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Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands debate -
Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Tús Initiative and the Rural Social Scheme: Discussion

Apologies have been received from Deputy Flanagan. I ask witnesses and members to please turn off their mobile phones. Before we commence, I remind members participating remotely that they must do so from within the precincts of Leinster House. This meeting has been convened to discuss the State-funded programmes Tús and the rural social scheme, RSS, which are both administered by the Department of Social Protection in conjunction with the Department of Rural and Community Development, under the leadership of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys. I thank members of the joint committee for raising these important State schemes as a priority in our work programme, particularly Deputy Kerrane. I thank her for assisting the committee secretariat in organising today's meeting.

Tús is a community work placement programme providing short-term working opportunities for unemployed people. The rural social scheme is aimed at low-income farmers and fishermen and fisherwomen, especially in rural Ireland. The benefits of both schemes for participants include stable income, better mental health and well-being, and the promotion of safer working practices, while also providing multiple benefits in their local communities by supporting voluntary, sporting and community organisations to improve amenities and deliver vital local services. It should be noted that approximately 30% of Tús participants go on to full-time employment, with a further 30% progressing to further training or education schemes. The remaining 40% would benefit from the opportunity of an additional year on the Tús scheme to become job ready.

The rural social scheme, as I said, is aimed at low-income farmers and fishermen and fisherwomen. The scheme was launched by our colleague, member of this committee and then Minister, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, in May 2004. The objective of the scheme is to provide supplementary income to low-income farmers and fishermen who would be unable to make an adequate living otherwise. Not only does it provide a stable income, but, as I said, it has a big impact in terms of promoting better mental health and well-being. A key element of this particular scheme is that it is self referring. Thereby participants can have an active interest in developing and improving their local community.

The secretariat requested a detailed briefing note on both schemes from the Department for members, which has not been received. I have asked the clerk to write to the Department to express our disappointment, because this is unsatisfactory. The joint committee’s policy adviser has prepared an alternative and useful briefing document, which has been circulated. I thank Ms Haley O'Shea for her work.

As we continue in this regard, I very much welcome to our meeting from Tús, Ms Ellen Brennan and Mr. Martin Corcoran, co-ordinator and supervisor, respectively, of the Mayo north east LEADER programme. From SIPTU, I welcome Mr. Adrian Kane, division organiser of the public administration and community division; Mr. Clem Shevlin, industrial organiser; and Mr. Peter Glynn, sector organiser. From Galway Rural Development, I welcome Ms Liz Macdonald, joint chair of the RSS national committee and RSS supervisor; Mr. Sean Larkin, joint chair of the RSS national committee and RSS supervisor; and Mr. Sean Broderick, RSS and Tús co-ordinator. I welcome all of our witnesses.

In terms of privilege, witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or any other way to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if witnesses’ statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with this direction.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I call Mr. Adrian Kane of SIPTU to make his opening statement.

Mr. Adrian Kane

I was going to ask if Ms Macdonald could start, as her statement would give a broader background, followed by Ms Brennan and I could come in last, with the indulgence of the Chair.

That is fine. I call Ms Macdonald to give her opening statement.

Ms Liz Macdonald

I thank members for the opportunity to address the joint committee today. I wish to outline the rural social scheme and why it is so important to rural Ireland and draw members' attention to the challenges it faces.

The RSS is a unique programme that provides financial support to low-income farmers and fishermen to sustain a reasonable livelihood and in return, participants are engaged for 19.5 hours per week supporting a broad range of services to our rural communities. One of the benefits for participants is that it provides a stable income. With farming being a precarious business, a consistent weekly wage is invaluable to the small farmer. It also promotes better mental health and well-being. The increased social contact promotes a feeling of belonging and of making a difference. Participants share skills and resources. They forge deep friendships and knowledge of their communities. Indeed, this element was key to the RSS’s ability to provide a first responders approach to the problems presented by the Covid-19 crisis. It promotes safer working practices, making farms a safer place to live and work. Participants gain comprehensive health and safety training through programmes such as Safe Pass, manual handling and develop safe practices through ongoing risk assessments and toolbox talks.

There are also benefits to the local communities as the scheme provides a local workforce with a strong working ethos and extensive skill set. Farmers tend to be jacks of all trades and in many cases are masters of many. They possess a unique and integral knowledge of their built, natural and social environments, helping to provide solutions to local challenges.

The work carried out by the RSS is far reaching. It includes Tidy Towns projects, maintenance of community centres, sporting facilities, churches, cemeteries and meals on wheels. The range of projects supported also extends from research, cultural and heritage projects, such as graveyard mapping and historical book writing, to retail support and charity shops. Furthermore, the RSS plays a key role in promoting and preserving biodiversity through cultivating and maintaining parks, walkways and woodlands.

The scheme provides supports to the elderly and vulnerable. Extensive assistance is provided to social service centres and mental and physical health facilities, such as Ability West, the Brothers of Charity and Care and Repair, to name but a few. The RSS facilitates participants to build long-term relationships and trust with these vulnerable people. Supervisors also liaise extensively with district nurses and advanced nurse practitioners to establish the service that best fits. The RSS supports many other rural development programmes and projects. It would be difficult to find a project that has received funding from Government initiatives that has not relied on the RSS to maintain, sustain and thrive long after the initial investment.

I draw the committee's attention to the challenges faced by the RSS now and into the future. For many years, the RSS quota was not sufficient to meet the demand for places. However, due to the age profile of participants and the current policies governing the RSS, for the first time in 18 years we are struggling to fill quotas. Supervisors are already fielding complaints and feeling the strains and stresses of not being able to supply the services on which our communities depend.

The six-year rule was introduced in 2017, when the demand for places was greater than the number of places available. This rule means participants must leave after six years. Therefore, in 2023, many participants will be forced to leave the scheme. This rule fundamentally opposes the very purpose of the RSS and is nonsensical in the current environment, having negative effects on our communities. While rumour has it that the six-year rule is under review, it is causing enormous stress to participants who are effectively on notice that they will lose their jobs next year. We feel strongly this restriction should be abolished immediately.

