Thursday, 11 March 2004

Questions (1)

Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Minister for Enterprise)

I point out that Deputy James Breen is not present. Therefore, we will take Question No. 1 but not Question No. 5.

Gerard Murphy

Question:

1 Mr. Murphy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment the instructions that have been issued to FÁS on the way regulations are to be interpreted by them that allow community employment participants in various age groups to continue in schemes after three years’ continuous participation. [8151/04]

View answer

As part of the Government decision in 1999 to restructure community employment, future participation in community employment by an individual was capped at three years, effective from April 2000. This change was introduced to discourage repeated participation in community employment and to encourage unemployed persons to avail of training and education options where possible, which are shown to have more successful progression outcomes for individuals.

The three-year cap was amended in August 2001 to allow particularly disadvantaged persons to remain on the programme for a further period. Participants are considered for such an extension if on reaching the end of their normal entitlements on community employment they are likely to experience difficulty in getting employment. A number of community employment participants have difficulty in progressing to open labour market employment due to their age, literacy or numeracy problems, or a lack of suitable jobs available locally.

FÁS has discretion to give 20% of participants under 50 years of age extensions of up to one year to meet the needs of individuals who would clearly benefit from an extension in terms of their future employment prospects. In addition, participants over 50 may be given a further year on community employment, with provision for review at the end of that year — further discretion may be given to extend participation beyond this on a case by case basis, subject to continued annual review. In general, approximately 20% of participants on community employment may benefit from an additional year on the programme under the current flexibility guidelines.

The future structure of the community employment programme is currently under review by a group of senior officials and FÁS, and this group is expected to report to Ministers on the outcome of their deliberations very shortly. The outcome of this review will inform any future adjustments in the structure and the terms and conditions of participation on community employment.

In the run-up to the Estimates last year, when community employment and the problem of people on schemes not progressing to full-time employment was being discussed, the Minister of State constantly said there was enough flexibility within the FÁS system to deal with this. I have been in contact with FÁS on numerous occasions to try to establish the criteria they use and as far as I can establish the only criterion they use is that 20% of any age group can remain on a scheme. If five people over 55 years want to stay on a scheme then only one of them can stay on. The chances of that happening in any one scheme are minimal so for all intents and purposes that flexibility is worth nothing.

The other measures the Minister mentioned have obviously not been made clear to FÁS or else FÁS is not implementing them with the kind of flexibility which the Minister of State wants it to use, to judge from his comments today and before Christmas. It is time the Minister of State gave FÁS instructions on the flexible implementation of these guidelines.

I am particularly concerned about those aged over 55, a matter we discussed here several times before Christmas. At that time the Minister of State was confident he would be able to put a social employment scheme or something similar in place for those over 55 years and he told us we would see that in the Estimates. I appreciate the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs hijacked that measure from the Minister of State with his rural social scheme and Deputy Ó Cuív now has a slush fund from the dormant accounts for community grants. He obviously wants to steal some community workers from the enterprise and trade schemes.

This measure is not working properly. I understand the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is to set up a totally separate mechanism to administer the rural social scheme. Under the FÁS umbrella there are community groups which administer the community employment scheme, with supervisors employed by the actual community groups and any duplication of that would be an utter waste of money. Those aged over 55 outside the farming community are in serious trouble. The Minister of State and the Government gave a commitment before last year's Estimates that there would be facilities in place for those over 55 but they have not materialised.

Will the Minister of State review this situation with reference to flexibility for those over 55 years and to make sure FÁS understands that there should be flexibility, as tight interpretation of the rules does not allow that?

The position is as outlined. If the Deputy misunderstands that FÁS does not. I am not aware of any situation in which one needs five people over 55 years in order to retain one or five people over 50. The criteria are quite clear and FÁS has the discretion to allow for 20% of participants being under 50 years and to give extensions for a further year when the individuals involved would clearly benefit from the year. There is no difficulty with that interpretation by FÁS.

Participants who are over 50 may be given a further year on CE with a provision for review at the end of that year and there is further discretion to extend participation beyond that on a case by case basis. The Deputy is clearly not aware of the policy FÁS is implementing. I am not aware of the regulations he describes but if there are areas where that is happening we will put that right.