I propose to take Questions Nos. 51, 52, 55 and 66 together.
As the Deputies are aware, 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.
In light of the ongoing COVID related challenges faced by CE schemes, Minister Humphreys and I announced a number of changes to CE and the Rural Social Scheme (RSS) on the 21st December 2021.
The CE baseline year was increased from 2007 to 2014 with immediate effect. The baseline year will be maintained at 7 years behind the current year going forward i.e. on 1 January 2022, the baseline year moved to 2015.
The following changes are effective and operational from 1st January, 2022.
The qualifying age for the CE service support stream (SSS) has been reduced from 62 to 60 and the 10% cap on the number of participants has been removed. This means that persons over 60 years of age can now remain on CE until they reach the state pension age, once there are places available.
Participants on RSS who are 60 years of age or older can also now remain on the programme until they reach the state pension age – this directly benefits those participants who started RSS since the introduction of the six-year rule in 2017.
In order to assist with the transition from COVID emergency supports over the next period, participants, including those with extended contracts, may not be required to leave CE, until a suitable replacement has been referred to the scheme. This transitionary provision will support schemes to retain services, with the higher-than-normal turnover of participants in 2022, as participants with extended contracts start to leave schemes. This was also effective from 1st January 2022. Any extension of participants' contracts under this provision must be approved by officials from the Department and consideration will be given to the impact of COVID on the recruitment of participants and services provided by the scheme, along with recruitment and referral efforts.
While it is too early to say definitively, feedback received to date in relation to these changes is positive and it is expected that these will have a positive impact at individual CE scheme level over the coming months.
In light of the need to re-impose some public health restrictions in December and January, and the impact of these restrictions on schemes, a further extension of contracts for CE & Tús participants has been approved. CE and Tús participants with extended contracts will not now begin to leave schemes until 8th April and will exit schemes in a phased manner over the following twelve months.
Officials from my Department will continue to work with and support all CE schemes throughout the transitionary period as all extended contracts come to an end.
My priority and the priority of the Department is to have all CE and Tús schemes back providing normal services and supports to their long-term unemployed participants while delivering valuable services to local communities.
I trust this clarifies matters for the Deputies