I propose to take Questions Nos. 88 and 100 together.
The back to work allowance scheme which was introduced in September 1993 is part of my Department's programme of initiatives designed to assist long-term unemployed people, lone parents and other social welfare recipients to return to the active labour force. There are two strands to the scheme, the back to work enterprise allowance for self employment and the back to work allowance for employees.
The scheme was reviewed in 2002 in the light of economic and labour market changes and, in particular, the drop in unemployment levels since the introduction of the scheme in 1993. This review also took account of an evaluation of the scheme by independent consultants. They recommended that the scheme should be restructured in the light of the changes in the labour market. In particular, the review recommended that the scheme be refocused on the longer-term unemployed, that the non-financial supports be enhanced and that the overall numbers on the scheme be reduced.
In January 2003, therefore, the qualifying period for persons on unemployment benefit-assistance was increased to five years. In recognition of the particular difficulties faced by lone parents and persons on sickness related payments, recipients of other social welfare qualifying payments were not affected by the change.
The scheme is continually monitored to ensure its relevance to current labour market and economic conditions. It was recognised that there was some difficulty being experienced by persons wishing to enter self employment after five years attachment to the live register. Therefore, in budget 2004 the qualifying period for access to the self-employed strand of the scheme was reduced to three years. Effectively, from March 2004 persons in receipt of unemployment benefit or assistance accessing the self employed strand of the scheme only require three years on their unemployment payment to qualify for participation in the scheme.
Earlier this month I launched a new national edition of "Toil and Trouble", a comprehensive user friendly guide for those thinking of setting up a business. I am aware that in certain parts of the country employment is difficult to come by and an alternative to this is for persons to participate in self employment and create opportunity and self reliance.
The back to work scheme, administered by my Department's social and family support service, SFSS, and through the network of locally based facilitators, has demonstrated that the right mix of financial and other supports delivers a smooth integration into the regular labour force. There are 10,388 participants on the scheme at present, over 6,000 of whom are engaged in self employment. I am committed to ensuring that these supports continue to be effective and relevant to labour market needs and I aim to maximise take up of the back to work allowance.
I will continue to monitor the scheme to ensure that it continues to assist those furthest from the labour market to gain a foothold into sustainable employment or self employment. However, I have no plans to change the qualifying criteria at this point.