Adjournment Debate. - Social Economy Programme.

I thank the Chair for facilitating me and I welcome the presence of the Minister of State, Deputy Tim O'Malley, in the House. I have raised this matter with the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, but I am glad that the Minister of State is here. I hope he will convey to the Minister my deep concern about this matter.

Although I am raising my concerns because I have a particular Tallaght perspective, this issue does not relate to Tallaght only. I am asking the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment to provide urgently needed funding, through FÁS and the social economy scheme, to enable a long-established community training project in Tallaght to continue in operation. Syscom Computer Training Limited is a registered company that was established by the Tallaght ICTU centre for the unemployed, which was founded in 1987 as part of the response by the trade union movement to the unemployment crisis that prevailed at that time. The centre was established alongside the Programme for National Recovery which was agreed by the social partners in the 1980s.

Syscom was established to provide high quality training and development services to unemployed people, to provide educational and training facilities that are of relevance to such people, to support the long-term unemployed in their efforts to return to the workforce and to help individuals to gain new skills and to develop existing skills. Since its establishment in 1991, Syscom has provided 8,000 course places in Tallaght. It has been staffed by part-time community employment and full-time job initiative personnel during that period. Its one full-time staff member, the manager, who has been continuously employed since its inception, also functions as a part-time tutor. I had the pleasure of bringing the manager and some of her colleagues to meet the Taoiseach last year. I impressed on the Taoiseach the importance of this scheme, which I have been happy to support as an elected representative of Tallaght.

The termination of payments expected under the second phase of the community access to IT scheme, which was inaugurated by the former Minister for communications, Senator O'Rourke, removed the possibility of the support for which this project had been already favourably assessed by the Department. The provision for the gradual roll-out of the social economy and its use to replace places hitherto provided under the community employment scheme, as envisaged in the PPF, provided an alternative source of support. Syscom has provided all necessary information and a detailed and updated business plan for FÁS as part of its application for such support. I understand that FÁS has verbally indicated that it has no available resources to cover further projects in Tallaght. I remind the House that Tallaght is the third largest centre of population in Ireland.

The reduction of community employment schemes and numbers being carried out by FÁS, together with the continuing uncertainty among surviving schemes as to their continuation, has led to the postponement or reduction of normal spending by community employment projects on IT training. This will lead to a reduction in the skills of the workforce at a time when skills are urgently needed. Syscom is faced with an immediate crisis, therefore. In the absence of support, it is being forced to close down, in spite of the need for IT training in Tallaght and its long and proven record in delivering a quality service to the community, including recognised qualifications such as the ECDL and NCVA awards.

I wish to make clear to the Minister of State that this is an important issue for Tallaght. It is important that this House demonstrates its strong support for people who need it. As I have outlined, Syscom has provided tremendous service to the community over a long period. Some 8,000 people have benefited and it would be a shame to pick on such people in this time of spending constraints. I appeal to the Minister of State to convey to the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment my serious concerns, as a representative of Tallaght and the Dublin South-West constituency. I hope that I can look forward to progress in this regard. I appreciate the attendance and support of the Minister of State,

I thank Deputy O'Connor for raising this issue and for providing me with an opportunity to outline the roles of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and FÁS in the administration of this relatively new scheme. Annual allocations under the FÁS social economy programme are provided in the context of the Estimates through the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which is also responsible for the scheme's overall policy direction. The management of the scheme, including the regional breakdown of the funding and the approval of grants for individual social economy enterprises, are day-to-day operational matters for the board of FÁS as part of its responsibilities under the Labour Services Act 1987.

The social economy programme was introduced in September 2000 to tap into employment or income generating opportunities that might be available in the social economy sector. FÁS provides start-up capital, for up to three years, to social economy enterprises that create permanent sustainable employment for certain disadvantaged groups. The jobs supported within social economy enterprises are primarily aimed at long-term unemployed persons over the age of 35 and other disadvantaged persons, such as Travellers and those in receipt of disability allowance. There is a 10% exemption, however, for other persons who do not meet the normal eligibility criteria, including women in households that depend on welfare. The social economy programme operates as a national programme with a specific localised focus on the 38 disadvantaged areas designated by Government for specific supports.

At local level the decision-making process is two-tiered and is operated through FÁS community services unit and social economy local working groups. The latter group comprises representatives of FÁS and area partnership companies, relevant statutory bodies such as health boards and local authority, local community and voluntary interests, ICTU and local employers and other appropriate bodies. The role of the local working groups is to identify and prioritise areas of social economy activity, which will enhance the regeneration of the local area. Local working groups advise and make recommendations to FÁS on specific funding applications under the social economy programme.

The 2003 allocation for the social economy programme (SEP) was set during the Estimates campaign and was announced in the Dáil by the Minister in November 2002. The allocations have increased from €6.62 million in 2001, to €20.55 million in 2002 and stand at €30.836 million in 2003. Notwithstanding the considerable pressures this year on current Government expenditure, the allocation to the social economy programme was increased by 50%. This funds more than 2000 grant-supported employees in over 300 enterprises. This increased allocation to FÁS will enable them to meet commitments under the programme. However, this substantially increased allocation is not sufficient to meet all the demands from sponsors for new projects. This year will be a period of consolidation for the programme with a focus on enhancing the sustainability and viability of established social economy enterprises.

FÁS is currently meeting promoters of individual projects approved under the programme to discuss the roll-out of funding in 2003. FÁS has assured the Department that it will finance all commitments made to the enterprises already approved.

A review of the social economy programme is currently being undertaken, which is expected to be completed in July 2003. This review will inform the future direction of the programme. In addition, the Deputy may wish to note that a cross-departmental senior officials' group has been asked to consider options for the future provision of community services, having regard to the contribution now being made by community employment and concerns expressed by the social partners and key stakeholders.