Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Questions (3)

Willie O'Dea


3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of the interdepartmental review into community employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38826/19]

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Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Employment)

In January of this year the Minister announced her intention to set up an interdepartmental group to examine the future of the community employment social inclusion schemes with a view to ring-fencing social inclusion places and allowing services within communities to be maintained. What is the up-to-date position in that regard?

As the Deputy will be aware, community employment, CE, schemes deliver on a number of our objectives. They provide a means for people to gain valuable work experience as a stepping stone to full-time employment, they deliver valuable services in our communities, towns and villages, and they help people who are genuinely long-term unemployed, are far removed from the workforce, and who have very high barriers to employment, to overcome social exclusion. As the labour market has recovered and the profile of people available to take up places on CE schemes has changed, at my request the Government established an interdepartmental group to explore how the social inclusion aspect of CE schemes might best be organised into the future. This included considering which Department should hold lead responsibility for sponsoring CE schemes focused on social inclusion, the rural social scheme and the job initiative scheme and whether there is any need to modify participation arrangements for individuals on these schemes.

Many meetings of the group have taken place, along with bilateral meetings between officials from my Department and other appropriate Departments. There has also been a consultative process with relevant stakeholders. Submissions were invited and were received in large numbers. These were considered as part of the deliberation process. I am advised that a final draft of the report will be given to me very soon. We will be setting a date for the final meeting of the interdepartmental group either today or tomorrow.

It is encouraging to see the group's work progressing. The Minister has acknowledged what a fantastic success CE schemes have been and the benefits they have yielded both to individuals and to communities. She has said that she expects the final report shortly, which is precisely what she told me last July. Is the Minister giving the House a commitment that the final report will be available within this Dáil session, perhaps in the next couple of weeks? I have two things I would like the Minister to confirm. Will the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection have ample opportunity to debate the report and to have input into it? Has any decision been taken as to the appropriate Department to run these schemes? As the Minister knows, at the moment community employment schemes are under the aegis of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. Will that continue to be the case? If not, why not?

The date for the final meeting will be set in the next day or two. I know that I said "shortly" in July, but this "shortly" is different. I expect the last meeting of the interdepartmental group to be held in the coming weeks, if not earlier. It is at that meeting that decisions will be made on the recommendations, so I cannot tell the Deputy now what will be decided. It will be decided at that meeting. From there, the report will have to go to a senior officials' group, then a sub-Cabinet group, then Cabinet.

I would be very pleased for the Oireachtas joint committee to hold a lengthy discussion of the report at that stage so that it can tell me whether it agrees with it or whether there are parts of it with which it disagrees. It should be remembered that it was the submissions that came from our CE hosts and CE participants and supervisors that carried the most weight for me. I am very mindful of the value of the schemes. To be honest, I do not believe we recognise their value as much as we should. I would like to establish some method of formally recognising the value of community employment schemes throughout the country during the coming weeks.

To answer the Deputy's question, I expect all of this to be done long before the end of this Dáil session. This is a 14-week session and I would like to wrap this up in the next few weeks.

CE schemes have traditionally been categorised in one of two ways: social inclusion or activation. I agree with the Minister that, as levels of unemployment fall and levels of employment increase, there is less need for activation. The Minister should bear in mind, however, that we face a number of threats on the economic front. There is one in particular, of which we are all aware, which could lead to a sharp increase in unemployment. Will the Minister ensure that, in its final deliberations, the committee is conscious of the fact that CE schemes need to be adaptable so that they can quickly be changed to accommodate that situation should it arise?

I am sorry if I misheard. Is the Deputy asking about the ramifications of a hard Brexit?

CE schemes are established to help people who are unemployed for the long term. Anybody unfortunate to lose his or her job as a result of a hard Brexit, which we all hope does not occur, will not be unemployed for the long term if our plans for the next year can move him or her into one of the new jobs being created. I am mindful that CE schemes exist to do a particular job. I am not sure it was traditionally segregated into classifications before 2015. I now think it was unfortunate that we segregated the schemes. People need to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of whether they are travelling at the same speed as others. Everybody going into a CE scheme should come out prepared for full-time employment, even if that employment is classified as sheltered employment. The aim and objective of everybody coming into a CE scheme is to leave it with the skill set, self-confidence, and dignity he or she needs to enter the workforce. I want to ensure that is what we achieve and, more importantly, that we publicly value these schemes.