Wednesday, 28 January 2004
Seanad Eireann Debate
I am pleased to move this motion on behalf of my colleague, Senator Paul Coghlan, and that the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, is present as he crusaded on the issue in late 2003 and voiced his strong concerns at the proposed cuts. He was backed by 40 Fianna Fáil backbenchers and I understand that at a parliamentary party meeting approximately 30 members supported his call for the community employment schemes to be retained. He stated at the time that the attitude of the party to the community employment schemes would be an acid test as to how it would be assessed by the voters. I have long been a great exponent of community employment schemes because they have transformed towns and villages in rural Ireland. I know that without the input of community employment schemes many of our towns and villages would not look as well and would not be as successful in the Tidy Towns competition.
Community employment schemes also give people the dignity of work. Many people on community employment schemes are in the over 50s group and would find it difficult to get jobs in the market place but are extremely content to work on these scheme. I think it is a retrograde step that a person who is on an unemployment scheme has to return to unemployment assistance. It degrades the dignity which sustained him in a job to that time. It is false economy. The extra cost to the Exchequer in retaining a person on a FÁS scheme as opposed to unemployment assistance is €28.
Community employment schemes play a very useful role and provide benefits across a wide range of activities from crèches to people with disabilities. I accept the Government will state the counter argument that the number of long-term unemployed has decreased, and that is so, however, people who work on community employment schemes would find it difficult to get jobs in the open market. We all know that for those over 55 it may be difficult to get a job. It is extremely important that people work in that type of employment.
In 1998, more than 40,000 people were on community employment schemes, a figure which has now halved to 20,000. The proposed reduction of 5,000 places caused a great deal of concern. My colleague in Limerick West, Deputy John Cregan, was on the plinth of Leinster House crusading for the retention of places on the community employment scheme. Irish politics is different from British politics where 70 Labour MPs voted yesterday against the Labour Party's changes in education. We have loyalty to the Whip and Government Deputies, having stated their position on the steps of Leinster House, when called on to vote on a Labour Party motion, voted in support of the Government.
I am aware that the Minister for Finance, Deputy McCreevy, would like to get the numbers on community employment schemes down to zero. If we continue to reduce the number of places on community employment schemes, the good work that has been done in communities will be eroded, unless the level of funding to local authorities is increased. The Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Deputy Mary Coughlan, has introduced changes that will have an insidious impact on people in community employment schemes by virtue of cutting the number of hours in which they can participate, and in many cases making it uneconomic to work on them.
The media are not focusing on this issue in recent times, but I get deputations from people involved in community employment schemes because the numbers are reducing or schemes are being amalgamated in different areas and the numbers participating are dropping considerably. The problem has not gone away and this is still a live issue. The supervisors who have worked on such schemes for many years fight for their retention, which is understandable because they can see the benefits. In 2003 there were 17% fewer on community employment schemes and I presume we will see further cuts in the future. If there are, some substitute should be put in place. Some people may ask whether they provide a meaningful role and I believe they do. I have already spelled out the beneficial effects for the participants. Many people in my area of Newcastle West probably would not have jobs if they were not participating in community employment schemes. I would be interested to hear whatever enlightenment the Minister of State can provide with regard to changes to the scheme, which might be beneficial. By tabling this motion, we are at least giving him a chance to respond. Perhaps there are some positive aspects on which the Minister of State can elaborate, but people who have spoken to me see only the negative side of many of the changes to the scheme. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
Mr. Bradford: I second the motion and I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute. I thank Senator Finucane for his comments. It is appropriate that the Minister of State with responsibility for labour affairs, Deputy Fahey, is present because following the initial outcry some months ago about the possibility of large-scale cutbacks in the scheme, he was the first to use a megaphone to announce what he and his parliamentary party colleagues would do to stem the tide. Many of the Minister of State's colleagues made strong pronouncements regarding the need to reverse the proposed cutbacks in the community employment schemes. They all spoke loudly on the plinth of Leinster House but those strong words descended into the silence of the lambs when the reality became apparent. The cutbacks we feared would be made now appear to have been put in place. It certainly seems that the number of people who will benefit from social employment schemes nationally this year will be much less than what is required.
