Priority Questions

Community Employment Schemes

I understand the Ceann Comhairle has agreed to allow Deputy Sean Fleming take Question No. 109 and subsequent questions in place of Deputy Barry Cowen.

Barry Cowen

Question:

109Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm the findings of the reviews she commissioned in relation to community employment schemes; the schemes that have been earmarked for closure; the cuts in materials and training grants planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28166/12]

Barry Cowen

Question:

110-Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will confirm the findings of the reviews she commissioned in relation to community employment schemes; the schemes that have been earmarked for closure; the cuts in materials and training grants planned; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 109 and 110 together.

The budget for expenditure on community employment, CE, schemes in 2012 is €315 million in respect of 23,300 places, including approximately 1,400 supervisors. Responsibility for community employment schemes transferred to the Department of Social Protection with effect from 1 January 2012. Since this transfer Department of Social Protection staff, including former FÁS staff, 700 of whom are now integrated into the Department since 1 January, have been involved in a series of detailed discussions with CE sponsors. These discussions have shown that while notionally focussed on activation, in reality community employment programmes deliver a range of services from child care, health care, drugs support to environmental works.

The financial review of community employment schemes is near completion. This review has proved to be a valuable exercise for the schemes and the Department. Given the volume and breath of the data being returned and the requirement for staff to engage with each scheme, of which there are almost 1,000, the review has taken longer than originally envisaged to complete. The outcomes of the reviews will be communicated directly to CE sponsoring organisations by staff in the Department as soon as they are finalised and the overall provision has been agreed by Government. It should be possible to do that this month.

Owing to current economic circumstances, the Government had to find significant savings in the budget for 2012. However, the allowance grants for CE supervisors are unchanged, as are the working hours for staff employed under CE. There will also be no decrease in the number of CE places allocated in 2012. While no final allocation of materials and training grants has been made pending completion of the financial review, the existing commitment in relation to the financial support of schemes will continue to apply. No schemes have been earmarked for closure. The Government is committed to supporting the CE participants and the sponsors in continuing the valuable contribution the programme makes to individuals and communities.

The Minister's reply to these questions is seriously deficient in that it does not answer our question in regard to when the reviews will be completed, one of which, the value for money review, was to be completed by end March. I understand there is to be a third review, which will be a combination of the two earlier reviews. The Minister stated that the review is taking longer than expected. There were 1,000 schemes in place prior to commencement of the review and 1,000 will remain in place when it is completed. I do not understand the reason it was not possible to determine how long the review would take.

The Minister stated that she hopes to communicate by the end of this month with each of the sponsoring committees on how they are to continue and in relation to the materials and training grants situation. This could lead to further delay. By way of example, I would like to read a letter which I received yesterday from Mr. Michael Nestor, who is involved in a community employment scheme and deals with Offaly Personal Assistant Services Limited on this issue. He states no decision has been made on how its funding will continue. The company was told it would know by the end of April but it has not yet received any information despite a meeting having taken place between FÁS regional managers and the Department. Offaly Personal Assistant Services Limited provides services to people with physical and sensory disabilities. These people are the leaders while those participating in the scheme are the personal assistants.

A question please Deputy.

These personal assistants have a progression rate of 91%. At present 24 personal assistants are being trained to FETAC level 5. Will the Department of Social Protection or the Department of Education and Skills be responsible for this training? Will the Minister give a commitment to schemes throughout the country providing FETAC level 5 training and with good progression rates that their training budgets will remain intact?

With regard to the final point on training, when the scheme was transferred to the Department the allocation for training from the national training fund was €4.2 million, which was approximately €190 per participant per scheme, and this funding is included in the budget allocation I mentioned earlier. To be clear, the terms of the review were to examine the income and funding of sponsoring organisations in terms of their ability to continue the programme with reduced funding from the Department of Social Protection. Community and voluntary sponsoring organisations receive funding from a multiplicity of State agencies. Deputies familiar with community employment schemes will know that in some cases, perhaps in the case of the scheme in Offaly which assists people with a disability, they may also be in receipt of other funding, for instance from the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills or educational bodies. This is part of the reason that collecting this enormous body of data on community employment has been so difficult and so demanding. I thank all of the community employment schemes which, for the most part, have been extremely co-operative and helpful in providing data. It came from a slow start, to be honest, which is one of the reasons it has been difficult to get a full picture.

I am very conscious of what happened previously, which was that many of the reports published on community employment were not flattering to it but they did not tend to address the issue of services provided. I was anxious that when community employment came under the remit of the Department of Social Protection the issue of the delivery of service and its importance and significance to local communities throughout the country would be taken into account.

