Adjournment Debate. - Kerry Recycling Co-operative.

I will be brief in bringing this matter to the attention of the Minister for Social Welfare. It involves the procedures within the Department of Social Welfare in relation to appeals made by three young men in Tralee regarding decisions made pertaining to their entitlement or otherwise to unemployment assistance. Whereas the immediate problem relates to social welfare the problem also would involve the Department of Labour and the Department of the Environment in relation to the efforts these men have been making over the past 12 months to form a viable recycling co-operative covering the town of Tralee and, indeed, the County of Kerry.

The situation at present is that they have received a decision from the Department of Social Welfare. I understand the Minister is aware of the names of these people but I can give them if required. They received a decision, on the grounds that they were not available for employment from 21 March 1990, that they would not qualify for unemployment assistance because of the clause "being available for work and genuinely looking for work". I have heard many statements from the Minister for Social Welfare during his term of office as Minister for Social Welfare, that he was seeking to introduce flexibility in the regulations pertaining to unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit to ensure that persons have opportunities to come back into the workforce. This is the exact type of case he has referred to on many occasions here in the House.

These three young men, who have had difficulty in breaking out of the unemployment cycle, took it upon themselves to try to organise a recycling co-operative in the town of Tralee. Indeed, they have been working as volunteers for nearly a year to create the possibility of a legitimate income for themselves and their families in the area of reclamation and recyclables collections. At one stage they had tremendous co-operation from the local FÁS office and had feasibility studies carried out by the Regional Technical College in Tralee which established that the project would be viable provided initital grant assistance is forthcoming to the group. Unfortunately, because of the Department of Social Welfare decision of 21 March 1990 and also of the threat by the local health board, the three people in question will now lose their supplementary welfare benefit. These people are faced with a very unsavoury prospect. They have been trying to create work for themselves on a voluntary basis. They are available for work. I am sure the Minister is aware that the unemployment rate in the town of Tralee and in County Kerry at present varies between 18 per cent and 21 per cent of the work force. There are no immediate prospects available to them.

Because of the difficulty and the lack of work opportunities they set out to create an opportunity for themselves with the co-operation of FÁS, which has ended, and with some initial co-operation from local authorities, which is not as forthcoming as I would like to see particularly in the context of the project they are trying to set up. The project is one which I would have thought the Departments of the Environment and Labour, in particular, would have genuinely set out to assist, given the necessity for bringing about recycling programmes. I would like if the Minister — I am glad he is in the House this evening — could ensure that these people are again given the opportunity to obtain assistance from the Department of Social Welfare.

In relation to their appeal, which was heard, they were not informed of their right to be legally represented at that appeal. Also all the three members of the recycling co-operative were heard together, not individually as they should have been entitled to under the social welfare code. They are available for work. Without any stretch of the imagination they are doing something which may provide them with viable jobs in the long-term. They are doing it on a voluntary basis. There is no profit being derived from what they are doing at present. I would ask the Minister for Social Welfare if he could intervene to reverse the decision which has been made by his Department. The Minister has frequently stated his commitment to the introduction of legislation which will allow non-paid workers with community co-operatives and other bodies to receive unemployment payments. This is an opportunity for the Minister to show his commitment in this area and to show he is prepared to ensure that a system within the social welfare code has the necessary degree of flexibility. I would also ask him to call on his colleagues, the Minister for Labour and the Minister for the Environment, to examine the project which these three young men, all with families, have been trying to get off the ground, and which holds a long-term prospect. If the Department insist on refusing their unemployment assistance claims they will kill off any prospect this project has of getting off the ground thus leaving the three people concerned no choice but to Minleave the country. I appeal to the Minister to intervene and ensure while they are trying to get the project off the ground that the Department of Social welfare allow them claim their social welfare entitlements. The decision in this case has been harsh beyond reason.

As the Deputy has said, the people concerned are dealing with the Department of the Environment and the Department of Labour at present in relation to the development of this project. That is true but as the Deputy is, no doubt aware, decisions on entitlements under the Social Welfare Acts are given by deciding officers and appeals officers who are statutorily independent of the Minister. Whether we agree with their decisions or not, I must emphasise that my experience is that these deciding officers and appeals officers act with honesty and integrity in their application of the provisions of the Acts. For this reason I must say I am saddened by the terms chosen by the Deputy to frame his motion. By any objective interpretation these terms cast a shadow on the honesty and integrity of deciding officers and appeals officers in their application of the provisions of the Social Welfare Acts. They suggest they may at times choose to be deliberately harsh on applicants rather than act objectively. This has not been the case, is not the case and will never be the case, especially while I am Minister for Social Welfare.

A claimant for unemployment assistance must satisfy a means test in order to obtain a qualification certificate and, in addition, must satisfy the other statutory conditions of being capable of, available for, and genuinely seeking work to qualify for payment of assistance.

When it became known that the three claimants were involved in the operation of an enterprise known as the Kerry Recycling Co-op, their claims were submitted to a deciding officer to determine whether they continued to fulfil the above mentioned conditions. They were interviewed in connection with their involvement in the co-op and each of them admitted they were not available for alternative employment. Accordingly, the deciding officer disallowed their claims on the basis that they were not available for work.

They appealed this decision and were granted an oral hearing of their case on 16 May 1990. Having considered all the evidence and the arguments vigorously presented to him, the appeals officer concluded that, by undertaking the foundation of the Kerry Recycling Co-op and by working full-time in the development of that scheme, the claimants were not available for work within the terms of the legislation. He, accordingly, disallowed the three appeals.

I hope the Deputy will accept that in the circumstances I have explained and within the context of existing social welfare legislation the claimants in question have not been treated harshly. They have been treated as sympathetically as possible within the terms of the legislation. We are in a changing world and the thinking and methods of yesterday are not appropriate to the circumstances of today and will be less appropriate for those of tomorrow. Since I became Minister for Social Welfare I have introduced significant flexibility into the system governing unemployment payments. I am continuing this process and I aim to achieve further progress within the confines of the principles which govern these payments and on which the relevant legislation is based.

I have introduced measures to facilitate the participation of the unemployed in education courses, to allow them take up part-time work and do voluntary work of benefit to their communities while still receiving payments.

At present I am finalising a pilot scheme to give certain unemployed persons the opportunity to pursue third level education courses on a full-time basis. I also propose to include participation in certain community enterprise-type projects in this pilot scheme. What I have in mind is an initiative which would bridge the gap between developing a project and qualifying for community enterprise programme or other assistance or becoming self-supporting. The type of project the kerry Recycling Co-op are engaged in would, to my mind, be suitable for inclusion in the initiative. Other projects I hope to accommodate are projects for groups, such as travellers and the homeless, which have as their objective the reintegration of particularly disadvantaged people into the workforce.

The Deputy will appreciate that it takes time to design and implement initiatives of this kind having regard to the need for controls and to the financial implications. I expect to be in a position to make an announcement about this in the near future.

Deputies can be assured of my strong views that the unemployment system should be flexible and supportive of people when they are making every effort to make productive use of their time or to get back into the labour market. That is why I am introducing the pilot scheme. I can assure the Deputy that this will be put in place in the very near future.

May I ask a brief supplementary?

A brief question.

In relation to the pilot scheme, does the Minister consider that legislation is necessary and, if so, will it be introduced before the end of the session?

I intend to introduce a pilot scheme without legislation and in the process prove that these can be worked without seeking extensions which, as the Deputy realises, is the problem.

The Dáil adjourned at 8.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on wednesday, 20 June 1990.