Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Ceisteanna (43)

Éamon Ó Cuív

Ceist:

43. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the reason her Department put a cap of six years on participation on the rural social scheme and if she will make a statement on the matter. [50170/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (15 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Employment)

No doubt the Minister recognises the exceptional contribution to society made by the workers in the rural social scheme. It is important to remember that this is not an activation scheme. It is a supplemental income scheme for small low-income farmers and fishermen in return for work done. Could she outline the reasons the Department has put a cap of six years in the length of participation in this scheme? Previously, as long as someone was eligible under the income threshold, he or she could stay on the scheme indefinitely because he or she would need the supplemental income indefinitely and society needed the work indefinitely.

The rural social scheme, RSS, is an income support initiative to provide part-time employment opportunities in the community and voluntary organisations for farmers or fishermen in receipt of certain social welfare payments who are underemployed in their primary occupation. Communities benefit enormously from the skills and talents of local farmers and fishermen and the participants have the opportunity to improve existing skills, or develop new skills, while performing this valuable work in their communities.

Unfortunately, as the Deputy knows, the scheme has its limitations. Apart from the fact that it has played an important role in sustaining rural communities, participants have the opportunity to improve themselves and make themselves ready for other employment opportunities. In tandem, communities benefit from their skills and talents. Many projects up and down the country have been carried out by RSS participants, including a beautiful church in Roscommon that has been rebuilt and is looking fabulous.

I secured extra resources to add extra places to the RSS in 2017 and 2018. The problem is that if we leave people on it indefinitely, it locks other people out and does not allow them to participate in the scheme. Participants who commenced on the scheme prior to 1 February 2017 can remain on it. As a result, anybody who would have engaged with the scheme when the Deputy introduced it will be allowed to remain on it indefinitely. In order not to lock people out, however - because the Deputy is aware that it is probably one of the highest-rated schemes in terms of participation and because we have a cap on places - we introduced a six-year participation limit that lets people come in, stay on the scheme, reskill and redevelop and make themselves available for other employment opportunities in the community.

Can the Minister outline the number of places available on the scheme at present, the number of participants on the scheme and the number of people on waiting lists to go on the scheme? A finite number of people are receiving farm assist or fish assist, so it appears that this is a false reason. To make the places available on demand would require a very small increase.

I might not be able to answer all the Deputy's questions but as of 29 November there were 3,231 participants and 138 supervisors in the RSS. The funding allocated to the scheme for this year is €53.11 million. The Deputy is correct that it was established as an income support scheme, but the way the scheme has developed with the involvement of training and the fact that people can reskill and enhance the talents they bring with them to the scheme affords them the opportunity to look for new work opportunities in their communities. If we were to continue in the way it was originally established, an RSS participant could spend his working life on the scheme. That would result in very limited turnover of places and no opportunity for new entrants. I do not believe that is what was envisaged, and it certainly is not envisaged for the future. It might not be a pure activation scheme like some of our other schemes. The aim of the people on the scheme is not to get a job at the end of it, but it is a scheme to help them to skill up and retrain while they are offering their valuable services in the community so they can have a broader approach to looking for work thereafter.

We will take one final question from Deputy Ó Cuív.

The Minister mentioned skilling up. These are active farmers and highly skilled people. One thing that amazed me when I went to live and work permanently in rural Ireland was the skill level of local farmers in many facets of work. For some of them, for all sorts of family reasons, the combination of farming and the scheme keeps them fully occupied. The scheme provides vital services at a small cost to the State. The State would have to pay far more to provide them otherwise. They are not available to take full-time positions. It is patronising to speak continually as if these people were under-skilled in some way. If people wish to progress into full-time jobs, they will do so. If they can get them and are free to take them, they will take them. The Minister said there are 3,231 participants. What is the total number of places available on the scheme at present? Second, at the micro level there are some areas of the country that have places available on the scheme but due to the six-year rule, when it takes effect, they will be unable to fill the places.

When I made the increase in the 2018 budget, it capped the number of places at 3,350. As I said, the current number of participants is 3,231. This is one of our most successful schemes. Far from being patronising, with respect, I am trying to tell the Deputy that some of these people are the highest skilled workers in our community. However, they are only farming or fishing part-time, so it is open to them to have another part-time job outside the State providing an income support for them. In no way was it ever intended to have people dependent on welfare for the rest of their lives. I doubt that this was ever envisaged and it is certainly not envisaged in the scheme now. That is why the cap of six years was imposed. It is to allow people to dip in and dip out at different times of their lives when they cannot avail of other job opportunities in the State. Far from being patronising, this is a very valuable scheme. I realise the Deputy established it and give him credit for doing so. It is one of our better schemes. However, the Department absolutely does not create welfare dependency. That defeats every purpose it has.

I have a second supplementary question.

No, tá an t-am imithe. Leanfaidh muid ar aghaidh le ceist Uimh. 44.

I did not get a second supplementary question.

I do not think so.

You did. I am not that slow.

The Acting Chairman should check the record. I did not get a second supplementary question.