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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 20 May 2003

Vol. 567 No. 1

Adjournment Debate. - Community Employment Schemes.

I have offered to share time with Deputy Crowe. I do not see him in the House, but I hope I will be able to do so should he appear.

I raise this issue on what has been a black day for my constituency, with the announcement of 120 job losses at Gallaher's, Tallaght. As public representatives, we understand the importance of job creation in our areas. What we need in our constituencies, and in south-west Tallaght in particular, is job creation. I acknowledge the presence of Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, in the House and I would appreciate if he would convey to the Minister my concern regarding CE schemes in my constituency.

Community employment schemes have served communities well. A number of organisations have benefited in critical ways from such schemes. I am a board member of the Tallaght Welfare Society. I was previously a board member of Get Tallaght Working and I have been involved in other organisations such as the Tallaght centre for the unemployed. We are receiving mixed messages about what is proposed in relation to CE schemes. Disadvantaged communities should, as a right, get as much discrimination towards their needs as is possible. One could make a political point on the needs of RAPID areas. Like other colleagues, I represent RAPID areas in Tallaght west, Killinarden, Brookfield, Jobstown and Fettercairn.

I ask the Minister of State to make a definite commitment during the debate on this issue to take care of RAPID areas in terms of CE schemes. It is important that he understand the need to provide clarity in respect of such schemes. I realise that these are operational matters for FÁS, but we are receiving mixed messages from that organisation. We are told that the cuts will not be as severe as we were led to believe. I understand that FÁS management met representatives of the Tallaght partnership in recent days. The message which came from that meeting was anything but positive. I need assurances from the Minister of State in that regard.

A number of organisations gathered under the auspices of the Tallaght centre for the unemployed on two separate Mondays in recent months. We had a long discussion, under the chairmanship of Senator O'Toole, during which the organisations made clear to us how difficult it is for them to manage those schemes. We need to continue to support these schemes as much as possible and we must ensure that the agency is instructed to look after disadvantaged communities. I hope the Minister of State can give me assurances in that regard.

I also hope he can give me a commitment to visit, at our invitation, Tallaght over the next couple of weeks to see for himself the good work being done there.

There is broad consensus across the political divide on this issue. A climate of fear exists in many estates in Tallaght. More than 100 people representing the different schemes attended the meeting to which Deputy O'Connor referred. People are worried. Ciscom, which has been responsible for the training of more than 8,500 people, will cease to exist because it depends on CE schemes for assistance in its training programme. That is but one example.

Many Deputies recalled the "wastelands" in an earlier debate. We have the facilities, but there is a danger they will close because there is no one to staff them. Community employment schemes are about upskilling people. Tallaght is an unemployment blackspot; it has the second highest rate of unemployment in Dublin. We cannot afford to lose 200 to 300 jobs as a result of cutbacks in the FÁS budget.

I appeal to the Minister of State to intervene in this matter. We are not seeking special treatment, but Tallaght is a disadvantaged community. We have sought a meeting between the Taoiseach and the various Deputies and Senators from the area. I hope the Taoiseach will facilitate such a meeting to discuss the fears and concerns of those involved.

The primary purpose of the community employment, CE, programme as an active labour market programme is to provide long-term unemployed persons with the necessary skills and confidence to take up employment in the open labour market. The programme is targeted at persons over 25 years of age and in receipt of certain welfare payments for a minimum of one year.

In accordance with the Government's decision in 1999 to restructure community employment, participation levels are gradually being reduced. This reflects 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. We consider the reduction in the level of CE places available over the past number of years warranted given the availability of employment opportunities and based on the evidence that community employment in its current form is not as effective as other measures in enhancing employability. The existence of large numbers of persons on community employment during a period of labour market shortages is not appropriate.

The average participation rate on the CE programme for 2003 is expected to be in the region of 22,000. Funding amounting to €274 million has been provided for this purpose. There were 24,991 participants on community employment at the end of 2002 and this number will reduce to a projected participation rate of 20,000 by end 2003. FÁS prioritises community employment projects according to the types of services provided, the value of the service to the community and the quality of the projects performance to date. Reductions in CE places are co-ordinated in order to minimise, as far as possible, any negative effects on groups and services most in need of the programme. Drugs task force activity and child care service provision are ring-fenced from any reductions and projects in RAPID areas are given priority.

Community employment places in the health sector, which includes personal assistant services, are being maintained at existing levels to ensure continuity of the delivery of these services. Projects outside of these priority areas will be approved by FÁS in an equitable, transparent and consistent manner, subject to the overall level of places and funding available.

The Government is very much aware of the important contribution that CE has made to the development of services for local communities over the years and the difficulties which now arise for sponsor organisations in the voluntary and community sector due to the reduction in the level of funding available for the programme. In this context, a cross-departmental group of senior officials has been asked to consider options for the future of community employment, taking account of the link with the provision of community services. The Departments of the Taoiseach, Finance, Social and Family Affairs and Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and FÁS are represented on the review group. FÁS is also undertaking an internal review of CE and the job initiative programme which is well advanced and should be finalised shortly.

In addition, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness mandated review of active labour market programmes is being progressed under the aegis of the standing committee on the labour market chaired by my Department. This committee includes representatives of the community pillar, employers and trade unions, as well as certain Government Departments and FÁS. A key element of the review of active labour market programmes will be towards reorienting these programmes in the future to focus on the needs of disadvantaged groups. The standing committee also hopes to conclude their deliberations by end of June 2003.

While CE was established as a scheme to progress the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups towards gainful employment, it has, for a variety of reasons, broadened its focus to include the development and resourcing of community services. This is the reality which must be addressed going forward. The outcome of the various reviews under way will inform the Government's consideration of options for the future delivery of community services and appropriate levels of community employment for the future.