I thank the Deputy for the question. As the Deputy is aware, the 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, to improve their prospect of returning to employment. Scheme participants also of course support vital community services across the country. Since restrictions have eased, I have made a point of visiting CE schemes and participants working on the ground for their community to show how much we value their work. I visited schemes in Mayo, Cork, Wexford, Tallaght, Dublin Fingal, Leitrim, Sligo and Louth so far this year. I plan to continue to visit other schemes into next year.
I am very aware of the challenges resulting from the Covid-19 emergency and the related public health restrictions, including the impact on CE schemes in recruiting new participants. My Department has continued to support CE schemes throughout the period and introduce a number of contingency measures, including the extension of CE participants’ contracts on a number of occasions. This has reduced significantly the number of persons departing CE.
Last month the Minister, Deputy Humphries, and I announced a further extension of contracts report CE and Tús participants. All of these participants’ contracts are now extended up to February 2022. Crucially - this is the key message I would like to get out this morning - after that date, participants whose contracts were extended will only start to leave schemes in a phased and planned manner. This will take place over quite a prolonged period of time up until January 2023. That is different to what we proposed before. We are essentially giving a year for recovery of placements. The date of January 2023 should provide sufficient time for the referral of replacement candidates to CE schemes and to ensure potential disruption to the valuable local services provided by schemes is minimised.
Currently, in the main, people leaving CE schemes should only be those reaching retirement age and those who decide to leave, for example, on finding employment or moving on to further training. My priority and the priority of Department is to continue to support CE schemes in providing services to local communities while providing valuable work experience to their long-term unemployed participants.