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Community Employment Schemes

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Questions (7)

Claire Kerrane


7. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the way she intends to fill the current gaps left as a result of those departing community employment positions, particularly with regard to community employment referrals and in circumstances in which there is difficulty replacing persons in these important roles; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57828/21]

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Oral answers (9 contributions) (Question to Social)

I wish to ask the Minister about community employment places. The six-year rule means people must leave community employment schemes because they have no choice. In some cases, a person who leaves is not replaced and the important service that community employment provides in a community can then be lost.

I thank the Deputy for the question. As the Deputy is aware, the community employment, CE, scheme is an active labour market programme designed to provide eligible long-term unemployed people and other disadvantaged persons with an opportunity to engage in useful work within their communities on a temporary, fixed-term basis, to improve their prospect of returning to employment. Scheme participants also of course support vital community services across the country. Since restrictions have eased, I have made a point of visiting CE schemes and participants working on the ground for their community to show how much we value their work. I visited schemes in Mayo, Cork, Wexford, Tallaght, Dublin Fingal, Leitrim, Sligo and Louth so far this year. I plan to continue to visit other schemes into next year.

I am very aware of the challenges resulting from the Covid-19 emergency and the related public health restrictions, including the impact on CE schemes in recruiting new participants. My Department has continued to support CE schemes throughout the period and introduce a number of contingency measures, including the extension of CE participants’ contracts on a number of occasions. This has reduced significantly the number of persons departing CE.

Last month the Minister, Deputy Humphries, and I announced a further extension of contracts report CE and Tús participants. All of these participants’ contracts are now extended up to February 2022. Crucially - this is the key message I would like to get out this morning - after that date, participants whose contracts were extended will only start to leave schemes in a phased and planned manner. This will take place over quite a prolonged period of time up until January 2023. That is different to what we proposed before. We are essentially giving a year for recovery of placements. The date of January 2023 should provide sufficient time for the referral of replacement candidates to CE schemes and to ensure potential disruption to the valuable local services provided by schemes is minimised.

Currently, in the main, people leaving CE schemes should only be those reaching retirement age and those who decide to leave, for example, on finding employment or moving on to further training. My priority and the priority of Department is to continue to support CE schemes in providing services to local communities while providing valuable work experience to their long-term unemployed participants.

I hear what the Minister of State is saying. I welcome that he has obviously had a lot of engagement with CE schemes. That is really welcome. However, there is clearly a problem here. The last time I raised this issue, there were 1,400 vacancies in jobs available in CE. Before that, there were 1,200. Now there are over 2,500 CE vacancies with people looking for people to join them on CE. Something is definitely wrong here. I met with a disability group in Roscommon - I have raised this before - and they cannot get people to fill places. They cannot fill their CE places. I have met other groups as well that have CE vacancies. They are not getting referrals. There definitely is problem. I have never seen over 2,500 CE vacancies advertised online before. There is a problem and it needs to be addressed. I agree, people perhaps in their 50s or 60s want to be on that scheme. It means a lot to them to be there in the community doing something. They may have nothing else and the six-year rule should be looked at.

Well, what is wrong is Covid-19. I think that is the simple, immediate answer. We are still recovering from it. The referral process is still recovering from it, but it is recovering. In September and October, we had 613 or 614 new starters. Comparably, when you look at October 2019, the figure was 726. We are therefore getting back to a monthly starter rate that is getting closer to normal times. However, on referrals, there are between 1,200 and 1,500 per month in recent months. It is going in the right direction. The activation services are up to speed in capacity now. That was not the case previously. However, since the economy has re-opened that has been the case. Some 100 new job coaches have been appointed as well, since the pathways to work strategy. We are in a recovery phase. It is going in the right direction, but we have some distance to go yet.

No, I think there has been an issue with referral since before Covid-19. I believe that there have been a number of vacancies in many cases. I will check with that disability group, but I am nearly sure it has been a number of years without referrals. I will certainly check that because I do not buy that it is Covid-19-related.

On the six-year rule, people who may be coming to the end of their CE scheme and who may be in their mid- or late-50s do not want to be going around looking for jobs with a CV. I am asking about that cohort. Whether they live alone, that job could be just as beneficial for them for social reasons as for financial reasons. There is a cohort of people that may have other issues or just want to be within their community. They do not want at that age, in their late 50s, to have to go looking for work. Could anything be done about the six-year rule?

I was not intending to come in on this question, but I get really frustrated at the narrow view of the Department that CE is an active labour market programme. It is much bigger than that.

Those on the scheme may not participate in what the Department defines as the active labour market, but they are providing a service to their community and they have a purpose in their life. In that context, we need to look at the six-year rule. We need to look at the services being provided. If there is that level of vacancies within CE at the moment, that means that services are not being provided in communities. Also the relationship between JobPath and CEs and the cutting off of referrals to CE schemes needs to looked at. I heard the Minister of State use the phrase “active labour market programme”. CE is much broader than that. It needs to be looked at in a much broader prism than that in the context of the opportunities given to participants and the services they provide to communities.

I will take Deputy Calleary’s point first. He may have missed my opening statement. When I talk about CE, I always talk about two halves, the activation side and the service side. I clearly stated that this morning as well. I always acknowledge it.

There have been challenges in CE prior to Covid-19 about referral rates. There were issues prior to my time, because of the low unemployment rate or the high employment rate. That did impact referrals to CE. I am not pretending that there were not issues prior to that. That is to be acknowledged. My figure for vacancies at the moment is 1,938. That is about 9% of places vacant. I do accept that there will be some projects that are down on the 60% level of vacancies. We have 79 community development officers, CDOs, around the country who should be and are engaging with their local sponsors about targeted actions to fill those projects that are under more pressure than average.