The community employment, CE, programme is invaluable. Workers gain experience and develop skills. Communities gain from the work and society gains from the programme. In west Cork, CE workers are vital. Without them, many rural services and organisations would close.
Skibbereen Education and Environment Project recently shared with me a selection of the roles CE workers fill. There is the care and repair service, set up with support from one of my predecessors, former Deputy Jim Daly, which carries out small repairs to keep elderly and vulnerable people in their own homes and is staffed entirely by CE workers. Support staff in Lisheens House, a suicide awareness and counselling charity, are CE workers. Community halls, Tidy Towns committees, sports clubs, and charity shops have all gained substantially from this programme. It is the type of Government policy we need. Community employment is targeted at the needs of people and communities and meets our shortfalls in local services. Every Deputy in the House knows its value and supports it.
There are three issues that projects and sponsors have highlighted to me. The first is the situation regarding workers aged over 55. Rural areas have proportionately more older unemployed people. Rural and coastal communities need the CE scheme to recognise this reality. Prior to 2017, workers could remain on the scheme for up to five or six years depending on their circumstances. However, the previous Government greatly reduced this period and community employment schemes generally last one year now, with the possibility of an extension if the participant is working towards an award. This is beyond frustrating for workers and sponsoring services. Individuals doing good work and helping their community have to leave their role because the Department changed the conditions. They are forced to leave the programme, are made unemployed and the vacant role is not filled. I do not know where the joined-up thinking is in this.
The second issue raised with me is that projects and sponsors are calling for the qualifying period of unemployment to be reduced from 12 months to six months. This would enable a whole cohort of people to participate in the programme, upskill and actively contribute to their communities. I do not know what sense there is in making people spend an additional six months unemployed rather than giving them the opportunity and dignity of taking up meaningful work. This issue is even more relevant during the pandemic, when employment prospects are bleak. The people affected and all communities need the Government to respond pragmatically by allowing people to access this excellent programme earlier.
The third and most urgent point, to which I ask the Minister of State to give priority, is the clear need for a further extension of contracts for community employment workers. While I welcome the extension the Minister of State announced during the week, it was only until 2 July. Over the past year, sponsors and projects have not been able to recruit and retain effectively. Training, which is a requirement of the programme and part of the contract, has not been adequately delivered, particularly during the pandemic. It is only fair that all existing contracts be extended well past July. The Department has acknowledged that an extension is needed; it just needs to follow that through to its logical conclusion.
There is precedent for this. On the islands, an exception is made for lifelong learning due to the restrictions caused by living on an island. Those same restrictions are apparent in many rural areas as well. These roles cannot be filled, particularly in a pandemic. For example, social welfare officers would normally look for new people to fill community employment roles after 12 months. However, these officers are in desk work now so the roles are not being replaced. Leaving vacant roles such as those I highlighted will have a detrimental effect on communities, even more so in a pandemic. If community employment positions in west Cork are not extended very soon, the number of CE workers will fall from 30 to 11, which could cause the service to be discontinued. We would then lose services we desperately need, especially at the moment.
Skibbereen Education and Environment Project and other organisations have asked me to bring these matters to the Minister of State’s intention to help preserve their schemes and the service they provide. What answers can I give them?