Wednesday, 4 February 2004

Ceisteanna (38, 39)

Seymour Crawford

Ceist:

130 Mr. Crawford asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs if he has established the new rural social scheme as announced by the Minister for Finance on budget day which he suggested would help improve rural services; if new structures will be put in place to administer this new scheme; the person who will be in charge; if persons other than those on farm assist will be allowed to participate in the scheme; when the scheme will commence; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3278/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

131 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs when it is proposed to commence the rural social scheme; the length of time that it is proposed to keep the scheme in operation; the person by whom the scheme will be administered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3282/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (13 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 130 and 131 together.

The aim of the scheme, as outlined in the Budget Statement, is to provide directly improved rural services at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer and, at the same time, to ensure an income and employment support for certain small farmers who can no longer make a viable living on the land. Based on the funding being made available, it is planned to offer up to 2,500 places on the scheme. To contribute to the costs of wages, insurance and materials, €10 million will be allocated from the dormant accountsfund.

The scheme is aimed at those on long-term social welfare benefits. It is envisaged that to be eligible to participate, a person must be on farm assist or possess a herd number and be in receipt of unemployment assistance or unemployment benefit, if previously on community employment or disability allowance.

The rural social scheme will be designed specifically for rural people and its operations and structures will operate in a farmer-friendly manner. The scheme will recognise that these small farmers have a wealth of experience and talents that need to be preserved for future generations. It is my intention that the scheme will be operated so that the talents of both farming men and women will be harnessed for the good of the community. As a result, this scheme is a community programme, with a focus on the provision of direct services in the community.

It is proposed that participants on the scheme will receive a payment, which will provide a weekly amount in excess of what they currently receive from the Department of Social and Family Affairs and will receive a rate comparable to what they would currently receive on schemes such as the community employment scheme. It is planned that participants will remain on the scheme for one year, with priority being given to new applicants. In the event that there are no new applicants, participants may continue on the scheme.

FÁS has advised my Department that it has approximately 1,300 participants on community employment who would qualify for the new scheme. It is anticipated that the vast majority of these people on community employment will opt for the new scheme, thus freeing up additional places on the community employment scheme. Detailed guidelines for the scheme and the administrative arrangements are currently being developed by my Department in consultation with other public bodies.

It is clear that the rural social scheme is still at an early stage of development but who will run it? Will it be operated under the Leader programme or some other group? How will the Minister co-ordinate it with the existing community employment schemes? For instance, if a few people in a parish are working under the scheme will they be supervised by the same supervisor who deals with the community employment scheme? The Minister should ensure that the new scheme will not become a bureaucracy to override existing community groups and schemes.

The Minister referred to the disability allowance. If a farmer's son or daughter does not have a herd number — I have a specific case in mind — will such a person be eligible? There is such a limited involvement in FÁS now that the opportunities for people in rural areas are scarce. The Minister should take that type of situation into account. Farmers or their children should be eligible for the scheme.

Will people on farm assist be forced to take jobs under this scheme? As the Minister has said, of the 8,600 who are currently on farm assist, roughly 1,300 are working on FÁS schemes. Therefore, approximately 1,200 extra must be found to fill the new scheme. Will the Minister assure the House that the scheme is not being proposed just to make sure that fewer farmers will be able to avail of the farm assist scheme? When farm assist was introduced it was supposed to be for 20,000 people but because of red tape and a lack of interest by farmers, 8,600 is the maximum number who participated in it.

The Deputy has asked a series of pertinent questions. First, nobody will be forced into the scheme. I accept, however, that there may be farmers who are entitled to farm assist but are not claiming it for one reason or other. During the past week, I attended an IFA meeting at which I made clear my attitude to theseissues. I am glad to hear the Deputy's comments because I concur with him that it is important, particularly with the changes in relative agricultural incomes, that people should claim their due entitlements.

The Deputy referred to the issue of eligibility for farmers' sons and daughters. As things stand currently, they will not be eligible for the scheme. However, we are examining a situation whereby a farmer's dependent spouse could go on the scheme but, in return, the person in receipt of farm assist would have to give it up. It is important to achieve a balance of men and women participating in the scheme in rural communities.

