I appreciate the opportunity to discuss progress on the implementation of the Comprehensive Employment Strategy for People with Disabilities 2015-2024. I thank Senator Dolan for his initiative in getting the issue on the agenda for discussion today. I also thank Senator Mark Daly for his excellent work on the issue of disability and, in particular, on the Irish Sign Language Bill. We worked closely on that important legislation and we are all proud of it.
We have much more work to do on employment for people with disabilities, but we have support from all voices in the Dáil and Seanad. The comprehensive employment strategy sets out a ten-year approach to ensuring that people with disabilities, who are able and want to work, are supported and enabled to do so. Essentially the strategy seeks to address the under-representation of people with disabilities in the labour force. Its overarching purpose is to make a concerted, cross-Government effort to address the barriers and challenges that impact on employment of people with disabilities.
The strategy contains commitments such as an increase in the public service employment target on a phased basis from 3% to 6% by 2024, special public service competitions and the opening up of alternative recruitment channels, and addressing disincentives to work and enhancing transitions from education and training to work.
It includes the following six strategic priorities: build skills, capacity and independence; provide bridges and supports into work; make work pay; promote job retention and re-entry to work; provide co-ordinated and seamless support; and engage with employers. Implementation of these commitments and strategic priorities is co-ordinated by the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department also has a key role in regard to the increase in the public service employment target. Legislation to amend the Disability Act 2005 in this regard has been prepared. These provisions have been included in the Disability (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2016, which is currently before Dáil Éireann.
The progress of the comprehensive employment strategy is monitored by an implementation group, which is independently chaired by Fergus Finlay. This group, which meets six times a year, comprises relevant Departments, the National Disability Authority, NDA, and representatives from the Disability Stakeholders Group. The Disability Stakeholders Group consists of disability service providers and disability service users, and it plays an essential role in ensuring the understanding and consideration of the individual lived experience, particularly in regard to identifying gaps in current provisions. It is essential that the voice of the disabled person is heard at this level. Having overseen the initial foundational, building-blocks phase, which spanned 2015 to 2018, the implementation group is currently putting the finishing touches to the 2019 to 2021 action plan, with a view to further progressing the six strategic priorities outlined in the strategy. I will return to this matter later.
We are making progress on implementation of the strategy. As I mentioned earlier, 2018 was the final year of an initial three-year phase of foundational activity. This period of activity sought, in the main, to establish processes, systems and tools to progress the overall ambition of the strategy. However, significant achievements were also recorded during this establishment phase. In this regard, I want to highlight a selection of the extensive activity that has taken place across Departments and agencies. First, many of the commitments in the Make Work Pay report of 2017, which relates to strategic priority three in the employment strategy, have been delivered. For instance, as a result of recommendation 1 in the Make Work Pay report, on 1 December 2018, the Government introduced a significant increase to the earnings disregard for people on disability allowance from €120 to €427 per week. This measure had an immediate - I stress that it was immediate - and palpable impact on the lives of people with disabilities who wish to work and fear losing their medical card. That fear is still there today so we need to get that message across about the earnings disregard going from €120 to €427 and we need to ensure people know about that. This fear of losing the medical card is being dealt with. Furthermore, a fast-track return to payment for people with disabilities on disability allowance has been implemented. If the job does not last too long, people do not spend another six months trying to get back onto the disability allowance. This relates to recommendation 7 in the report and enables individuals to try out work knowing that their disability allowance will be restored quickly if the job does not pan out, which is a fact of life for everybody.
On recommendations 9 and 10 from the Make Work Pay report, a consultation process has taken place, the aim of which was to explore in depth the views of people with disabilities and their families regarding proposed changes to the disability allowance payment and development of early engagement on work in income support schemes. The findings from the consultation are being examined by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to guide next steps. To give one final example from Make Work Pay, a ready reckoner has been developed to enable people with disabilities to independently estimate the net benefits and financial implications of working, which is important.
Further achievements under the employment strategy include the agreement by the HSE and the Departments of Health and Employment Affairs and Social Protection on the roll-out of the individual placement and support, IPS, model of supported employment for people with mental health difficulties wishing to work, the commencement by the HSE of a trial process that will enable people with disabilities who have access to an adult day place to defer taking that place while they explore mainstream work or further education options, and the introduction by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection of a new youth employment support scheme, YESS. The scheme opened for applications in October 2018 and is specifically targeted at young jobseekers, including people with disabilities aged 18 to 24 years of age who are long-term unemployed or who face barriers to employment. This scheme aims to give a person the opportunity to learn basic work and social skills in a supportive environment while on a work placement in a host organisation. Participation on the YESS programme is wholly voluntary and participants will receive a weekly payment of €229.20 for 24 hours of work per week.