I note the Minister stated the report is not finalised but some work has been done by the Department with regard to meeting some of those who will be affected. Therefore at the very least the Minister has a draft in front of her. The Minister stated the review was a valuable exercise but for some schemes it was not because the outcomes and changes being implemented do not seem to have been reversed, such as the financial implications of some of the cuts to child care schemes in particular. Some of these schemes have been greatly affected and a number are seriously considering whether they can re-open in September. On top of this are the changes with regard to terms and length of time of community employment placements. With regard to child care schemes, a number of people have been refused a third year of training. It is illogical that the State would invest in their training only to cut it off midstream. Will the Minister re-examine this issue in particular? It is illogical to have people on level 4 or 5 in terms of child care when the new standard is level 6. Away from this debate the Minister has also committed to providing a first class child care service. That would be one change.

The Minister said the review would not result in immediate closures. However, some CE schemes have closed because of the cuts, including the Smithfield Centre for Independent Living. As I have mentioned, a number of child care facilities are seriously concerned as to whether they will be able to continue, including Casper on the north side, Treasure Tots in Ballyfermot and one in Poppintree. Representatives of other child care facilities have also contacted me. Can the Minister give a commitment that the report will be finalised and published, and that there will be some type of stability for such facilities in future?

Late last week I received drafts of the report, which I have been reviewing in great detail. I wish to clarify a matter on specialist areas of CE. Some 1,000 places are ring-fenced for rehabilitation purposes; 2,200 places are ring-fenced for child care provision; and 2,800 places are marked off for health and social-care provision. They are commitments in those very important areas. The issue of the child care courses is being specifically examined by officials in my Department as part of the overall review of CE. I agree with the Deputy that the provision of child care and appropriate training and education for child care have been very important, both in terms of community services and in terms of the progression of the individual through the acquisition of appropriate qualifications in child care and social care. That is very much part of the review.

One of the reasons the review has been so challenging and has taken so long is that there are almost 1,000 schemes. There are many different types of CE schemes, some of which deliver services to GAA and other sports clubs where there might not be a requirement for a great deal of education, training and progression. In other cases such as child care, there would be such requirements. For example, the drug programmes relate largely to the rehabilitation of the individuals who take part in those programmes. There are probably ten or 12 different broad types of CE schemes.

One of the important outcomes of the review has been the identification - we discussed it in the House previously - of very serious savings that could be made in areas such as administration in respect of insurance charges, and audit and accountancy charges. In the case of a number of CE schemes, it is also clear that rental savings may be possible. In the case of some schemes, premises are being rented in some cases at what one might call Celtic tiger prices. Some schemes have entered into legal obligations and commitments.

No two schemes are exactly the same which is one of the reasons the review has taken so long. I am very happy that the schemes have offered a very high level of co-operation and information to staff in my Department. I am confident that with the information we have got we will be able to retain the level of service delivery and also provide for a much better structure of experience and progression for the individuals who participate in the schemes.

Carer’s Allowance

Seamus Healy

Question:

111Deputy Seamus Healy asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will address the position regarding the processing of carer’s allowance applications particularly the delays in deciding on applications, now averaging over 32 weeks, and the rule whereby a new application must be made when a carer cannot continue and a new family member takes on the caring role; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28361/12]

The Department is committed to delivering the best possible service to its customers. The average time taken to award a carer's allowance application is 28 weeks at present. This is not a satisfactory position.

A major service delivery modernisation project is under way to improve the efficiency of administration of the carer's allowance scheme. This involves the deployment of information technology solutions and associated business process re-organisation. It is anticipated that the new system will introduce significant processing efficiencies and a quicker and more responsive service to the customer. However, full deployment for carer's allowance will be achieved by mid-June, so it will be a number of months before the backlog is reduced to an acceptable level.

In addition to the deployment of new systems, the Department is allocating additional resources in the form of overtime working and temporary staff to help reduce backlogs that have built up. I understand that Deputies are concerned about delays in deciding applications. Indeed, the high volume of queries from Deputies has, to a degree, added to the problems. Before the end of the year I hope to have a dedicated published telephone line for Deputies' inquiries. As Members will be aware, that applies in respect of other areas of social welfare. However, we must get the new system up and running, deal with the backlog and then I hope to be in a position to implement, by the end of the year, a dedicated telephone inquiry line.

Entitlement to carer's allowance is based on the individual satisfying means, residency, full-time care provision and medical suitability criteria. Consequently, one family member having had an entitlement to carer's allowance does not automatically confer an entitlement on another family member. In all such cases an application must be made by the carer in accordance with the requirements of the scheme.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

Each application for carer's allowance is considered on its merits in accordance with the relevant legislation. The decision is based upon the information and medical evidence provided by the applicant. The staffing levels and other resources available to the Department are regularly reviewed with a view to ensuring claims are processed as quickly as possible. I acknowledge that the time taken to process carer's allowance claims at present is not satisfactory but I am satisfied that the Department is taking action to resolve the situation.

