamber of Commerce I have found the self-confidence to be part of the workforce after spending several years unemployed. I am a person who was unemployed because of the Troubles along the Border.

He went on to state:

CE has given me the opportunity to bridge the barriers that prevented me from getting work. If you continue with these cutbacks in [947] CE, I will experience great difficulty in getting a job, since you have proposed nothing to replace CE that would assist me in the move from welfare to work.

I received letters from Monaghan parish group of churches, Annalee, Butlersbridge, County Cavan, and from Ballybay Development Company. Ballybay was a derelict town which was revolutionised. The Tánaiste is taking that workforce from us at a time when people are being made unemployed for a variety of reasons. I beg her to rethink the decision and to make sure these groups are not put out of business and that they can have some dignity.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen Zoom on Bernard Allen I thank Deputy Hogan for sharing his time. Since the election I spent much of the summer visiting voluntary organisations in my constituency. They face a lot of worry and stress about their future because of the threat posed by the cut in community employment schemes. I understand the importance of those organisations but I doubt the Tánaiste really understands for what the voluntary sector stands and how dependent it is on these community employment schemes. This is not about numbers or finance but about the soul of Ireland and the contribution made by so many voluntary organisations to Irish life. That goodwill is being threatened by these cutbacks.

This is one of the worst decisions I have come across in my 21 years in this House. It is one of the most misguided, heartless decisions made by a Tánaiste who seems to be out of touch with reality and the voluntary groups and is more in touch with the ideals of IBEC and the employer organisations. These decisions are being made because of influence and pressure being applied on this Government. It is wrong that for the sake of €25 per week a person is being removed from gainful employment and placed on the scrap heap of the dole queue.

I have encountered people who are worried and stressed because of the threat to their jobs of which they are proud. I attended meetings at which the Tánaiste has been made into one of the most hated political figures in the country not by the groups, but by Fianna Fáil Deputies, her colleagues in Government. I have been to meetings at which they said: “It is not our decision; it is Mary Harney and the Progressive Democrats”. These Deputies said they would fight it all the way. As with the first-time buyer's house grant last week, they have the opportunity this week to fight it all the way by coming into the House to express their opinions, but not one of them is here tonight to defend the voluntary organisations they pledged to defend in recent months at meetings which I attended throughout my constituency. These cuts are the equivalent to the closure of two Dell computer factories. If that happened, there would be uproar. These jobs are being sabotaged because people do not understand the importance of voluntary groups.

[948]I refer to an article headlined, “Unique teaching facility being throttled by Mary Harney”. It states that new ways are needed to fund and provide facilities for the teaching of English as a foreign language to the immigrant support group because of cutbacks in community employment schemes. Instructors servicing the courses were put on the dole queue but some of them are back working free of charge on the courses because of their idealism. Another headline reads, “A unique facility to be lost to Cork”. The article refers to Paul, a community employment participant who spends his unsociable working hours on the streets of the city helping drug and alcohol addicts and their families and friends. Although his prescribed hours of work are 19.5 hours per week, his clients know he is available when they need him, day or night. Even the people that he worked with refer their friends and relatives to this man. Thanks to the callous cuts being imposed by this Tánaiste, aided and abetted by Fianna Fáil and all its Deputies, people like this are going to be put out of business. The down and outs who are dependent on this type of service will suffer as a result. People in Government, cocooned by power for over five years, do not seem to realise the reality of the hidden Ireland.

I have seen the Tánaiste come to Cork and create a good impression opening new hi-tech industries in modern industrial parks. I have never seen the Tánaiste come to Cork and see the other side of life there, the people and the organisations dependent on semi-voluntary work whose efforts have kept so many social groups and activities together. These are now being put on the rocks by a Government that does not seem to understand what is happening.

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Ms Harney): Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

“recognises the significant role that community employment and other active labour market programmes have made to reducing long-term unemployment from 90,200 in 1997 to 21,800 today;

acknowledges the important contribution that community employment schemes make to projects carried out by community, health and sporting organisations in communities across the country;

supports the Government's restructuring CE in line with changing conditions in the labour market so as to maintain an adequate number of places to meet the needs of the long-term unemployed and continue to support priority community projects; and

notes that the social partners will be consulted on this process through the Standing Committee on the Labour Market.”