The situation is clear. At the moment, there are approximately 20,000 community employment places, with a further 5,000 between the job initiative and the social economy schemes. The new rural social scheme will add another 2,500 to the current total of 25,000. FÁS has provided us with an estimate because it did not register whether people who came from the unemployment benefit system had a herd number. Those figures therefore represent our best guess at the moment. We will allow for a minimum of 1,300, or maybe up to 2,000, to come off community employment and on to the new scheme.

The minimum is 1,300.

It will leave 2,000 more community employment scheme places to be spread around rural and urban areas. That should accommodate some of the people to whom the Deputy has referred, farmers' sons and daughters on the scheme. As regards when the scheme will commence, we have done quite a bit of work and we are having discussions with the various agencies. We hope to have local sponsors as well as some intermediary body, although not FÁS in this case because it is not a training scheme. We are talking to Leader personnel because that programme operates throughout rural Ireland. We need some intermediate body and currently there are discussions and negotiations going on about that. FÁS, the Department of Social and Family Affairs, the Leader programme and Údarás na Gaeltachta have great experience with such schemes and have been helpful in sharing their knowledge with my Department. I hope to finish the process of designing the scheme quickly. While we will have to discuss it with FÁS, there is merit in the Deputy's suggestion to share resources in certain cases.

Who will administer the new scheme or will its administration be spread over a number of agencies? With regard to the €10 million from the dormant accounts fund, would it not be more prudent to get Exchequer money because the fund cannot be raided in perpetuity? What kind of sponsors does the Minister envisage in terms of employment of participants on the scheme?

What is the last question?

What kind of sponsors will administer the scheme at local level?

I will answer the question of sponsors first. It will be like the community employment scheme. I am a great believer in rural Ireland and in what I call the parish scheme which, rather than a special scheme, gets all the bodies in a rural parish together. This could include the soccer club, the GAA club, community councils, the tidy towns committee, the day care committee, etc. This amalgam of the bodies — the parish scheme — then becomes the sponsor. I have seen this work well and successfully in my parish. When the parish gets its pool of people, they are divided out based on the needs of each organisation and according to their skills and talents. The sponsors must be local.

There must also be an intermediate tier responsible for recruitment and organisation. We are considering Leader for that. No decision has been made but we are discussing the matter with Leader because when we look at the review of structures, we see that although we have State-sponsored community groups, Leader is the only one covering all of rural Ireland, which is what we need.

Another issue we are considering is whether we should tell each sponsor and each local committee to set up a wages system or whether this should be done centrally because of the complications involved. We are examining a number of technical issues some of which are very mechanical. We will obtain quick answers to those.

On the dormant accounts, whatever the money is spent on, if it is not all capital spending, the fund will run out at some stage. That is the reason we have been prudent with regard to spending. Allowing that some money must still come from dormant life insurance policies, at the present rate of going there are ten years of life left in the fund. Dormant accounts funding should not all be capital spending because we would then wind up with many buildings and not many services. If the fund runs out, it will have to be substituted by something else. If people stopped buying lottery tickets, schemes funded by the lottery would have to funded by something else.

This scheme is here for the long term. At the rate of spending we are talking about, and we have been careful not to be tempted to spend it all in one go, the dormant accounts fund will have a fairly long shelf life, even if no new dormant accounts appear.

We all welcome this scheme but it is time that groups interested in it were able to contact somebody in the Department about it. To date, nobody is able to answer the questions people ask about it. Will the Minister ensure that somebody who knows something about the future of the scheme is available to answer questions? I do not doubt the money in the dormant accounts will last, because the scheme is so slow getting off the ground. Significant funding will be available. My concern is where and when we can get answers and information.

I thought the person who could answer the question about where we are going was myself and that I would leave the privilege of asking the question to the Deputy. There is a tendency nowadays to require an answer before something has been worked out and then to blame the person if matters do not work out as planned and one needs to change tack slightly. I have been as open and frank as I can be today about the direction I am taking.

I appreciate that.

I have indicated where we are going on this matter. However, until the deal is done and I have it cemented in place and the arrangements made, I do not want, nor is it fair to ask, a member of staff to postulate on what might or might not be done, although it is all right for me to do this in the Dáil. We would like to move forward quickly on this and to be able to say soon how it will be done. We can then build on the scheme and get it up and running for the people. It is a scheme for 2004 and nobody should doubt that. It will be done as quickly as possible, but some technical details must be worked out.