I thank the committee for inviting us to attend. We very much appreciate the opportunity. As members may know, Irish Rural Link is 25 years old this year. Our membership mainly comprises community group members. They are from some 1,200 community groups all across rural Ireland, from Donegal to Kerry. Our main aim can be translated into sustaining rural communities. That is basically what we are in favour of. We are particularly aware of disadvantage in rural areas, be it social or economic. That is our reason for existence as a voluntary organisation.
We completed a report, Poverty and Social Inclusion, in which Ms Louise Lennon was very much involved.
It is a report on the realities in the past two or three years in rural Ireland and quite factual. We are indebted to work done by Social Justice Ireland and Teagasc. Thia Hennessy's work is seminal. The report states in a very careful way that the recession has affected rural areas in a major way. As that is not news to Members of the Houses, it is not a surprise. The warning in our recently published report was that if we did not arrest the decline, for many families, there was a danger we would return straight to 1990s poverty levels.
I will go through some of the headings to give the committee a picture, as it asked me to do at the beginning. There are some things we welcome. I will start with the issue of farm poverty and the farm assist scheme. According to figures compiled by Teagasc, average income for farm households is approximately €26,000. The average industrial wage is €37,000, of which average farm household income falls far short. The matter is complicated by the fact that previously, as is the European norm, many smallholders would have had jobs on building sites or part-time jobs in the local area. Unfortunately, many of these jobs have disappeared and the reason the findings suggest these families are moving towards poverty levels is they do not have access to such jobs. We have made some recommendations in that respect. There are a couple of items that could help, apart from the rural development programme which is in place but which might not always affect the smallholder. The farm assist means test which was widened a little in the last budget, which we welcomed, is the most critical and strict across the social welfare system. There is a reason for this. It includes assets because if a person has assets worth X amount, why should he or she receive social welfare payments? However, being asset rich and cash poor causes many problems.
Those participating in the farm assist scheme have other problems, health and otherwise, with which they cannot deal. We strongly suggest what was done in the budget, which we welcomed, be looked at and that the farm assist scheme be completely reviewed to reflect the realities of the day. Sometimes a person is assessed based on last year's income. That is an issue because the problems have arisen this year, but he or she cannot be assessed on that basis. It is not a matter of making it easier for people to fool the system and obtain money they do not deserve. Many of those participating in the farm assist scheme - the number is approximately 8,000 but it should be 20,000 - are in that position because they are at the very bottom level. We are seeking a complete review of the scheme to reflect the realities for them.
We welcome the rural social scheme, for which the former Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, was very much responsible. The waiting list is approximately 2,500. An extra 500 places were added this year, which we welcome, but there is huge demand. Both schemes could strongly improve the normal daily reality for approximately 20,000 farm households at that level.
As Irish Rural Link is very much involved in the wider rural agenda, I will discuss the issue of rural transport next. The community rural transport scheme haas been the backbone of the lives of people, especially older people, in communities. In the early days it was a method to bring people out of confinement in their homes. The matter has been reviewed in the past few years and the number of transport groups reduced from 37 to 20, although there is a question about the 20 figure as it is either 19 or 20, depending on how one looks at one of the regions. The budget has been increased this year from €9 million to €11 million. It was supposed to be €18 million in the good old days when we were discussing what it should be in 2016. Again, it is a social inclusion programme which is now run by the National Transport Authority which, to be clear, is very reputable and doing a good job. However, the challenge is how to manage a social inclusion project under a very strict transport programme.
This is no reflection on the National Transport Authority, but I will give an example in making our argument. Let us say a bus travels up the mountain and elsewhere or that there is a car system in place. There are various systems which could be used. Let us say John catches the bus every morning but one day he is not there when he is expected to be. He never fails to turn up. Previously, when there were fewer restrictions, the driver would simply have driven down to his house to find out what was happening and whether he was awake and so forth. Unfortunately, in some cases, drivers found somebody such as John in a situation where he required immediate care. That was an example of the great flexibility of the scheme and it is the reason it is called a social inclusion programme. It was not necessarily about providing rural transport in the macro sense, but the scheme was in place to deliver a service. Let us remember that a large proportion of older people - their proportion is growing - are now living alone or are part of couples whose children have left. That is the reality. If someone is living in the middle of nowhere and something happens during the night to affect his or her health and nobody comes for days, that is an issue. We ask the committee to examine the rural transport scheme in the context of widening the social inclusion part of it in order that operators would have more flexibility to reach people who need assistance. It is a vital service.