[949] Deputy Allen must not be very familiar with my visits to Cork. I have been in places like Mahon and Mayfield and met some of the groups he is talking about.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford Zoom on Seymour Crawford The Tánaiste does not tell the Deputy about those.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney I am sure he is well informed of my movements, he seems to be able to speak with great authority there.

Mr. Allen: Information on Bernard Allen Zoom on Bernard Allen What about Silversprings Hotel—

(Interruptions).

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney The Deputy is more than welcome to any official events that I attend in Cork. I am sure he is normally invited, as all public representatives are, to events I go to unless they are private party matters where I am not discussing official business.

I am grateful to Deputy Hogan and his colleagues for tabling this motion and for giving me an opportunity to address Dáil Éireann on this important matter. I very much welcome this debate on the community employment programme as it gives me an opportunity on behalf of the Government to acknowledge the significant contribution they and other labour market measures have made to reducing long-term unemployment over the past number of years and to supporting community services. It is hard to believe from some of the comments made in the earlier part of this debate that we used to have one community employment place for every six long-term unemployed people when the second last Government left office. Today we have one community employment place for every long-term unemployed person—

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton We will see what it will be like when the Tánaiste leaves office.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney This debate also gives me an opportunity to clarify current participation levels on the programme and the estimated participation levels for 2003 as there have been a number of inaccurate comments circulating in the media on this matter in recent weeks. The primary purpose of CE is, as a transitional labour market programme, to provide work experience and training for the long-term unemployed with a view to their reintegration into open labour market employment. As part of an overall restructuring of the programme approved by Government in 1999, place numbers are being reduced on a phased basis in line with the reduced levels of long-term unemployed. There has been a strategic shift in policy in favour of greater investment in training from which there is a greater level of progression to employment.

The Programme for Prosperity and Fairness contained a commitment to reduce overall place numbers on community employment to 28,000 by 2003 through a reallocation of funding equivalent [950] to 5,000 places to the social economy, together with the reduction of 4,500 places required by the Government's decision of 21 July 1999. The Government's consistent position on this commitment has been that mainstreaming comes below the reduction to 28,000 places associated with restructuring. This has been confirmed on a number of occasions in the discussions with the social partner representatives in the standing committee on the labour market, and in my responses to a number of parliamentary questions on the restructuring of community employment.

Mainstreaming involves the transfer of an appropriate level of funding from the FÁS budget for community employment to the relevant Department with primary functional responsibility for the services in question. This is happening at present in the case of community employment schools services. On completion in 2003, the equivalent of some 4,500 places will have transferred to the education sector. Under this arrangement, an additional €58 million is to be made directly available to schools on an annual basis, phased in by 2003, in order to provide replacement services in schools. This will enable schools to improve on the level of secretarial and caretaking support that was available through community employment and will provide greater certainty and flexibility in the funding of such services.

Reports that community employment places are being reduced in the order of 13,000 in the current year are wildly inaccurate. Participation levels on community employment this year will average 28,000, and the estimated closing level at the end of the year will be in the order of 25,000. This compares to 30,809 participants on community employment at the beginning of this year.

Public speculation about the level of reductions in community employment in 2003 due to budgetary constraints is also somewhat exaggerated. As indicated in the recently published Estimates volume, a total of €274.738 million is being provided for community employment in 2003, which will provide for an average participation rate of approximately 22,000 during the year with a closing participation rate of around 20,000. This remains a very significant intervention in this labour market area.

A further €46.169 million is being provided for the job initiative programme which will provide for an average of 2,500 places. In addition to the budgetary provision, participation levels on community employment in 2003 will be decided by other factors, including the rate of progression by participants into the open labour market, the underlying trend in employment and unemployment, the completion of mainstreaming of places into the education sector, and consideration of any further element of mainstreaming.