Means testing is another barrier. Initially, when the RSS was set up, participants' spouses could have an off-farm income of €300 per week without affecting their payment. This has significantly changed, having adverse effects on the uptake of RSS positions. Many participants find, as their families grow, they have reduced means disregards and find themselves no longer eligible to participate. The onerous stringent means test levels need to be reviewed and recalibrated, particularly for long serving participants. Means testing should be carried out, on average, over a five-year period.

Consideration should be given to the precarious nature of farming, which has peaks and troughs whereby a good year can be negated by a bad year. The scheme is also not financially attractive to the 6,000 farmers in receipt of farm assist. We recommend an increase to the top-up payment from €22.50 to €50 per week, remembering that our participants are not receiving benefits but are working for these payments and offer a huge service to the local communities. Consideration could also be given to measures to widen the eligibility criteria, such as allowing the following to participate: farming nieces and nephews; carers under reduced working hours; isolated people with underlying health issues; rural dwellers with transport issues; and rurally isolated single parents.

We know there will be an imminent review of the RSS and we emphasise that RSS supervisors are key stakeholders in the RSS. They possess an in-depth knowledge of the operational and strategic potential of the scheme and are the glue that holds the scheme together. However, currently the supervisors are not included in any of these forums or the forthcoming review to discuss and seek solutions and improvements to the scheme. A representative of the RSS national committee should be included in any proposed reviews. There is also a need for an RSS representative on the Irish Local Development Network RSS-Tús committee.

I draw attention to the long-standing issue of RSS supervisors' employment terms. Mr. Adrian Kane of SIPTU will address the committee further on this matter. However, I would like to highlight that the success of the RSS and the reason it is held in such high regard is largely due to the input and nurturing of the RSS supervisors. It is an ever-changing role with many exceptional varied demands that range from project management, community liaison, social work, health and safety officers, manual handling trainers and many more, while supervisors maintain a positive and supportive manner for participants and communities to accomplish worthwhile projects.

Despite us consistently going the extra mile, for more than 18 years the Department of Social Protection has refused to engage meaningfully to address our punitive working contracts and bring them in line with other comparative jobs. There is an immediate need for the Department to re-establish the tripartite forum, as agreed in 2019, whereby we can collectively address our needs, which include an immediate 15% pay rise and implementation of a pay scale in line with comparative jobs in the same industry; the introduction of an occupational pension scheme; paid maternity leave; and the provision of a travel budget to cover the job requirements.

In last year’s Government publication, Our Rural Future, the policy reflects on the myriad of opportunities to revitalise our towns and villages. I hope members can see the RSS is a vital cog in achieving this vision and that we will receive their active support in order to address the issues I have outlined.

I thank Ms Macdonald. I call Ms Brennan from Mayo north east LEADER partnership to make her opening statement.

Ms Ellen Brennan

I thank members for their invitation to speak to the committee. They can probably tell from my accent that I am not from Mayo. I am from the Dublin south city partnership. I will not go over the same stuff Ms Macdonald spoke about, but I will outline what the Tús programme is, what Tús supervisors and co-ordinators do, how the roles have changed, and the impact on the community.

Tús was launched in 2010. It is a community employment activation scheme that provides short-term working opportunities for unemployed people. It is managed by 49 local development companies nationally for the Department of Social Protection, which has overall responsibility for the scheme.

To be eligible for the programme, candidates must have been on a jobseeker's payment for at least 12 months and be in receipt of jobseeker's allowance. They are referred from the social welfare offices or can self-refer. Up to 30% are allowed to self-refer. As with the RSS, Tús participants work 19.5 hours a week for 12 months. That is a difference between the schemes. There is a limit of a year with Tús, so we have quite a high turnover with that scheme.

Tús plays a key role in social inclusion in rural and urban settings. We support day centres for the elderly, childcare centres, sports centres, community halls, disability services, environmental groups, heritage services and social enterprises. We have roughly one to three participants in each community group. To give the example of Dublin South City Partnership, DSCP, which I work with, we have an allocation of 160 placements. We work with 80 local community organisations so we have a really wide reach. That means we are able to provide specific opportunities to the candidates. We are also able to respond quickly to changing needs in the community. We run directly projects such as care and repair. That is a free gardening and handyman service for the over-65s. We have about 300 regular clients. We fit safety rails and smoke alarms, set mousetraps and intervene in cases of hoarding, that is, do clear-outs. These older people do not really have anyone else to help them. They fall between the cracks. The model is working in supporting all these local community needs. The only thing that slows us down a bit is getting the referrals from the Department of Social Protection. We are ready and well placed to take more people; we just need candidates. Our placements are key in developing our clients' career progression. Approximately 30% of participants go on to full-time employment and another 30% go on to further training or schemes, but many of the remaining participants would benefit from one more year on Tús to become job-ready.

Now I will talk a little about our roles as supervisors and co-ordinators. We are responsible for supervising up to 25 participants each, following a recent increase in our quota. We must recruit the candidates and find the placements for them. We look after all the HR and administrative stuff, that is, payroll, Garda vetting, HR records and reporting to Pobal and the Department of Social Protection. On top of that, now that a lot of the service has gone online, we find ourselves helping clients to set up bank accounts, phone plans and Revenue accounts and to fill in social welfare applications. We are like a one-stop shop for providing all that information and support to remove any barriers to employment, so the role has evolved a lot.