Again, I refer to Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív. We would like to revisit the possibility of an evening service being provided. Publicans are suffering because of the drink driving laws which, fair enough, should be in place. Most of the people killed on rural roads are people living in rural areas; therefore, we do not disagree with that policy. However, we believe the possibility of providing an evening rural transport service must be re-examined. We could build on previous experience.
On job creation, I wish to mention Mr. Noel Kinahan who is in the Visitors Gallery for his work on public banking services. Jobs have been delivered jobs in rural Ireland under the regional jobs strategy. We are not critical of it, but we wish to make a few points. The jobs tend to be at lower income levels and, in some cases, people are paid less than the living wage. Members of the committee will be familiar with the position in rural towns and villages which are still struggling. We welcome the unemployment figures announced this morning. Nonetheless, the rate of unemployment in the broad midlands area and out towards the west is still around 10.5%. The national average has dropped to 7.5%, which is what we will hear all day, but before the results were announced this morning the gap between rural regions and the national average was approximately two points. It must be tackled. It is welcome that the rate is down to 10%, but one can already see the gap widening.
In addition, the jobs created are not better paid. We know from our figures that graduates or other qualified individuals still depend on jobs created in Dublin. They are not emigrating, which is good, but they are still leaving their homes each morning. I was on a train this morning and the number of young guys in their craft uniforms or overalls was enormous. Apparently, we do not need plasterers and plumbers in rural Ireland. The building and other industries have not taken off. Clearly, there is a big challenge in returning to the creation of that type of employment in rural areas.
Its return would bring people back to rural areas and would attract more services, which are suffering because of the lack of people with earning capacity in these areas.
On the question of public banking, this day last week we launched a very public campaign on local public banking. I do not have time to speak at length about the campaign, on which we have been working for two years. As I said last week, we have presented a proposal that is set out in the documentation. Maybe the committee will come up with a better proposal. As far as we are concerned, this is the best proposal on the desk at the moment. Local public banking is the third largest banking sector in Germany. The SME sector was the only sector that survived the crash in Germany pretty much unscathed. It survived because its banking was done through local public banks. A typical example would be a regional bank covering a population of between 220,000 and 250,000. The money is circulated in the region. It is a bit simplistic to call it a super-credit union, but it is a bit like that in a whole lot of other ways. As the Chairman knows, we have been working with the credit unions, An Post and other bodies. We have enjoyed cross-party support. We have spoken to all the parties and we will continue to do so. We really want the committee to look at this example. I ask the committee to remember the reality that most employment in rural areas is created by SMEs. Our report tells us that there has been an 8% decline in that arena. This shows that there is a need for a banking system that looks at the SME sector. The experts on our team are not the only people who are saying this. It is also being said by people from Trinity College and DCU and people involved in the Sparkasse model. We ask the committee to consider this.
I would like to mention some other issues. Irish Rural Link now has a major network that it calls the meals on wheels network. At the most recent count, approximately 500 individuals were involved in the delivery of meals on wheels, mainly on a voluntary basis. They do a lot more than that, but they are being stymied by regulation. I know I am running out of time. I will try to finish after giving one example. A woman decided out of the goodness of her heart - she thought it was the right thing to do - to cook a meal and deliver it to a person living two miles away who was recovering after getting home from hospital, only to be suddenly told by someone implementing a regulation that a label should have been put on the meal. That has actually happened. A woman in Castlebar was able to give us that real example. It is fine if the committee wants to have regulation, but it must understand that the delivery of meals on wheels and the provision of other services to our growing number of older people needs to be regularised properly. We have made a proposal in that regard. The social care managers within the new HSE health board configurations could organise that, but they need a mandate from this committee or elsewhere in the Oireachtas to do so. The issue of fuel poverty is covered in the documentation that has been furnished to the committee.