It is important to view current participation levels on community employment in an overall labour market context. According to the CSO's Quarterly National Household Survey, Third Quarter 2002 there are currently 21,800 long-term [951] unemployed persons, a reduction of some 68,400 since 1997, or 76%, in the period since the current Government parties took office; the unemployment rate is currently 4.6%, representing a marginal increase over the third quarter of 2000, while the long-term unemployment rate remains at 1.2% as compared with 5.5% in 1997; employment now stands at 1,794,800, an increase of 8,200 in the year and an increase by some 322,500 since 1997; participation rates have increased in all age groups aged 45 and over, in the year to the third quarter 2002, with increases being greatest for females; many low skilled jobs continue to be filled by overseas personnel from both the EU and further afield; and the number of work permits issued increased from 6,000 in 1999 to over 36,400 in 2001. Some 38,000 work permits have been issued so far this year.

It is worth noting overall that despite the reduction in place numbers from 39,420 in April 1998 to in the order of 25,000 places anticipated at the end of 2002, there are still more community employment places than there are long-term unemployed. Even with the proposed reduction in numbers in 2003, the average number of places available will be 22,000 as against 21,800 people in long-term unemployment.

The administration of community employment, including the allocation of places to individual projects, is a matter for FÁS. That agency prioritises projects according to the types of services provided and levels of unemployment in the locality. The agency also makes every effort to co-ordinate reductions so as to minimise the effects on groups and services which are most in need of community employment. Drugs task force activity and child care service provision are ring-fenced from any reductions and projects in disadvantaged areas under the new RAPID initiative are given priority. Community employment places in the health sector, which includes personal assistant services, are being maintained at the start of the year level to ensure continuity in the delivery of these services.

The Government acknowledges the important contribution of community employment to the development of services for local community groups and organisations the length and breadth of the country. A clear and tangible demonstration of the Government's awareness of the importance of support for community services and their development is the recent establishment of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

Some 62%, or six out of every ten, of community employment activities in 2002 support community services in health care, community centres and ICTU employment centres. Other areas supported include services such as those relating to the environment, sport and coaching.

Community employment was originally conceived as an active labour market programme intended to assist the progression of long-term unemployed persons back into work by providing [952] market related work experience. However, over the years, and particularly during periods of high unemployment, community employment has been used to address a much wider range of problems utilising the high availability of labour. As community employment participation expanded, a range of community services developed a dependency on a large and steady supply of community employment participants.

In general, the basis on which community employment has been operated over the years has given rise to two main issues of concern, which have been brought to the fore as community employment levels are reduced in the context of the current labour market environment. First, there is a large dependency across the country on the availability of community employment personnel to support a wide range of community services which are now regarded by local communities as essential, and which are important to the delivery of other Government social initiatives such as child care and, second, there is a loss of labour market progression, exacerbated as the absolute numbers of participants on community employment schemes reduces, with the more difficult to progress groups coming to represent a greater percentage of available community employment places.

I am aware of increasing concerns in communities as to the impact community employment restructuring and the changed labour market will have on their ability to provide services. In this regard, there is a need to ensure communities get the best value from the reduced pool of community employment now available. Priorities must reflect current rather than past needs.

I would like to avail of this opportunity to advise the House of a number of reviews which are in train and which will have an important bearing on the scale and type of community employment activity that will operate in the future. FÁS is undertaking an international review of community employment, which will include an assessment of the role of community employment from a labour market perspective and taking account of the provision of community services. The PPF mandated review of active labour market programmes is also being progressed under the aegis of the Standing Committee on the Labour Market, chaired by my Department. This review is being facilitated by a report by Indecon Consultants on the effectiveness of existing active labour market programmes which is now about to be considered by the standing committee. A key focus of this examination relates to the reorientation of programmes, including the development of the training component of community employment so that the collective focus will be on the needs of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups to ensure the emphasis is on progression to, and is relevant to the needs of, the open labour market.

Policy in regard to the participation of older persons on community employment will also form an important part of that review process. [953] Given that the issues arising have an impact beyond the labour market dimension, a cross-departmental senior officials group has been asked to consider options for the future operation of community employment having due regard to the contribution now being made by community employment to community services and concerns expressed by the social partners and key stakeholders. The experience to date with the implementation of the social economy programme will also be considered in this context.

