Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.

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?

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 where they can develop their skills and obtain a recent track record of work experience. CE was established in the mid-1990s at a time of high unemployment and, at its height, there were some 40,000 participants on the programme. There has been a dramatic transformation in the economy since then. At the end of 1997 there were 39,130 on the CE programme or one place for every 2.3 long-term unemployed persons. By the end of 2001, there were 30,809 on CE or one place for every 0.7 persons.

We are currently restructuring CE in line with the Government decision in 1999 to take account of falling unemployment levels and to better target available places at older, long-term unem ployed persons. As part of this process, and in consultation with the social partners, a decision was taken to gradually reduce the numbers employed on CE 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 long-term unemployed people, and other supports such as the social economy programme and the new high supports process, which I hope will be launched in the near future. Overall, the numbers engaged in training and CE have increased since 1997 from 72,500 to a target participation rate of 74,000 in 2002.

It is important to note that FÁS prioritises projects according to the types of services provided and levels of unemployment in the locality and will co-ordinate reductions so as to minimise the negative effects on groups and services most in need of CE. Priority groups include the drugs task forces, child care service provision and designated disadvantaged areas covered by the new RAPID programme and BMW regions. The mainstreaming of schools services currently under way and the proposed mainstreaming of other essential services, including the health and environmental sectors, will further reduce the numbers employed on the programme.

In the context of CE, "mainstreaming" 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. The mainstreaming initiative recognises that certain key support services, such as in the education and health areas, can best be provided through the Government Department with functional responsibility in the relevant area.

There is now greater flexibility in the operation of community employment following the introduction of new guidelines in August 2001. FÁS now has discretion to extend, on a case-by-case basis, an individual's term on CE, having regard to that individual's personal development needs and future employment prospects. Participants are considered for the extension under the new arrangements if, on reaching the end of their normal entitlements on CE, they are likely to experience difficulty in getting employment.

A number of CE participants have difficulty progressing to open labour market employment due to their age, literacy or numeracy problems or a lack of suitable jobs available locally. For such participants FÁS now has discretion to offer a further period on the programme on a case-by-case basis. In general, approximately 20% of participants on CE may benefit from an additional year on the programme under the new flexibility guidelines. In addition, the social economy programme is available to support the development of social economy enterprises that will benefit the economic and social regeneration of communities.

Local social economy working groups have been established in the 38 designated disadvantaged partnership areas and in 16 non-partnership areas. In this way the social economy is targeted at areas which traditionally have had high dependence on services provided under CE.

The number of persons available to participate in CE has reduced in the last few years, partially due to the success of CE and similar reintegration programmes. The current tight labour market conditions, together with the dramatic reductions in the numbers of long-term unemployed, provide an unprecedented opportunity to re-integrate into the workforce persons who have been participating in labour market programmes. FÁS employment services continue to be available to assist such persons who have completed their term on CE and are now ready to progress to work in the open labour market. In this context it is worth noting that the continuing strong demand for work permits for low-skilled positions would suggest that persons finishing their contractual term on CE are facing a buoyant labour market.

A review of active labour market programmes, as provided for under the PPF, has recently commenced under the aegis of the standing committee on the labour market, which is chaired by my Department. This committee includes representatives of the community pillar, employers and trade unions, as well as other Government Departments and FÁS. Consultants have recently been appointed by my Department to facilitate a rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of existing programmes, which will help to inform the deliberations of the standing committee. Terms of reference for the consultants' work were agreed by a steering group representing the standing committee, which includes the social partners.

FÁS is undertaking its own internal review of CE, which should further inform the prioritising of activity therein, taking account of the needs of disadvantaged groups and the provision of services to areas experiencing severe social and economic disadvantage. In addition, FÁS also intends to carry out a fundamental review of the community training programme in consultation with sponsors, participants, employers and relevant Government Departments. The future policy direction of active labour market programmes, including CE, will be informed by the outcome of these processes.