I thank Senator Murnane O'Connor for giving me the opportunity to respond. If thee Cathaoirleach will indulge me, I wish to welcome the pupils from St. Paul's national school in my home village of Ratoath who are in the Visitors Gallery. I welcome them to democracy in action.
The Senator will be aware that the Department operates a number of employment support programmes which have a significant social inclusion focus across our communities, including CE, job initiative and rural social schemes. These schemes are delivered by local sponsoring groups, development companies and, in Gaeltacht areas, Údarás na Gaeltachta. The CE programme has been running since 1994, the jobs initiative scheme since 1996 and the rural social scheme since 2004. All these schemes are well embedded in community areas nationally and they are engaged in significant levels of service support and delivery. It is my strong view that the local services which are supported by these placements should be safeguarded into the future. Currently, they are not. That is why I sought the agreement of the Government to establish an interdepartmental group to explore the most appropriate organisational arrangements, including which Department should host the CE social inclusion placements, which include drug rehabilitation and childcare CE schemes, as well as the rural social and job initiative schemes.
It is important to emphasise that when CE was established, it was, first and foremost, an active labour market programme. It was designed to assist targeted unemployed individuals to return to employment. Its aim was to provide excellent work experience as well as training and development that would assist a person participating on the scheme to achieve sustainable employment. It does that, but it also does much more. Since its establishment, CE has since been categorised into two strands, namely, social inclusion and activation. The social inclusion placements are more suited to adults who need extra support to be able to work in their communities. They can be older workers, persons with disabilities, Travellers, homeless people, refugees, those requiring drug rehabilitation and ex-offenders leaving prison who need to be supported. The expected pace of progression from a social inclusion placement is much slower than the pace we would expect from an activation or an employment and training perspective.
Since being appointed as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, one of the more enjoyable parts of my job has been travelling throughout the country and meeting the people who are running CE schemes and, more importantly, the people who are participating in them. For me, CE is as much about supporting progress into gainful employment in the community as it is about providing self-esteem, value in the local and social economy and inclusivity. It is about the people who are on the margins of either an age profile or a stage in their life because of some difficulties they have had. It is about supporting and including those people in a productive way in enjoying their social community.
It is about recognising the value of the services they give in their local communities, acknowledging, rewarding and empowering them, but most of all acknowledging their input and recognising that without these people providing these services, the communities would not have those services. I know that is a failure of the State in some ways in that other Departments do not provide them, but we need to recognise and genuinely value them. This is the primary reason behind the establishment of the interdepartmental group. It did not seem right to have these two distinctive sides of the same coin being governed and ruled by a criterion set up specifically for activation, employment and training. It is not possible to have the same set of rules to govern what we call the socially inclusive places and the employment training. I have not managed to be able to relax these rules across the board. If the Senator has any specific cases, I ask her to bring them to my attention. We are trying to look at individuals on an individual basis. However, no one can micromanage this to any great extent for the 21,000 people employed and supported in community employment. This is why I want a proper conversation about the differences between people on the same scheme and the different paces at which people need to be supported in the same scheme. This is why the interdepartmental group will assess the best course of action required so as to protect the governance and the successes we have in CE activation, but also to establish the appropriate home and structure it for what is sheltered employment in our communities. We need to build custom-built services that will ensure they are wholly inclusive for everyone who requires our assistance. For those who want a fulfilling future through the vehicle of CE, that is great, and they should continue to be supported through employment, activation and training both financially and socially in equal measure.
The social inclusion placements, though, require a separate focus to ensure those who are at the furthest distance from the labour market but who are genuinely interested in working and delivering services in their local community have the opportunity to do so, and not on a short-term, one-year or two-year basis. If they want to do it, if it is fulfilling and gives them value and self-esteem in their daily activities, that fundamentally should be supported in the long term. I know some people do not agree with me on this. This is the reason for the approach of having the interdepartmental group, having us all sitting around the table, recognising as we do as politicians the real, inherent value in community employment not only from a socially inclusive perspective, but also from an activation and training perspective. We can sit around and have a real, honest conversation about how these should be split, who has which responsibilities and at what pace the rules and governance of both strands should be set. I genuinely consider the socially inclusive positions in our CE schemes as vital and as fundamental not only to the common good of the State, but more important to those people who have had the opportunity to work on them. Equally, they are detrimental to the people who have been forced out of them because of the existing rules, and I want that to stop.
I will have the first meeting of the interdepartmental group in probably the next week to ten days. It will be short and sharp. The group's work will be done by the end of March and I want to be able to go back to Cabinet with the recommendations from it. What I do not want is for us to be embroiled in months and months of long-term meetings about whether we will do this. I already know in essence what I would like to do. I need to bring everyone with me. It is not that I am discounting the valuable advice and information from all our CE host companies and participants, but I want to bring the political establishment with me first. Once the interdepartmental group has finished its work at the end of March, I will welcome any and all participants who would like to talk to me, send me written submissions or give me their experience and their value. It is because of my engagement with these people over the past 18 months and my pleasure and privilege to be able to do so that I know fundamentally that we need to change and protect, support and reward our social inclusion places and give them the pride and the self-esteem they get from fulfilling their daily duties in our communities. We need to give that as a reassurance from us.
I thank the Senator for the opportunity to say this. I genuinely welcome a wide support of information options, including any suggestions she may have from the wider political representations of both these Houses. In the next few months I will go out to our host companies and listen to them. I want this to be done quickly. Whatever budgetary measures are needed, and I know there will be some, I want to be able to start fighting for them this year in order that we can see the changes happening and those socially inclusive places supported, protected, ring-fenced and rewarded - when I am still around, I hope, and not when the Senator's party may have taken over.