The outcome of these various initiatives will inform the Government's consideration of options for the future of community employment. Since it was launched in September 2000 there has been a significant level of roll-out of the social economy programme. There have been 773 applications for support to develop business plans; 600 of these applications for business plan grant support – up to a maximum of €5,080 in each case – have been approved; 324 social economy enterprises have been approved for full start-up grant support, with an employment commitment of approximately 2,000 grant supported employees; and 230 of these approved enterprises have commenced operations and 1,450 grant supported employees are in place, two-thirds of whom are working full time.

The budget approved for the social economy programme in the current year is €20.5 million compared with €6.6 million in 2001. This funding is now fully committed to the social economy enterprises which have been approved to date. Accordingly, no new enterprises are being approved at present. More than €30 million is being made available for the social economy in 2003, enabling the 324 enterprises approved under the programme to continue to operate. In the current economic climate FÁS is not inviting new applications under the programme for the present. Next year will represent a process of consolidation for the social economy programme with a focus on enhancing the sustainability and viability of the established social economy.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin What about cohesion?

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg What about cohesion in the labour market?

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney There was no social economy in the Deputy's day.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg I am still here, it is still my day.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney An evaluation of the social economy programme is being undertaken and this will inform the future direction of the programme.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin The children's allowance money is gone.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney I assure the House that the Government is fully aware of the wide-ranging nature of services now provided through community employment—

[954]Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg One would think the Government was extending it rather than axing it.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney —and to the challenges presented for individuals and communities by the transition to a more appropriate level of participation. We will enhance the labour market role of community employment through a greater emphasis on training, while examining how best to support the provision of community services in a changed labour market. The changes now in train are only one facet of a changing Ireland. Properly managed, they can make a significant contribution to a better Ireland for disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan They would not want to hold their breath.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney I omitted to say at the start that I wish to share my time with the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, if that is in order.

Acting Chairman (Cecilia Keaveney): Information on Cecilia Keaveney Zoom on Cecilia Keaveney That is agreed.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin Somebody from Fianna Fáil is supporting the Minister.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton If he was not being paid to be here, he would not be here.

Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. M. Ahern): Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern I welcome this opportunity to speak on this Private Members' motion concerning the operation of the community employment programme. I would also like to acknowledge the valuable contribution community employment in particular has made to reducing long-term unemployment in recent years.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg Those are crocodile tears.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern The Minister has acknowledged on behalf of the Government the important contribution that community employment has made to services for local community groups and organisations throughout the country—

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan The Minister of State should tell that to the lads in Carrantuohill.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern —and I concur with her remarks in this regard. Numerous community, health, sporting and other organisations have benefited considerably from community employment schemes in their areas and it is understandable that sponsors of these projects are concerned about their future operation in the context of the current Government restructuring of community employment. However, it is important that this necessary restructuring of community employment should be considered in the context of the much improved and now positive labour market for job seekers.

[955]Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin That will be a great consolation to them.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern The Minister has indicated that under the recently published Estimates volume, a total of €274.738 million is being provided for community employment in 2003, which will provide for an average participation rate of approximately 22,000 in the year with a closing participation rate of around 20,000.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan The fellows on the ground must not know that. Why are they being laid off?

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern This remains a very significant intervention in this labour market area, given the difficult choices that had to be made.

The Government is conscious of the need to maximise, within the current constraints—

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan “Constraints” is the buzz word.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern —on public expenditure, investment in measures that have a primary focus on employability, especially for disadvantaged groups. In this context, I should mention in particular the provision of training and employment supports for the disabled and for those experiencing difficulty in entering the labour market.

Overall investment in FÁS training schemes is being maintained close to 2002 levels. The Exchequer contribution of €73.518 million is complemented this year by a €222.055 million contribution from the national training fund, bringing the overall investment in 2003 in FÁS training initiatives to €295.573 million. Again, FÁS will prioritise, in so far as possible, the training and employment supports for the disabled within their overall allocations.