Not many people know about what the co-ordinating supervisors do. Not only do we have all the same duties as the supervisors, that is, we look after 25 participants each and do all the HR stuff, but we also line-manage a team of supervisors. We are sometimes office managers because we have satellite offices apart from the partnership head offices. We look after data protection, budgets and strategic planning. It is essentially a programme management role. For that we get a top-up of only €5,000 a year. Essentially, the model is working well the way it was set up, but the resources are a bit stretched. There are a few things that need to be looked at in that regard. Furthermore, our terms and conditions are totally different from those of the other partnership staff. We work alongside other community programmes such as the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, and the ability programme. I went on maternity leave two years ago, as did two of my colleagues at the same time. They were paid; I was not. I had to go on State maternity pay. It was quite unfair and a bit of a kick in the face. We do the job, however, because we love it and believe in the programme. There are just a few things that need to be looked at to make it more sustainable and more attractive and to retain the supervisors who know the field well.

Thank you, Ms Brennan. I apologise for sending you down to Mayo but I know that the people of Mayo would love more migrants from Dublin, particularly those who can play a bit of football.

I now call on Mr. Adrian Kane from SIPTU to make an opening statement.

Mr. Adrian Kane

Thank you, Chair, for the invitation and the opportunity to address the committee. SIPTU represents the 400-plus supervisors who work in Tús and the RSS. As the committee has heard and will be aware, our members provide an invaluable service to local communities to ensure an effective and professional approach to community employment and social inclusion. In our written submission we have given an overview of the current services and the necessary structural changes which we believe would greatly enhance the services. These issues have already been addressed by Ms Macdonald and Ms Brennan in their opening statements. In my opening statement I will concentrate on the industrial relations framework, or lack thereof, and outline some of the most pressing issues with which we believe the committee may be in a position to offer us some assistance.

As for the industrial relations framework, our members employed as Tús and RSS supervisors suffer the same fate, unfortunately, as most workers employed across the community sector. They are employees of private companies, typically partnerships or local development companies. The funding for their salaries, however, comes directly from Government spending, in this case from the Department of Social Protection. Our members have not had a pay increase for a significant number of years. As a trade union representing this cohort of workers, we find ourselves in a very frustrating position. Employers are, in the main, willing to engage with us. However, they do not have any funds to meet our claims, be that in respect of pay claims, pension provision, sick pay or maternity leave, as the committee has heard Ms Brennan talk about. We recently concluded negotiations with the Department on a Labour Court recommendation outstanding since 2008 for community employment supervisors concerning pension provision. That remains unimplemented to date.

We note that the EU will soon implement a directive concerning minimum rates of pay and collective bargaining coverage. It will soon be incumbent on all member states to increase their collective bargaining coverage to 80% of their national workforces. If the Government intends to give effect to that directive, where better to start, we would argue, than in the community sector, the near abroad, as it were, of the public sector? I stress that our members do not have any great desire to become public servants per se but they do expect their terms and conditions of employment to be fair and to reach a threshold of decency.

This limbo-type situation in which trade unions representing workers in the community sector find themselves must come to an end. Mechanisms in place previously provided for a more normal industrial relations environment. Between 1986 and 2008, for example, our members in Tús and the RSS received pay increases which mirrored the pay provisions of the social partnership agreements. We have outlined in our written submission some of the most pertinent issues which remain outstanding because of the lack of an effective collective bargaining forum for all stakeholders, that is, the Department, the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, and trade unions to attend.

Most lately, on 23 February, we requested that the Department of Social Protection re-establish a tripartite forum which had been in place since 2017, comprised of representatives from the Department, the ILDN and trade unions. We believe that that was an important body. We still believe that the re-establishment of such a body is critical to building relationships between the relevant stakeholders.

As for pay, the RSS and Tús play a critical role in promoting social inclusion in both rural and urban settings. It is our firm belief that the roles of both cohorts have evolved in recent years to such an extent that the 15% differential which exists between community employment supervisors' rate of pay and that of RSS and Tús supervisors is neither justifiable nor sustainable. We have approached the Department of Social Protection accordingly, seeking the establishment of an evaluation exercise of the role and duties these workers now undertake. The purpose of the evaluation exercise is to conduct a comparative analysis of the role and duties of community employment scheme, CES, supervisors and those of RSS and Tús supervisors. The rate of the additional payment for co-ordinating supervisors needs also to be the subject of that evaluation exercise.

This is the only objective and fair way in which to validate the basis for any pay claim in reality.

We have sought to agree terms of reference and methodology for the conduct of this evaluation exercise. At our only meeting with officials from the Department of Social Protection to date, they informed the unions that they would liaise with officials from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the issue. It should be noted that the conduct of an evaluation of the work and roles of grades of employees is a normal process to adopt within the public sector where a union believes there is merit in a re-grading exercise. We ask the committee to use its significant influence to assist SIPTU and these workers in advancing this request.

Regarding pension provision, as the committee is probably aware our members have no occupational pension scheme. This is, quite frankly, intolerable. The standard defence from the Department is that it is not the employer. We think it is a tired refrain and a figleaf of a defence which simply does not wash with our members. We have sought the immediate introduction of an occupational pension scheme. We have not been prescriptive in our demands and are amenable to discussions around pension models, contribution levels, etc.

Regarding a worker representation or voice, we believe that workers should be included in the stakeholder bodies that currently exist. As it stands, SIPTU has no input into the current review being undertaken in respect of RSS. There is significant unde-rdevelopment in any sort of social dialogue process in terms of the evolution of services and a worker representative or voice on such bodies.

There is currently a structural problem in the payment of travel expenses for members employed in RSS. There is an effective cap on travel expenses. This is the cause of much frustration for members and immediate remedial measures to address same would be welcomed. Schemes will be funded to a sufficient degree which does not see our members out of pocket, something that is currently the case.

Ms Macdonald addressed the six-year rule in her opening remarks. We believe the current rule in respect of RSS is undermining the viability of the scheme's primary function, namely the promotion of social inclusion. We would again ask the committee to reflect on the six-year rule and recommend its elimination.

