The day the Dáil resumed over 1,000 community employment workers, managers and supervisors marched through the centre of Dublin to Dáil Éireann, such was their disgust and unhappiness with the cavalier way in which the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, and the Taoiseach allowed the community employment programme to be run down without putting in place any appropriate measures to support the social economy.
We all know the incredible achievements in our communities over the past two decades which have been underpinned, initially by the SES programme and subsequently by the community employment programme. I speak as a graduate of the local community employment initiatives. We have worked hard, with the advantage of the community employment, for training for the long-term unemployed, for our young people, for women returning to the economy and for a plethora of important local projects to care for our youth, older people, sports clubs and community centres. A range of services has been underpinned over the years by the community employment programme and many of the graduates of community employment have successfully gone on to become important workers and managers throughout the economy. Indeed, the programme, which was introduced by my party leader, Deputy Quinn, was one of the most successful initiatives ever introduced by this House.
We are now faced with a programme of savage cutbacks. The national agreement, the PPF, has been grotesquely broken by one side – the Government. We know that FÁS has been instructed to cut the numbers to at least 24,000, and possibly lower. There was a strong rumour in the past week or two from the community employment sector that the programme will be gutted and reduced to 8,000 places.
First, I wish to know the real position. What can we say to communities throughout the country involved in these projects, which have been assisted in a very valuable way by community employment and through which people have been enabled to re-enter the mainstream economy? Groups like the Northside Supervisors' Network – the alliance of northside community employment and job initiative managers – have told me that there has been no consultation whatsoever with them and with all the other interests in the community sector by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment. We get the same reports from all over Ireland. In Cork city I was told yesterday that there have been cutbacks of about 55%. Our Dublin city projects are being cut by 37% in terms of community employment numbers. There are valuable community projects throughout Ireland like the inner city project for the homeless in this city in which the number of workers have been cut by a third. The Government told us that anti-drug and child care places would be ring-fenced and that the education area would be mainstreamed. However, there are still major gaps and anomalies throughout the sector.
For example, as I tried to mention to the Taoiseach, child care CE workers traditionally do a two year course, such as the famous FETAC Level II child care course, which qualifies one to be a child care worker in the mainstream economy. However, these child care workers are now facing the loss of their places in child care programmes throughout the country after a year. Where is the sense in that?
I looked over the FÁS strategic review, 2002 to 2005, which states that an objective was to decrease CE and community training and replace them with apprenticeship and the social economy. However, over the past three to four years the Government has failed to turn the social economy structure into any kind of credible vehicle to enable us continue with community projects. Looking at the FÁS review of the social economy programme, I noted that it said 130 social economy enterprises have now come on stream, creating 670 places. However, this is a tiny drop in the ocean compared to the huge resource in our communities in which CE was valuable.
I ask the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to consider new legislation on the social economy so we can recognise the very valuable community leadership and work that has been done for the past two decades by people across the country. Will they consider mainstreaming it and make it a part of our national life?