The allocation for 2003 to FÁS employment programmes is set at almost €365 million. This level of investment is consistent with the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure community employment or CE. Participation levels are gradually being reduced, reflecting the significant reduction in the numbers of the long-term unemployed and the shift in emphasis away from work experience programmes to training, from which there is a greater level of progression to employment.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg On a point of order, on foot of the Ceann Comhairle's ruling today, can the Minister of State circulate his script?

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton All he needs to do is duplicate the Minister's speech.

Acting Chairman: It will be circulated.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg The Ceann Comhairle ruled today that a Minister is entitled to read a script if he or she circulates it in advance.

[956]Acting Chairman: The script is on the way. The alternative is to wait until the script arrives but that will waste valuable time for debate.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin It is a discourtesy to the House.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg According to the Ceann Comhairle today, it is a discourtesy to the House.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Persons in receipt of unemployment benefit represent 25% of total current participation on CE, followed by those on unemployment assistance and lone parents, each at around 23%, and persons in receipt of unemployment assistance at 22.6%. Some 15.5% of participants are persons with disabilities, for whom CE is considered particularly important as a transition programme and in enhancing their employment prospects in the open labour market.

In the case of those with disabilities, it is worth noting recent important developments in the area of vocational guidance and training for this disadvantaged group in a labour market context. Training and employment services for people with disabilities were restructured in June 2000 as part of the Government's policy of mainstreaming services to people with disabilities. The objective of the Government's policy is to provide services to people with disabilities in an integrated way which offers them more choice than was previously available. This approach is in accordance with the recommendations in the report of the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, which was published in 1996.

Under the restructuring, responsibility for vocational training and employment of people with disabilities in the open labour market transferred from the Department of Health and Children to the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. Responsibility for social skills and personal development training, referred to as “rehabilitative training”, and for sheltered occupational services remained with the Department of Health and Children. Employment and vocational training policies for people with disabilities are now formulated in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment as part of general labour market policy, underlining the move from a medical attitude to disability to an inclusive economic and social view of it.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin It is a pity the Government did not put any money into it.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern While CE has played a valuable role in providing community services over the years, there is a danger that its link with the labour market is being forgotten.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton The Minister of State knows better than that.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern People are leaving CE all the time to move into the open labour market which still appears to be quite buoyant, although more subdued than in recent years.

[957]Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg The Minister of State should give us his own thoughts.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern While 5,000 persons are likely to leave CE next year on completion of their contracts, they will move into what should still be a labour market presenting opportunities.

Already this year, when we are seeing an easing in economic growth, 38,000 work permits have been issued to non-EEA nationals.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan All friends of the Minister.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Of these, about 40% are renewals and several thousand more are accounted for by persons already here, but changing employer. Of the balance, perhaps 21,000, it appears that many of the persons constitute replacement personnel in respect of persons who have left jobs in Ireland. It is worth bearing in mind that about 55% of work permits issued in 2001 are not being renewed, suggesting a continued high rate of turnover in the work permit population.

This rate of movement suggests that many jobs fall vacant on departure of overseas personnel and that these tend to be filled by new personnel from overseas. Given that many of the jobs in question are at the lower end of the skills spectrum, it has to be asked if a growing number of these cannot be filled by persons moving off CE. This would not, of course, mean displacing any overseas personnel already in jobs here.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg The worst form of exploitation.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Employers must have regard to the available pool of labour in the local market in the same way that persons seeking work should expect to have regard to local opportunities. It would not be desirable to have a situation whereby persons moving off CE on completion of their contracts and who apply for available jobs locally are overlooked by employers who want to bring in persons directly from overseas.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg Cheap labour.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern As the transition to a lower, more appropriate level of CE continues next year, we intend to ensure that policy in regard to the granting of work permits, especially for lower skilled vacancies, has due regard to actual conditions in the local market, including the availability of suitable persons moving off CE.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, must have heard about it.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton He will be on the radio in the morning about it.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern I trust the foregoing comments will be helpful in the context of placing the Government restructuring of CE in the context of [958] a number of important wider policy issues which impact on the programme. I commend the counter motion to this House.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I wish to share my time with Deputies Stagg and Penrose.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I agree with the motion. This is one of the most important issues we will debate in this session. It is interesting that in the case of the motion last week, which concerned another Progressive Democrats Minister, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, the Progressive Democrats backbenchers were whipped in to read from the script factory or, sorry, from the extended notes provided by the Department—

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Fergus Finlay is back with the Labour Party.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin The Minister of State is now using his own words. He has gone off the script for a minute.