In conclusion, the current situation whereby trade unions are being sent from pillar to post, that is, from the Department to employers, is not now and never was tenable. Last week, hundreds of community sector workers took to the streets. They have, on average, not received a pay increase in 14 years. We have served thousands of claims across individual employments in respect of the very basic terms of building momentum for 3%. We now live in an economy that is experiencing 7% inflation, something that will be significantly higher by the end of the year. These people need a pay rise. I am not just talking about RSS and Tús, but across the entire sector. The issue can only be addressed by direct engagement with the Department of Social Protection and a whole-of-government approach. I ask the committee to take that request away today. The dysfunctional nature of industrial relations which prevails across the community sector needs to be addressed urgently.

I thank all of the witnesses for the evidence and supporting documentation they have submitted.

I thank the witnesses for the submission. I will try to be brief. To put it in a nutshell, I understand the witnesses are looking for parity with what CE supervisors have and that, in time, once the pension rate is concluded, would incorporate them into whatever pension arrangements they arrive at.

Mr. Adrian Kane


Is there a role for the WRC in these negotiations?

Mr. Adrian Kane


On the participants in the scheme, I have never agreed with the six-year rule. I am interested to hear that the witnesses favour abolishing it. Another significantly detrimental effect on participants' wages is that they now, net of farm income, get the basic rate. That means that anybody with a partner or children is getting exactly €25 a week for 19.5 hours work. They must be the lowest paid people in the country. Perhaps the witnesses can outline how that is affecting interest in the scheme for people in that cohort. Is it becoming difficult to fill vacancies in the scheme, given that only a finite amount of farmers and fishermen are eligible for the scheme? I would be interested in hearing about that because it is it is a significant hit on people's income. When the scheme was originally devised, once people qualified for the scheme they got the full rate for the job when they were under the threshold in terms of their underlying entitlement to farm assist, jobseeker's allowance, disability allowance or whatever else.

Regarding Tús participants, it was never intended that it be a one-year scheme by the Minister at the time. I was the Minister at the time and I know what I intended. That was a decision made by the Department of Finance. If anyone can remember 2010, it was an achievement to get it through in that particular budget. It is not meant to be an activation scheme, as such. The idea was that people would engage in community employment for three years and if they then failed to get a job they could enter a permanent work scheme like RSS.

There are people who will work very well and happily on schemes, but are unlikely to get commercial employment. It is a myth that everybody in the economy will get commercial employment. Anybody who has worked with schemes like RSS knows that is a reality. These people are doing huge work in society at an economic cost. The biggest complaint I and a lot of my colleague receive is that people want to stay on schemes because they will not get commercial employment and do not want to go back to jobseeker's allowance. They do not want to have the numbing experience of not having a purpose; they want to get up in the morning and go somewhere to do something.

I would be interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on the participants in these schemes and whether there is now a need to reform Tús and its role to what it was originally meant to be, namely, a follow-on scheme. People do training and activation and all the rest. If they failed to get a job, then they go on the scheme. That would not stop people from moving from Tús into commercial employment. If they did not do so, the idea was that they would not be thrown back on the scrapheap.

Mr. Adrian Kane

I will address the issue raised by the Deputy regarding the role of the WRC. We addressed this committee last year in respect of local employment services. The Department has refused to attend the WRC. I have no doubt that if we ask it to attend the WRC it will refuse to do so. It has used language to state it would assist the WRC. I am not really sure what that means, but it has refused to attend.

We had a Labour Court recommendation with regard to the CE supervisors going back to 2008. We negotiated an agreement only last year. The process took almost 14 years, and the recommendation has not been implemented. The issue that will resolve this will not involve going to the WRC. I would end up having to refer 50 or 60 cases in each individual partnership or local development company. We need direct engagement in a collective bargaining forum that has some weight and treats us as equals, as normally happens in a collective bargaining forum.

If we go to the WRC or the Labour Court, all we are doing is leading these people on a merry-go-round and nothing will be achieved because the Department will say it is not the employer and is not implementing an agreement. We are caught in a bind. The entire sector is broken and needs to be fixed.

The only way to fix it is through a whole-of-government approach, particularly from the Department of Social Protection. I will ask my colleagues to answer some of the more specific questions.

Mr. Martin Corcoran

I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív about the reforms of Tús. We had an interesting insight into the extension of Tús as we came out of lockdown when contracts were extended. We have seen the benefits of that in terms of the participants and the service. It meant so much to people for contracts to be extended and we are seeing the benefits of that. I would definitely welcome reform in that regard.

One of the fundamental issues here about referrals is the referral system itself. It seems to vary across the country in terms of the referrals from the Department. Some offices seem to be better than others. A bit of creativity and effort on the part of the Department might be needed.

Youth unemployment, at 15.8%, is quite very, so there may be a possibility for Tús to engage on that area. Over the years, we have seen the fallout of long-term unemployment for youth. I definitely think there is a role for Tús to play here in looking at solutions to long-term unemployment for those aged under 25. I agree with Deputy Ó Cuív that we need to start looking at extending Tús, possibly to two or three years. A bit of creativity around that would be very welcome.

Mr. Sean Broderick

In response to Deputy Ó Cuív's question on the €25 top-up, we are asking people to come out to work for five days a fortnight or 19.5 hours per week for €25. I am sure everyone here is well aware of travel costs at the moment. What we are doing is asking people to dig into their social welfare payments to support themselves coming out to work.

The means test has become very stringent for people on schemes. One issue we have come across involves a second property that somebody might have inherited. It is the value of the property that is taken into account rather than the income coming from it. In many cases, it has been passed on to a grandchild. One outstanding case of mine involves somebody who inherited a house. The value of the house was taken into account and the participant must now leave the scheme until they can come up with the funding to get the house transferred to their daughter.

I thank the witnesses for coming before us. It is important that we hear from the supervisors on the ground about Tús and the rural social scheme. All the opening statements contained practical suggestions, which shows the benefit of listening to the people on the ground because they know the schemes best. I hope this will play into the upcoming review of the rural social scheme.

