Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.

I thank the office of the Ceann Comhairle for giving Deputy Penrose and me the opportunity to raise this important matter.

On Monday of this week a number of other public representatives and I attended a meeting organised by the Westmeath Centre for Independent Living. It was pointed out to us that leaders in that group are about to lose their personal assistants for a period of seven weeks over the Christmas period. I can best describe the disappointment of this group by reading a letter from someone about their life. I do not use the real name as it would identify the person, but Members will find it of interest. She writes:

My name is Patricia. I have multiple sclerosis. I am due to go into hospital on 8 November for a hysterectomy. The recovery period for a healthy individual is from three to six months. There is the possibility that this operation will have a negative effect on my MS as it is a shock to the system. I have a personal assistant that helps me to live an independent life, for example, to work, to do my own shopping. She makes up for numerous shortfalls that occur due to my illness. She is my trusted friend. I could not be the wife and mother that I am if I did not have her in my life.

FÁS has decided that it will close down the service of personal assistants in November for a period of seven weeks, which extends over the Christmas period and into January 2002. If I were to lose my PA there would be no Christmas in my home. Who would do the cooking and the decorating and the shopping and all the things that are taken for granted at Christmas? I would have trouble achieving this on my own with the MS, but trying to do it with this operation is not possible. I am not the worst case scenario. I know many others who are worse off than I am. They have been told that they too will lose their PA for seven weeks. This is a ridiculous situation. Why does someone have the right to tell me that I can have the independence that I need to live a productive and meaningful life and then turn on a whim and tell me that they have the right to take that independence away?

The day of internment for the disabled in this country is past and yet a Government-funded operation is given permission to subject the disabled to the degrading position of having to beg for enough resources to see them through Christmas. It has taken me approximately three hours just to put this letter together. How much time are you going to spend on the problem?

That outlines what is happening. Will the Minister of State please ensure that this lady and others like her have permanent PAs and do not have to put up with these ridiculous circumstances?

I thank Deputy McGrath for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter with him tonight. We wish to focus on circumstances at the centres for independent living. They are highly dependent upon the help of personal assistants provided under the auspices of the community employment scheme funded and operated under the aegis of FÁS. The Centre for Independent Living at Kinnegad, described by Deputy McGrath, and with which the Deputy and I are especially familiar, is an excellent facility for those with varying degrees of disability. At this critical juncture in the year, facing into Christmas and beyond, personal assistants are being taken out of the equation due to the ending of the FÁS scheme for seven to eight weeks from 23 November to 7 January 2002. This leaves the leaders and participants without personal assistants at a most vulnerable time and leaves these personal assistants and their supervisors unemployed over the eight-week period. While everyone pays lip service by saying that the service for disabled persons under the community employment scheme is classed as a priority, what astounds me and the CIL in Kinnegad is that there is no extension in the eligibility criteria for persons who are personal assistants in the CE scheme. They should be allowed to continue in the role uninterrupted throughout the year without being subjected to any break.

This important service is one of those which was to be mainstreamed. It was discussed with the Department of Health and Children. Hopefully, the personal assistant service will be placed on a more secure footing whereby they will not be dependent on the whims of various schemes. If this process is under way why not permit FÁS to introduce the necessary flexibility in the intervening period to permit the current CE scheme to continue without a break? I have learned that the provision of PAs for the centres for independent living is not to be flexible. In Kinnegad 14 eligible leaders are paired with personal assistants and they need full and continual funding. They are negotiating with the Midland Health Board, which has indicated that it might consider providing funding to bridge the gap this year. However, that might well be taken out of the 2002 health board allocation, reducing the level of service for next year.

This is the second year this problem has arisen for these vulnerable people and we should all remember that it is quite difficult for the sponsoring bodies of the centres for independent living to recruit the people to satisfy the strict eligibility criteria laid down by FÁS for participants. Recently, along with other colleagues, including Deputy McGrath, I attended a meeting at the CIL in Kinnegad and heard at first hand their deep concerns at these developments. One lady with multiple sclerosis told us that she would lose her PA and that Christmas would not happen for her. Other heart-rending stories related compel one to the view that a properly structured, well-developed and continuously funded scheme for the provision of personal assistants for these centres is the only way forward. From the perspective of a cost-benefit analysis it saves the State millions of pounds as otherwise these people might have to resort to institutional care. Their case is well made.

I thank Deputies McGrath and Penrose for raising this matter on the Adjournment.

The primary purpose of community employment as an active labour market programme is to reintegrate long-term unemployed persons into open labour market jobs. CE provides unemployed people with temporary opportunities whereby they can develop their skills and obtain a track record of work experience. The scheme is being restructured, following Government approval in 1999, to take account of falling unemployment levels and to better target available places at older long-term unemployed persons. As part of this process a decision was taken, in consultation with the social partners, to gradually reduce the numbers employed on CE from an average of 37,500 in 1999 to 28,000 by 2003. The restructuring of CE is part of an overall shift in strategic policy in favour of greater investment in training places, particularly for persons under 25 and the long-term unemployed. In line with a commitment in the PPF and following consultations with relevant Departments and the social partners, certain services currently provided by participants on CE are being mainstreamed. "Mainstreaming" in the context of CE is the term used to describe the proposed transfer of funding and the provision of services to the relevant Department with direct responsibility for the area concerned. Mainstreaming will further reduce the numbers employed on the programme.

The mainstreaming of schools services is currently under way and discussions with the Department of Health and Children on the mainstreaming of CE health services are proceeding. Tonight's question refers to health services, the mainstreaming of which will involve the transfer of CE funding from FÁS to the Department of Health and Children. That should place services such as the provision of personal assistants on a more secure footing. Services provided under CE for disabled persons are classified as a priority by FÁS and have been protected from the phased reductions imposed on other categories of projects after the restructuring of the programme in 1999. Audits of CE schemes undertaken in 1999, 2000 and 2001 showed an increase in the number of CE participants providing these services.

It will be appreciated that the short-term nature of participation on CE is not compatible with the needs of persons with disabilities. The proposed mainstreaming has positive implications for the provision of these services in the future by creating more permanent funding conditions for their delivery. The Department of Health and Children, which has primary responsibility for funding in this area, is supportive of the proposal in principle and the two Departments, in consultation with FÁS, are now looking at the modalities involved. I hope that these discussions can be completed as soon as possible enabling the proposed new funding arrangements to be put in place by the Department of Health and Children at an early date. Discussions with the Department of the Environment and Local Government have also been initiated recently by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the possibility of mainstreaming certain environmental services currently provided under CE. These discussions are at an early stage and will progress as quickly as possible.

While there are certain immediate difficulties with regard to the implementation of mainstreaming, I consider the outcome to be very worthwhile in the long-term. The areas in question stand to benefit significantly from an assured source of long-term funding which should facilitate better planning and provision of services.