Obviously, the issue before the House tonight is not deemed to be of the same importance, so there are no Progressive Democrats backbenchers or any backbenchers in the Government benches tonight. It is a matter of no great importance to them that another 5,000 people, in addition to an earlier 5,000, have been thrown off the scheme this year. That is a reduction of 10,000 places since the start of the year.

I looked at the figures given by the Minister when she talked about exaggerations. There seems to be a propensity on the part of this Government to give out the most disastrous figures, so that when a mild calamity is visited on the people it is not considered too bad. The social employment schemes, as they were then known, were piloted in the Wexford constituency in the mid-1980s by the then Minister for Labour, Deputy Ruairí Quinn. They were innovative schemes which raised eyebrows. People wondered if they would work, how they would impact on the labour market and how people would adjust to them.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Unemployment was at 12%.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin They proved to be among the most imaginative and worthwhile initiatives ever taken by a Labour Minister to deal with labour market issues.

Mr. M. Ahern: Information on Michael Ahern Zoom on Michael Ahern Long-term unemployment was at 5%.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin I also served in Government with Fianna Fáil, when we preserved these schemes in far more difficult economic times. There should be no crocodile tears from the Tánaiste or the Minister of State. To gainsay that would be acceptable to any right-thinking Member.

[959]The schemes had an important impact in a number of respects. One was the impact on participants. People who often regarded themselves as unemployable, and who were for a long period, were given the dignity of work. Many progressed to full-time employment, but many did not. Nonetheless, they were at least given the chance to be valued in their communities. That might be of no consequence to the Tánaiste or the Minister of State, but it was of great value in the lives of individuals blessed with the opportunity, acknowledgement and leg up for the first time in many cases.

The second important impact it had was on communities. It provided services that would not have been provided otherwise. This remains the case. I disagree with Deputy Hogan in that I do not believe the primary motivation is to save money. It is not a number crunching exercise. It is a core ideological issue for the Progressive Democrats and the Minister for Finance. They regard this as a distortion of their notion of the labour market. They want to free up as many low-paid people as they can to take jobs at the lowest rate possible. The distortion of the CE schemes causes difficulty for the supporters of the Progressive Democrats.

The notion of mainstreaming which the Tánaiste put forward as the ideal has not worked in many instances because the numbers involved and the level of support available, for example, in supporting schools, is a fraction of that available under these schemes and does not measure up to the promise made by the Departments of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and Education and Science.

The Tánaiste's amendment is cynical in the extreme and I wish I had the time to discuss it in detail. To suggest as she did that the valuable and critical work which she acknowledged was done will be taken up and protected is not a fact. Many critical jobs will not be done, and the great irony is that people who are willing, able and proud to do the work will be deprived of the opportunity for a lousy few euro per week. It is shameful.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton They will be on the dole.

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin The most conservative of societies, the Japanese, provide for social employment knowing that useful social work can be done by people whose jobs can be valued. That is protected within the Japanese system. The issue for the Government is to have the most reactionary form of labour market policy that makes no allowances for people who want to provide a critical service that cannot be measured by this Progressive Democrats economic yardstick that has a warped sense of values in the context of the useful work these people can do in communities, sports clubs, health services, personal services to people who need support, and the arts. All these change a rough, brutal society into a caring one with an inherent value and sense of its own worth.

[960]The Tánaiste's aim is not just to reduce participation in the community employment schemes by the end of next year to 20,000. By limiting the duration of the schemes to three years, it is her aim to end them. This will be glossed over by issues such as mainstreaming. There will be the pretence that other agencies will take up the slack and provide the supports and work done in CE schemes. Next year is a critical one and the economic downturn we are facing will be the backdrop for the implementation of a ruthless Progressive Democrats agenda.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg The Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, leader of the Progressive Democrats, has decided to abolish the community employment schemes operated by FÁS. On her watch, the numbers employed on the schemes will have been reduced each year from 40,500 in 1997 to 20,000 next year. She is half-way to her objective. This is in line with her low wage policy which states that the more labour available on the market, the higher the competition for the places available and the lower the wages forced on workers. That is the gospel according to the Progressive Democrats. By dumping 5,000 CE workers on the scrapheap without concern for their future or welfare, she is furthering her objective of providing cheap labour for her friends among private employers.