The witnesses mentioned the age profile of participants in the rural social scheme. Could they elaborate on that? What is the current age profile? They mentioned the struggle to fill quotas. I know their briefing documentation mentioned the national quota being 3,350. At the end of March, when we raising the issue of the review and asked when it will happen - we still do know when it will happen - the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, confirmed that 2,969 people were on the rural social scheme and that 1,493 of those will not be impacted by the six-year rule. That leaves over 1,400 people who will be impacted by the six-year rule. This is almost half of the entire quota for the rural social scheme so that is of significant concern. In fairness, the Minister of State has said that as part of that review, he is very aware of the issues raised concerning the six-year rule, which is important. The work being undertaken by this committee is timely and I hope we can feed into that review.

The figures are a cause of concern. In respect of those figures and the impact of the six-year rule, what do they mean on the ground? If the figures are correct and the full quota is 3,350, with 2,969 people on the scheme, that means there are 531 vacancies throughout the State. I imagine the impact of that is that services are not able to run as they should, which has consequences. I am sure all members agree it is essential for the key stakeholders, namely, the witnesses, to feed into the review and be heard in respect of it. This is critical. There is no point in having the review if that does not happen.

Regarding Tús, could the witnesses speak about the challenge involved in the referrals and the referral process? I have heard of places that receive a list from the Department and ring people on that list. Some of them will not bother taking up a place on Tús and do not actually have to, which is unusual because in many other schemes, people have to take up a place. Will the witnesses elaborate on that and the level of refusals? Is this as it seems?

The idea of going from one year to two years should be considered because one year is not much time. The organisations represented provide a lot of wraparound supports, as does the rural social scheme, and they are really important. It is not the case that it is "just a job, any job" for everyone. People require an awful lot more in some cases and it is not just a job.

Will the witnesses also explain the difference between the Tús supervisors and the co-ordinating supervisors and the numbers in each? The independent evaluation is a fair ask and should be undertaken. I has asked that Tús be included in the review. This is not on the table so an independent evaluation of that programme versus community employment would be important. Given that job clubs are more or less gone now or will be gone in a couple of months and that model is changing drastically, the rural social scheme and Tús are more important than ever for that community-based model. That is so important because there will be so few schemes left with a community basis.

Regarding the pension issue, it has been said by both the rural social scheme and Tús representatives that they do not have an occupational pension scheme. Does SIPTU seek a deal for the rural social scheme and Tús similar to the one that has been done for the community employment scheme? The issue with the Labour Court recommendation has at last been resolved and while the workers in question have not been paid yet, that will happen. Is it SIPTU's intention to pursue that? I know it probably pursued it all along but will it pursue it more vocally?

All the witnesses mentioned the lack of a forum. That is important. Regarding the Department, the Irish Local Development Network, the trade unions and the tripartite forum, what is the issue with the Department regarding why that collapsed or did not work? What did the Department say to the witnesses when they raised that?

Mr. Sean Broderick

The reason the age profile is higher rather than lower is that an awful lot of younger farmers will not depend on a scheme. They have gone back into full-time employment and are farming part time. The older farmers aged in or around their 50s are the people on the schemes and need the schemes more because the chances of them getting back into full-time employment may be far slighter than those of a younger person.

The referral system for Tús is not getting enough referrals. We have lots of work placements in which to place people but the supply of referrals coming through from the Department is inadequate.

As Deputy Kerrane mentioned, many of the people we contact do not want to engage with Tús, although they declare on the initial letter to the Department that they are interested. Really, all we are doing is going in a circle in that respect. There are names coming to us and the people refuse to come out to the scheme or do not engage with us. They revert to the Department and say "Yes" to the next letter. We are really going nowhere.

On the eligibility criteria for the rural social scheme, it would help us quite a lot if they were opened up a little more. There are many people, especially in counties down the western seaboard, who have the niece or nephew of the original herd owner doing the farm work but because the uncle or aunt has not signed over the place to the niece or nephew, they are not eligible for the scheme. They need it but they cannot participate. If the criteria were relaxed a little, more people would be eligible for the rural social scheme.

Ms Ellen Brennan

I will speak to the challenge with referrals. We are quite lucky at Dublin South City Partnership because the office we deal with, which I will not name, is really good at sending these over. Maybe the internal system in the Department of Social Protection is not working as well. I know it is setting up a completely new office to deal with that, which we really welcome. We tend to get the same clients referred to us again and again. They might not be coming on to Tús because they are not eligible for Tús; they may be on a disability payment or in full-time education, for example. It is not that people are refusing but rather that they are not eligible for the programme.

We get a few refusals. I spoke about the variety of placements that we have. We get people who initially do not want to come on to Tús but once they come in, speak to us and see the opportunities that are available, they usually change their minds. It is just a matter of getting them in the door to meet us and see what are the opportunities. Our ethos is to look at what they want to do for their own career and find a placement to suit that rather than the other way around. That works pretty well. I am not overly concerned about the level of refusals but we definitely need more people. It was only a couple of years ago it came out that we were able to take on self-referrals. Until a couple of years ago, we were not allowed to advertise Tús placements. Many people do not know about Tús. It is only recently that we are starting to promote the scheme around the place. As the word gets out, we might be able to get more people that way. Currently, we are really relying on the social welfare direct referrals.

There was a question about the difference between supervisors and co-ordinators. I indicated what supervisors do in looking after participants, doing the paperwork and everything, as well as developing links with community groups. The co-ordinators must oversee all that. As mentioned, we have huge reach in the community and I must ensure that as the role of supervisor develops, our staff are trained to deal with that appropriately. It is about ensuring all the supervisors get proper training in supervisory management, for example, and data protection because of all the new information we must hold on to. It is stuff like that. There is also all the reporting that goes with that.