In the educational sphere, the Department of Education and Skills carried out a comprehensive review of career guidance provision, which included a focus on guidance for students with disabilities. This work was particularly guided by input from the comprehensive employment strategy implementation group. The NDA, which plays a significant role in monitoring the implementation of the employment strategy, also has a number of important actions in the first comprehensive employment strategy action plan. During the foundational phase, it published guidelines for employers and line managers on how to support staff with autism, highlighting the advantages of recruiting employees with different skillsets, and offering guidance on developing inclusive and supportive work practices. It also published and disseminated research it commissioned into good practice in employing people with disabilities in the public sector.
The employer disability information service, EDI, launched on 1 January 2016, works to promote awareness and provide a service to employers, delivering a range of actions, including the WorkABLE Future 2018 conference for employers, which was held in March 2018. At this conference, a peer network with more than 80 employer members was launched by the EDI. We are currently working with employer representative bodies to develop a follow-on initiative that supports employers when recruiting and retaining people with disabilities.
In addition to these achievements, there are a number of areas where actions are being advanced and these initiatives will continue to be delivered under the next action plan for 2019 to 2021. One of these actions is the commitment by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to expanding internships as a recruitment route for people with disabilities in both the public and private sectors. While the Department has examined internship models currently in place and, for instance, Naas and Tallaght hospitals offer a strong rotating workplace option for young people with intellectual disabilities, the potential uptake of such an internship scheme with a number of Departments is also being considered.
Another work stream which will continue into the second action plan is the development of person-centred planning by the HSE under the transforming lives programme. The framework being developed across HSE-funded disability services includes consideration of an individual’s work goals as per action 2.9 of the comprehensive employment strategy. This framework will be implemented across both day and residential services in the near future. As we discovered in many day services, particularly in respect of people with intellectual disabilities, many young people are talented enough to undertake some sort of employment, whether part-time or full-time, and we have discovered a number of hidden talents within those day services. This has great potential.
Action 5.1 in the employment strategy is a further key commitment that will be brought forward in the next phase of the strategy. The next step is for the action 5.1 interdepartmental working group to implement the next steps to test, evaluate and scale the agreed policy of co-ordinated supports for people with disabilities. There have been ongoing developments in the collection and analysis of data on participation levels of persons with disabilities in full-time employment, including the establishment of a social inclusion unit in SOLAS and the development of a template for education and training boards, ETBs, to establish learner pathways and targets over a three-year period. As this data is built up over time, it will be important to analyse it for trends and opportunities for future focus.
In addition, in the educational area, SOLAS has recently published a review of pathways to participation on apprenticeships. This review identified that 2.8% of people with disabilities are doing apprenticeships. SOLAS has recommended five action areas to increase participation rates, including the promotion of a diverse pathway, and I am keen that this work is taken forward into the next action plan.
Last, in the area of work being brought forward, although the specific actions regarding vocational rehabilitation in regard to conducting and disseminating research have been completed, this work will continue in respect of interviews with key stakeholders and a round-table discussion on the necessary steps for a programme of vocational rehabilitation in Ireland. This will inform the development of policy advice and associated actions in the action plan for 2019 to 2021.
Having acknowledged the achievements, which I have stressed, and the fruitful work that has taken place during the foundational phase of the strategy, it is important to note there are areas where progress has been slower than anticipated. These include transitions between education and employment, the employment of people with disabilities who have moderate to high support needs and employer engagement more broadly. On the latter issue, work is currently being undertaken with employer bodies to see how we can work together more effectively on programmes that meet their needs while creating more opportunities for people with disabilities. In conclusion, my expectation is that these work streams will be carried over to the next three-year action plan under the strategy with due regard to developments and changes that have occurred within the system in the interim.
Implementing the strategy will require continuing interdepartmental co-operation and a joined-up approach to supports and services for jobseekers and workers with disabilities. The first phase of the strategy encouraged new ways of working between Departments and agencies. What I am seeking to achieve now is to deepen that collaboration, broaden the ambition of the strategy and to engage more intensively with employers. I am confident that we will see real benefits for people with disabilities in the next phase of the strategy and, above all, more opportunities for them to participate in employment and to achieve their potential.