The Tánaiste has more than one string to her bow in seeking a pool of cheap labour. The other instrument she is using to a large extent is the importation of large numbers of non-national workers, mostly from eastern Europe. By virtue of the conditions of the work permits she issues to the workers, they are virtually bonded labour. They are tied to one employer at the pain of deportation which is a constant threat from employers. They work long and hard hours for minimal rates which are often less than the minimum wage.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney When was any such worker deported?

Mr. Howlin: Information on Brendan Howlin Zoom on Brendan Howlin They are terrified to leave their employers.

Ms Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney The Deputy should deal with the facts.

Mr. Stagg: Information on Emmet Stagg Zoom on Emmet Stagg I live among them and know their fears and the exploitation. They are packed into expensive, overcrowded tenements. In short, they are grossly exploited and abused. Now, 5,000 CE workers are to be dumped on the scrapheap to further the Tánaiste's right-wing policies.

Where are the caring voices among the Fianna Fáil party? As usual, they will cry crocodile tears on local radio and in local papers for the axed FÁS schemes and turn up in the House to vote the measure through. They are thereby exposed as the hypocrites they are.

In my constituency, the axe on the FÁS CE schemes has fallen in a brutal manner. In Clane, [961] Leixlip and Celbridge, the axing has been received with a sense of shock and despair by the organisers of and participants in the schemes. Work done for sports clubs, tidy towns committees and the enhancement of the environment will stop dead in its tracks in these towns and communities. One scheme in Celbridge organised by the tidy towns committee was established in 1992. It has 14 employees and a supervisor. They work with the local Church of Ireland, the GAA and the tidy towns committee. The scheme has an excellent record in training its participants and placing them in full-time employment. The environment in Celbridge has been greatly enhanced by the efforts of the scheme. I call on my colleague, Senator Kate Walsh, a resident of Celbridge who boasts of her close relationship and influence with the Tánaiste and who has built her political reputation on her support for community projects, to use her influence and exercise her muscle on behalf of the CE workers in Celbridge. We will know by the outcome how effective her actions will have been. By the fruits of their actions we will know them rather than by their crocodile tears.

The workers and trainees on CE schemes in my constituency are special people. They were left out and left behind. They had a semblance of dignity and purpose restored to them by the CE schemes and many became successful in life from their participation in them. Now they are to be dumped. It is to the shame of Fianna Fáil, the Progressive Democrats, the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, and Senator Kate Walsh that they support this savage, uncaring action.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose Zoom on Willie Penrose I strongly support the motion because this is something very dear to me. Westmeath was one of the counties to adopt this scheme as a pilot project in 1985 and there was considerable and strenuous opposition to it from a number of sources. As a member of Westmeath County Council, I was glad to champion something that was introduced by a Labour Party Minister in a coalition Government. I recall saying what it would mean 17 or 18 years ago. The Royal Canal was closed and some far-sighted people were suggesting it should remain closed and made into a road to Dublin. Having been born on the banks of the Royal Canal, I had a bit of initiative and I joined a local group, the Royal Canal Amenity Group. From the acorn seed the oak tree grew. Everyone wants to jump on a bandwagon, but without the Royal Canal Amenity Group and the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, that canal would never have re-opened. They formed the driving force behind that and it has tremendous tourism potential. Millions are being spent on it and millions more are needed to ensure it is finished from Ballynacargy to Richmond Harbour in Clondra to allow people to complete a circuit and come down on the Royal Canal and return on the Grand Canal. This would go past where Deputy Enright lives and I [962] am sure she would be delighted with the tourism, which is critical to many rural areas.