Self-referrals are also coming in and there is a need to promote and strategise more for the programme. It is very time-consuming. It is a dynamic programme but all the management is a lot to take on for the €5,000 per year plus all the stuff that supervisors do. That is the difference between the supervisor and co-ordinator. The co-ordinator manages the programme, basically, and oversees it.

Mr. Martin Corcoran

To reply to Deputy Kerrane, the running theme here relates to referrals, which are the key problem. It is very important for us to have that working well because we need that provision of services. There are a couple of measures that we see that would improve that volume of referrals, which is key. For example, a participant may claim for a partner and there is no provision for them to refer to Tús because they are not accountable to the social welfare system. They are being claimed for by somebody else. Therefore, they are not eligible to come on Tús at any point until they open a claim in their own right. That would free many referrals and it would really improve the volume.

Another aspect relates to people who are over 55 and that bit closer to retirement. There should be a provision that anybody on the Tús scheme should be allowed to stay on, if they so wish, in conjunction with the Tús supervisor. That is a key element relating to experience and provision of services because the services provided are fundamental to many end users, such as meals on wheels. Many people depend on that service. Much of this is operational and in some cases it may be nearly cost-neutral. It is something the Department of Social Protection must look at in order to increase the volume of referrals. It would go a long way to addressing that.

Mr. Sean Larkin

As rural social scheme supervisors, we are major stakeholders in the implementation of the scheme. We are a cog but we are being left outside. There was a forum between the Irish Local Development Network, the Department and the rural social scheme national committee. In 2017, that failed dramatically because the Department would not engage with us. We had meetings set up but we were left outside the circle. The Department does not want us inside that circle. If anything is to come out of today's meeting, we would like to be inside the circle and put in our tuppence to the review. It would make for a very good review if we could be inside. We are the soldiers on the ground and we know the way it works. We implement the work. If anything is to come from today's discussion, I would like to see multiparty talks, including SIPTU, starting immediately again on the review.

Mr. Adrian Kane

Deputy Kerrane also asked a question about the pension settlement. The pension settlement in respect of the community employment supervisors is less than satisfactory, and that is to use parliamentary language. After 14 years, people were worn down and we accepted what we got, which is essentially the gratuity that looked very much like statutory redundancy. It is not a pension scheme; that is the reality. We are looking for a pension scheme. This opens the door in that the Department came up with some moneys to address the matter but we are not going to be fobbed off with the idea that the third tier of pensions will come in.

I am very concerned about the uncertain economic space ahead of us. This matter is typically pushed down for another number of years. We are certainly looking for a pension scheme. If it is good enough for community employment supervisors to have something resembling a pension scheme, we need something along those lines.

I welcome our guests and thank them for their considerable input. I am very familiar with Tús and the rural social scheme, which are vital for communities. Social inclusion has been mentioned a number of times. For any community in which our members are involved, both the rural social scheme and Tús are essential for that.

A number of my questions have been asked already but I will speak to a number of points. I will first address SIPTU. When we met this time last year we spoke about the union meeting representatives from the Department. Has that happened and how many times has the union met departmental officials about this matter? Have there been specific meetings about the rural social scheme and Tús? Will Mr. Kane let us know that because I know it was his wish when we discussed it the last time he was here?

With the Tús scheme, I am aware of a number of matters relating to referrals, which have been discussed in detail this morning. There is the particular question of referrals of unsuitable candidates from the Department.

Is that a serious problem? It is something I am hearing about from a number of different schemes, where people are coming again and being referred again. Maybe one of the witnesses could comment.

I was very taken by Mr. Corcoran’s point on youth unemployment. It is an issue I have brought up a number of times in the Seanad and the wider Oireachtas. What is Mr. Corcoran's view on how we can target and help that particular cohort of people to get involved with the rural social scheme, but most importantly with Tús. The benefit of getting our youth involved with community is essential for the future of our communities. I am involved with a number of community groups. There is no doubt we are all of an age where we are looking to the future, and the future needs young people involved in our communities. Maybe that is a way we can target youth unemployment, which is very important.

With regard to both the RSS and Tús, supervisor training has been mentioned. I am aware of the wonderful supervisors who go over and beyond on a daily basis. Ms Brennan mentioned it is almost a one-stop shop which is getting comments and questions on every aspect of community life and day-to-day life. Is there enough supervisor training? What else would the witnesses like to see in the RSS or Tús? I know they would like to see payment for that, which is essential and I would support that. It is unbelievable we do not have sick pay, maternity leave or adequate travel expenses at this stage. Is there enough training?

With regard to the supervisors, it is essential for the future of both of these schemes that the expertise is maintained, so we have to reward that expertise. One of the contributors mentioned the love of the job. That is great and there is no doubt about it, but there has to be recompense to go with the love of the job. That is what all of the witnesses have asked and it is something that we, as a committee, need to address. It is essential for our communities that that expertise is maintained and brought forward for the future.

Mr. Adrian Kane

I will answer on the industrial relations side of the questions posed by Senator Wall. We met last year in regard to the Local Employment Service, LES, and jobs clubs but we have had very poor engagement with the Department since and we have not established a mechanism yet to deal with the impending redundancies in the sector. We had a meeting with the Department yesterday which was far from satisfactory. We are going nowhere in regard to resolving that, although we are looking at hundreds of redundancies. The Department is refusing to step up to the mark in terms of trying to fund what is going to come out of that.

To come back to this group, we met with the Department earlier in the year in regard to the RSS and Tús. Again, we have not made much progress in terms of a very reasonable request for an evaluation process, which is typical where a grade of employee has evolved, the work has changed and so on. All we are looking for is an independent mechanism to do that. Either the claim falls or it has merit, but that objective analysis is something we are up for. We believe 15% is a huge differential on pay between community employment, CE, supervisors and the people we are representing here. It is not tenable and it needs to be addressed urgently.