The reason I raise this issue, and it is a concern for all Deputies, is the fact that there is an average waiting period of far longer than 28 weeks - it is probably 32 or 34 weeks - for decisions on carer's allowance. Increasingly, my office has found, and I am sure it is the case for other Deputies, that some people have passed away in the course of the application process. That is a very unfair and traumatic situation for families. There was another such occurrence last Friday. It is happening on a regular basis. Can the Minister give a time scale for clearing this huge backlog? With regard to family members, I accept that the new family member or carer will have to be assessed. Currently, however, not only is the new family member being assessed, but also the person being cared for is medically assessed again. In many cases these are people in their late 70s, 80s and 90s. Most, if not all, of these people are certainly not improving in health.

For the information of the Deputy, the Department of Social Protection has done this successfully in respect of other schemes, such as pensions. Deputies might recall that a couple of years ago quite a delay period built up with pension applications. New processes were put in place and now, provided people apply a little in advance of the birthday when they become eligible for the pension, the system works very well by and large. What we are doing now is screening applications relating to carers when they are received. In the course of being screened they must also be validated. Once the information has been entered into the system, we will have a computerised record of the application instead of having a paper file, which obviously will include information on the person being cared for. However, it will take until the middle of this month before everyone is included after which there will be a time during which we will work on the backlog. I understand this is of great concern to Members' constituents who have made an application.

I also should note the enormous increase in the number of applications and that the Department has taken on temporary staff. Some applications can be quite complicated as there may be issues concerning people's residency or where they are from. There has been a huge increase in the number of applications and the number of those who are in receipt of both the full carer's allowance and the half-rate carer's allowance, which has, as the Deputy will be aware, risen significantly.

Can the Minister provide a timescale as to when the backlog will be cleared? Is it a case of one, three or six months? Would it not be possible to prioritise some applications? I refer, for instance, to applications in which the person being cared for is terminally ill or is in receipt of palliative care. Could an exceptional process be put in place for such applications because they obviously are the most tight?

The timescale for having the data in place for the new system is the middle of June and this is broadly on time at present. The Deputy should recall the Department also is introducing the system for invalidity pensions and disability allowance. This is quite an ambitious target of schemes that are migrating to the new system and I hope to have made significant progress in respect of carers by mid to late September, once the migration process has been achieved. I also will take into account Deputy Healy's suggestion regarding the prioritisation of some urgent applications in which the timespan may be extremely tight, given the illness or whatever of the person being cared for. Deputy Healy made a fair point.

Rent Supplement Scheme

Barry Cowen

Question:

112Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of changes to the rent supplement scheme; the number of tenants who have had to move accommodation as a result of the changes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [28167/12]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

113Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Social Protection the total number of rent supplement claimants; the number to whom the new limits now apply and within that the number who were existing claimants prior to 1 January; her views on the increasing number of claimants who are struggling to convince their landlords to accept the lower payment and or who cannot find alternative appropriate accommodation at the lower rent limit;and if she will deal directly with landlords in these situations. [28165/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 113 and 112 together.

There are currently approximately 93,800 persons in receipt of rent supplement, for which the Government has provided €436 million for 2012. New maximum rent limits were introduced from 1 January 2012, following analysis of the most up-to-date market data available. The emphasis of the rent limit review was to ensure that maximum value for money for tenants and the taxpayer was achieved, while at the same time ensuring that people on rent supplement are not priced out of the market for private rented accommodation. The revised rent limits are applicable to new rent supplement tenancies from January 2012 and existing tenancies on review. Approximately 21,300 claims have been awarded in 2012, indicating that it is possible to secure accommodation within the revised limits. There were 96,800 persons in receipt of rent supplement at the end of 2011.

Where rents are in excess of the limit, customers are being asked to contact their landlord and renegotiate the rent. Where landlords do not agree to reduce the rent within the limits, staff will discuss the options open to the tenant, including seeking alternative accommodation. Information on the numbers who have secured alternative accommodation is not available. The Department does not intend to negotiate directly with landlords to reduce rents on behalf of a tenant. Department officials dealing with rent supplement tenants will continue to ensure their accommodation needs are met and that there will be no incidence of homelessness due to these changes.

While I understand where the Minister is coming from in this regard, the people who she should be looking after are the meat in the sandwich between private landlords and the community welfare officers. I do not believe there is a Member of this House who has not had people in his or her constituency clinic reporting they received a letter from the community welfare office telling them to go back to their landlord and ask for reduced rates. The Minister has just confirmed this. It is distressing that she does not have numbers in regard to how successful these renegotiations were. She cannot state this has not led to homelessness because she does not know that, yet she included that platitude at the end. We have all come across cases of people on rental supplement, with very little income and bargaining power, who, in many cases, when the community welfare officer tells them they must get a cheaper place while the landlord tells them he or she will not reduce the rent, have had to leave and try to find new accommodation. It may be at a cheaper price but what happens in the meantime? That is the issue with which I have a problem. When people change their address they are no longer eligible to be on the local authority social housing list, must provide details of their new address and be assessed in terms of this accommodation and whosoever else might be living at the new address, all of which can take a considerable time. We know how complicated the form is for getting onto the social housing list. Many community welfare officers are not paying rental supplement in the intervening period because the people are not on the social housing list to begin with.