Mr. Hogan: Information on Philip Hogan Zoom on Philip Hogan She might go away with the Deputy during the summer.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose Zoom on Willie Penrose In any event money was scarce and we adopted a scheme. Westmeath County Council had a skilled carpenter. A number of people were trained at the time under the social employment scheme. They commenced the manufacture of the lock gates, which was the first step in the restoration of the Royal Canal. Most of the people who were trained to become skilled carpenters at that time are in the construction industry today. That shows how important the scheme was at that time. The Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ahern, is right in saying it was a time of high unemployment, but it was used extensively because money was and still is scarce in rural areas. The myth of the phantom tiger only touched urban areas. Rural areas are still isolated and in relative poverty.

Most of the people on the scheme today have no access to transport, public or private, and they are relatively poor. They are disadvantaged and include people who are becoming elderly. They want a chance to make a contribution to the community and the dignity of doing so. This is why it has been an essential scheme to the local community organisations, the GAA, rugby, soccer and hockey clubs, voluntary and community groups, and to the tidy towns. Every village has been transformed by the skills those people have acquired. They have a reason to get out of bed in the morning and are making a valuable contribution to the community. Every village and town in the country has improved its performance in the tidy towns competition as a result of those people's efforts. Why do we want to hit the disadvantaged and the vulnerable at this time? If a mess has been made of the economy, it should not be visited on the ordinary people and the poorer sections of the community.

As Deputy Howlin said, in January 2002 there were 30,000 people in the scheme. In a year the Minister has set out to dismantle it and has already smitten one third from that number. If the Government cannot find any more Central Bank reserves or cannot raid any more pension funds, will the Minister smite the other 20,000? No evaluation has been carried out on the savings that accrue from the scheme. Many of those people will end up back on the live register. As they say in our place, where is the beef and where are the savings? This is an ideologically driven exercise. The essence of what we stand for is solidarity with and commitment to communities.

What about the Carers Association that depends on the community employment scheme for secretarial and supervisory help? There are 100,000 carers and there are Carers Association houses across the country. People from the community employment scheme form an important part of that. We already insult them by giving [963] them a couple of cent an hour. We are now going to take the scheme away as well. What about the centres for independent living? We are being told about mainstreaming. This is all fudge as was the excuse about internal reviews. The outcome was to slash 10,000 people from the scheme over 12 months.

As I have said on many occasions, in areas such health and education, it is the disadvantaged who are always asked to foot the bill for the economic problems that have been generated by Government mismanagement and incompetence. What about the impact this will have on literacy and numeracy courses? We are all committed to ensuring that people who did not have a chance are now given one. Many of those courses involve people from the community employment scheme. Surely it is wrong to eliminate those. Cultural associations, community crèches, schools, etc., have all been helped out. The work is of inestimable value. Any cost benefit analysis would show the scheme in a positive light.

The people who will be severely disadvantaged will undoubtedly be the long-term jobless and the elderly in rural areas. The cuts will cause havoc and desolation at individual and community level. I recently met a supervisor on a project. Many projects were compelled to come together in order to retain a supervisor. What will happen when the numbers inevitably drop? The supervisor will disappear.

Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton Zoom on Paul Connaughton Redundancy will have to be paid to the supervisor.

Mr. Penrose: Information on Willie Penrose Zoom on Willie Penrose The grants for the materials have remained static for the past six or seven years. Insidious pressure has already been applied to wipe them out. What savings will accrue to the Exchequer as a result of this decision? Will those people now in the scheme have to revert back to the live register?

What about the child care policy advocated by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform? How will that be delivered in disadvantaged areas where CE schemes play an important role? Has there been any examination of the wider impact or did the Tánaiste take this decision simply because the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, told her to make savings in her Department? Of course, people of like mind focus on the one area and the Tánaiste, Deputy Harney, was delighted to deliver.

Has any evaluation been done on the impact these cuts will have on lone parents? The decreasing number of places available to this group will obviously result in a decrease in family income with the loss of the CE allowance. Given the difficulties in accessing child care at an affordable cost, will that limit their potential to progress into paid work?

These represent a small number of the areas that I have examined which will be impacted. The [964] Government is grossly mistaken in the course on which it is embarking.

Debate adjourned.


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