Although I am not a member of the committee, I feel passionate about the rural social schemes and what they do in communities. I am delighted to welcome Ms Macdonald, Mr. Larkin and Mr. Broderick from Galway Rural Development, which is based in my own constituency, as well as the other representatives. The impact the rural social schemes have had, since they were first initiated by the then Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, back in time, has been enormous in rural communities, first, for the communities themselves and, second, for the positivity this has created for participants and the network it has created across rural Ireland in terms of the work that is being done, the camaraderie that is there and the benefits people get.

I am going to divide my speaking time between two issues. My first point concerns the participants. I believe the six-year rule has reached its end of life, if one can call it that. That should now be taken out and everybody should be allowed to remain on a scheme for the full duration of their time. At the time when it was introduced in 2017, it was because there was demand to get into the scheme but, at this stage, the demand is for participants to be allowed to remain on the scheme. We need to adjust it. The year 2017 was five years ago and we have to review this and make the change.

The other issue I have come across is that nieces and nephews of farmers are excluded from becoming participants. In many cases, that is ruling out good people who could be part of the scheme. If the niece or nephew of a farmer were allowed to come on a scheme, that would enhance the numbers available and would also provide additional participants for the scheme.

We need to look at the participation of people with disabilities in the scheme to make sure we are bringing in people with disabilities and giving them a sense of purpose through an EmployAbility-type arrangement, which would be a first step towards getting work. It is not that this is job creation, but there is much that could be done for people with disabilities on the rural social schemes, and I know that at first hand. Those are the things we need to do and if a review is undertaken or if submissions are to be made, they should be considered.

There is an inequality with regard to the supervisors and Mr. Kane mentioned a 15% pay differential with CE supervisors. I am also conscious of the long road it took to get what was got out of the Department of Social Protection and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which play one off against the other and put us back and over like a tennis ball when it comes to things like this, and that is being honest. I hear what Mr. Kane is saying. The direct route is to get somebody to sit down and independently look at the situation. That would be a highly sensible way to bring this to a head as quickly as possible so this anomaly is not going on for the next ten to 14 years, as the CE schemes were, only to get something at the end of it which was not exactly fair, although it was something.

With regard to eligibility, Mr. Broderick mentioned a case where somebody got a house and, although it could never be rented out, a notional income was put on that house by the Department of Social Protection’s mechanisms for creating that notional income. This meant a person had to leave the scheme. That house will never be rented and it will be passed on to a grandchild and that is in process but, in the meantime, the participant has been penalised. Overall, that is something we need to look at with the Department of Social Protection.

The big ask I get from participants is this. They are on the scheme and doing their work, and they are delighted to be at it, but when they sit down and think about it on a Sunday, after having dinner and while watching the match, or whatever, they ask, “What is in it for us apart from the participation?” The €25 a week is not real when we think of the benefits that are accruing to every community. Somebody mentioned meals on wheels and there is the Irish Wheelchair Association, cancer care services and all kinds of services that are benefiting enormously from this.

I do not have any questions other than to offer my total support to everybody who is here today as a witness to present the case. I will work with them, as will the Chairman and every member of the committee. What was set up as a very good scheme in 2003 needs to be re-calibrated to make it fit for purpose again for the next ten years. It would be timely to do it now. I thank the Chairman and the members for allowing me the time.

Ms Liz Macdonald

I would like to address the issue mentioned by Deputy Claire Kerrane on the impact of the reduced numbers on the rural social scheme and the reducing numbers on Tús.

The work that is undertaken by this cohort of people is so invaluable. We are already having to do "fishes and loaves" on the ground with many groups. We are just managing to spread it around, particularly because the rural social scheme, RSS, participants, are happy to go to the extra hours. They do not count 19.5 hours. They are there and will go to the 35 hours and will do it. If the day is right, they will come out on a good weather day, be it a Saturday or Sunday. They own these jobs and take great passion in doing them. They have a mileage allowance and we are moving them around. They are asking to be moved more frequently to be able to meet the demands and there is petrol, and so forth, involved in that. The amount of money they are being paid is completely peanuts relative to what they are doing. They really need to be paid a great deal more money into their pockets to be able to do the job but also to feel self worth in the work that they are doing. They view this as a job and not as a social welfare payment and they are doing this work so that they can better their communities.

We should look to widening the whole eligibility criteria and there are some areas that need to be looked at. We have carers out there who are looking after mothers and fathers in the family. Many of them have had to become carers and to leave the social scheme because they are only allowed to work 15 hours if they are carers. The rural social scheme asks for 19.5 hours. It makes no sense. They are actually leaving work where they are only receiving €22.54 to sit at home and to be more isolated, simply because the Department will not allow them to do an extra 4.5 hours work.

It is 18.5 hours in the caring work which went up from 15.5. It is not 19.5 hours yet.

Ms Liz Macdonald

Yes, the Deputy is ahead of me. This is, nonetheless, something that needs to be looked at because those people need to be brought out and socialised also.

Generally, a widening of the scheme would be desirable. My belief is that anybody who has the capacity to work who lives in rural Ireland but cannot move, be that for transport reasons or otherwise, should be allowed to participate in the scheme. The minimum payment they would be getting is €22.50 and the work is very worthwhile.

I would like to mention the supervisors’ salaries, and so forth. This has been on the agenda for a long time. There was nothing for ten years. There was a minimum input then in 2017. Now, where we have such economic pressures, this cannot go on forever. We have a situation where supervisors rely on their cars to do their work. The salaries they receive do not even allow them to buy a decent car or even to fix the car, sometimes, if something happens. There needs to be an immediate input to resolve this situation.

I thank Ms Macdonald and call Mr. Broderick now, please.

Mr. Sean Broderick

There are a couple of things I would like to raise. We are all delighted to be here today to put our point across. We are at a crucial point in the schemes at this time. We are a third of the way into 2022 and I know that our company has been informed that if we do not fill our quota by the end of the year, our funding will be cut. If funding is cut, the partnership companies will tend to go away from the schemes because there would be nothing there for them. If anything needs to be done, it needs to be done fairly quickly and whoever is there, we should have a voice at that table.