The Minister might offer an observation on having the rental supplement dealt with by the housing department in the local authority which would bring a joined-up approach to the issue.

As stated in the programme for Government, in the Government's commitments and as I have stated in the House, the aim and objective is to transfer rent supplement to the local authorities which are expert on housing and have housing departments. The difficulty in regard to community welfare officers or the community welfare service, as it is now known in the Department, is that the community welfare service officer is dealing with the individual, not the landlord, whereas the local authority has the power and the capacity to deal with both the individual on a housing list and the landlord who is providing accommodation. There is an interdepartmental working group between my Department and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, addressing the various complex issues involved. I hope for something like the RAS scheme, whereby the local authorities rent the property for a number of years and the individual is much freer to work. The problem with rent supplement is that there is an inherent employment or poverty trap involved.

I refer to the issue of negotiations with landlords. We have data we collected from around the country on an exhaustive basis, from all the different available sources. They indicated clearly that in some cases the Department of Social Protection, which is responsible for approximately 40% of rented properties in the country, was paying over the odds for rented accommodation. My situation is that, along with every Minister, I am required to find savings and get value for money. When one looks at availability of accommodation in various parts of the country and considers the kinds of falls in property values - this does not apply everywhere, obviously - it is surprising that rents have not reflected such falls to some degree. It is important that the Department gets value for money.

I am opposed to State subsidisation of landlords. This is a reality, however, and is due to the lack of investment in social housing over decades since the State was founded. The Minister stated she is required to make savings and we accept that. However, the main problem, which I hope she will accept as such, is that she has passed the onus to negotiate with landlords to tenants, who are often very vulnerable, rather than to the Department or the community welfare officers who negotiate with the tenants. I wonder whether the Minister is aware that in many cases, the arbitrary figures that were implemented recently have led to tenants further impoverishing themselves by making under-the-counter payments, in addition to the payments they were already involved in, to ensure they can stay in the places where they have put down roots. I will give an example. I recently dealt with the case of a woman who has three school-going children and was living near her mother in Leopardstown. When her lease was due for renewal, the rental prices in that area were nowhere near what the community welfare officer was willing to pay. The nearest place where she could go was well out of the locality when she can avail of the family support, etc., that she requires. One of the consequences of this change is that it is forcing people to move their children from one school to another. I hope the Minister will accept the point I am making. Has she discussed with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government the possibility of using vacant NAMA properties to accommodate the rental accommodation scheme, as has been suggested? Specifically, I would like such properties to be categorised as social housing. That would be a much quicker way of reducing the rent supplement bill than passing people between the rental accommodation and rent supplement schemes.

I understand discussions are ongoing between NAMA and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on the question of procuring appropriate property which may be available to NAMA and would be suitable for social housing. The difficulty is that in many cases the available property is not in a place like Leopardstown, where Deputy Ó Snodaigh's constituent wanted to stay. As a consequence of the way property was developed around the State, it is more likely to be found in a place like the upper Shannon area.

There are many empty properties in Leopardstown and right across Dublin.

That is being worked on at the moment. It is really a matter for the local authorities. The Department of Social Protection makes rent supplement payments and allows tenants to source properties. We are not directly engaged in the property market. That is why I reminded Deputy Fleming of our clear policy preference, which is for the rent supplement scheme ultimately to be transferred to local authorities. In 2000, approximately 42,000 people were receiving rent supplement payments, at an annual cost of €150 million. At present, approximately 93,000 people are receiving rent supplement payments, at an annual cost of €433 million or just under €0.5 billion. It is clear that we are spending a vast amount of taxpayers' money on resourcing the rent supplement scheme. I would prefer us to reach an holistic solution, whereby local authority housing departments become much more heavily involved than at present in finding solutions for people who are looking for accommodation. Although the rental accommodation scheme has been in existence for a considerable period, we are nowhere near having the amount of people that I would like on that scheme in different areas. I would also prefer if people who are in a local authority tenancy arrangement of some kind were not inhibited from taking up employment, as they are in the case of the rent supplement scheme. If such a person in the Dublin area who has a spouse and children takes up employment, he or she runs the risk of losing up to €1,000 a month in rent supplement. It is very hard to get one's foot into the employment market if one is facing such an immediate loss.