From the RSS point of view on participants, the six-year rule is crucial at this point because we have been instructed to issue contracts only to the end of the six years. That will be next February for us in some of cases. We have a very short window within which to get things done. I would like that to be dealt with urgently than to be left on the long finger for a period. Otherwise, the schemes will die. If that happens, that is the end of them and they are gone. I thank the Chairman.

I call Mr. Corcoran now.

Mr. Martin Corcoran

I wish to come back to Senator Wall’s contribution on youth unemployment. Ultimately, it is back to the Department of Social Protection, DSP, because it has the demographics and the data and it is aware of the exact percentages in the various areas. One thing that would go a long way in addressing the referrals on youth unemployment would be the one year eligibility. One has to be on a jobseeker's payment for one year to qualify for Tús. If one has been long-term unemployed, a year is a long time for a young person and that can fill up with negative things also. Early intervention is very important there. That could be controlled by the local DSP office, where it could handle referrals of participants under the age of 25 but each supervisor or scheme would hold a percentage on their scheme for that under-25 group.

The other aspect of this is that by removing the one-year rule, one could engage with many of the colleges and the training organisations because once people finish on a Friday, and if they have no job to go to, they should be able to come on with us to get that year of experience so that they can avoid falling into this long-term unemployed bracket. That is a measure that the Department could move on quite quickly. The removal of that one-year requirement would go a long way in addressing that issue.

Through the Chairman, I will invite Ms Brennan in now as she has a number of points in respect of Senator Wall’s question.

Ms Ellen Brennan

The Senator was asking about the ineligible referrals. There is some kind of a systems issue in the DSP. It is not the staff as they are working very hard in there, which I know for a fact, but somehow, the referrals system structure needs to be looked at. There are so many eligible people on the live register but the Department does not seem to be able to get these people in order to send them to us. I do not know what the issue is but the Department needs to look at this.

With Tús, we are here and we have a great many jobs available. We could be integrating the young people but we could also be integrating the new immigrants that are coming in all of the time. We have many multicultural community groups. The way to get people integrated into Irish society is by working together.

The Senator was also asking about training budgets. Training is very important to ensure that the quality of the programme develops. Some sort of allocation for that would be greatly welcomed.

I call Mr. Larkin now, please.

Mr. Sean Larkin

On a question that was raised by Deputy Kerrane, a cost-benefit analysis was carried out on the rural social scheme in 2009. We are probably five years into the scheme at this stage. For every euro that the Government invested at that stage, we had a payback of €2.89. This was probably part of the collapse of the forum as well because we applied extensive pressure on the Department to carry out another cost-benefit analysis. The Department would absolutely not hear of it because those figures would quadruple in terms of what we are worth and what we are saving the Government. As we are around the table here, we are making a big ask in respect of the amount of money we are saving the Government. I thank the Chairman.

Would SIPTU like to make any further comment?

Mr. Adrian Kane

I thank the committee again for the invitation and the engagement that we have had with all of the members. I also appreciate Deputy Canney’s attendance here. We have a serious situation in particular with regard to a significant differential on rates of pay for people who are doing very similar work. We have outlined a path forward as to how that can be resolved.

There is also the bigger issue across the entire sector where, for most people, there has been no pay increase for the past 14 years. This really needs a whole-of-government response. I have spoken about the EU directive on collective-bargaining, of coming to the table and of how we find a way of funding the community sector where people have reasonable terms and conditions of employment. People do not want to become public servants. The fear I know is there with every official I meet is that if he or she opens the door that claims will start coming through, etc. We can create safeguards for the State where we do not want to become public servants but we want to be paid decently, to have security of tenure and to have decent pensions.

I do not think that is too much to ask for in this day and age.

I thank Mr. Kane. That is a good way to conclude the meeting. It is clear from the meeting that the rural social scheme is not an activation scheme and, therefore, should not have a time limit. We have had evidence that many participants of the scheme work in excess of the 19.5 hours because of the self-worth they derive from the work and the impact in the local community. Participants see first-hand the impacts it has in the community and they should receive the full rate of payments, irrespective of means. The current rate at €1.28 per hour is not equitable or justifiable. This issue needs to be urgently revisited.

Mr. Broderick and Deputy Canney raised an important issue concerning someone inheriting a house. It is a problem across our social welfare system. We have a perverse situation in this country at the moment. We have a housing emergency in every community, yet if anyone were to release or rent that house out, they will be penalised by the social welfare system. It makes no sense to have the Department of Social Protection actively blocking the release of properties for rental in the middle of a housing crisis.

Regarding Tús, the 12-month limit on participation needs to be urgently revisited, particularly in the many parts of the country where there is no one willing to take up that position when it becomes available. The three-year prohibition on going back onto the scheme also needs to be looked at, as does the issue of the referrals. We have seen this first-hand in our part of the country where we are straddling different counties and social welfare regions and the referrals are not coming through. There seems to be a lack of joined-up thinking on that.

The treatment of supervisors, whether CE, Tús or RRS, needs to be urgently reviewed. They are the linchpin in the success of the scheme and in the engagement of individuals in communities across the country. The evidence from Ms Brennan on the issue of paid maternity leave highlights the discrimination in relation to it. We have a publicly funded scheme where we engage with people who, sadly, are on the margins of society and try to bring them back into the mainstream, whether it be in terms of social engagement, self-worth or the impact it has on the local community, and we are not prepared to provide supervisors with maternity leave. We have heard a lot about issues relating to access, discrimination and participation of women in the workforce. This is low-hanging fruit that needs to be urgently addressed.

I thank witnesses for attending and their constructive and positive engagement with the committee. It is our intention as a committee to present a report on our deliberations to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, with the hope that the committee's deliberations and recommendations will be taken on board by the Department. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.

The joint committee went into private session at 10.54 a.m. and adjourned at 11.11 a.m. sine die.