Social employment schemes need to be examined from the viewpoint of what they have achieved for communities, including, in particular, the people who worked on them. Social employment work provides a double advantage for participants. First, it can represent a step up for people who previously were among the long-term unemployed, perhaps those in their early 20s or 30s who never had a proper job. In some instances, CE schemes have provided such people with a passport to the workplace. Second, and at the other end of the age spectrum, people who became redundant in their 50s and who may have had no possibility of any future income, apart from a contributory old age pension, were able to work in their own communities for sporting clubs, charitable organisations and community groups. The CE schemes provided a fine way for such people to wind down their working years as they were able to participate fully in their local communities, while giving an extraordinarily good return for the moneys expended.
If every Department involved in social spending looked at the euros being spent from a value for money perspective — to be fair, in this day and age, we must talk about value for money — it would be apparent that the value obtained from the social employment schemes is unsurpassed. The schemes comprise both an employment and a social content. They represent a social contract between the State and its citizens. I am sure that, given the Cathaoirleach's involvement in the Gaelic Athletic Association, he could cite cases involving GAA clubs, community halls and other facilities that would not have remained open but for the availability of labour provided under community employment schemes.
Of all the social schemes that have been put in place over the past ten or 15 years, the community employment schemes have stood the test of time. They are as relevant and appropriate today as they were during the darker economic years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. From time to time, I have heard the Tánaiste argue that when social employment schemes were introduced, there was a much higher unemployment rate and jobs were genuinely difficult, if not impossible, to find. Her argument would appear to be that as economic circumstances have changed, so should the schemes and, therefore, cutbacks should be made. However, the test of necessity for the scheme is that if one has 20, 30 or 50 CE places available, be they in Mallow, Kilmallock or Newcastle West, invariably they will be filled.
There are no vacancies in social employment schemes because the need is still there to find suitable employment and training opportunities for many people across a broad spectrum of age and qualifications. If any proposed cutbacks are implemented, unfortunately, instead of participating in a social employment scheme and thereby helping to develop their own personal skills and the community at large, people will simply return to the lengthening dole queues. They will be in receipt of social welfare and offer nothing in return.
The social employment scheme is a win-win formula. It represents a win for the State, which gets value for social expenditure, as well as being a win for local communities that benefit directly from the work being undertaken. In addition to sporting and community groups, organisations looking after the elderly, the ill and the handicapped are also involved. Without their access to labour under the social employment schemes, many such groups would have to close down. That would represent a tremendous loss to rural and urban areas, but above all to the people who benefit from the work being done under such schemes. On a value for money basis, every euro of taxpayers' money spent on social employment schemes produces a magnificent return for the State. If cutbacks in these schemes are implemented it would represent a huge net loss to society.
It would be marvellous if everybody had qualifications of such standing that they could be guaranteed highly paid employment, but that never was the case and it never will be. There will always be a need for social schemes to provide openings, help and encouragement to people who do not have all the advantages that life may offer to others. Social employment schemes have worked wonders for thousands of people over the past ten or 15 years. We should recognise what they have achieved and also recognise that they can keep doing the same type of valuable work in the years ahead.
The Minister of State has a strong personal commitment to the schemes but he alone cannot make the decision to retain the full numbers participating in them. I ask him to put his political muscle behind this project to ensure that his ethos regarding the social employment schemes will win the battle at Cabinet level, rather than the ethos of the Progressive Democrats. The Progressive Democrats may have won the battle over the national stadium — a fight I was happy to see them win — but I would prefer it if they lost the battle over social employment schemes.
We are fortunate to have such a competent Minister of State as Deputy Fahey and I welcome him to the House. I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak about community employment schemes. Since our previous discussion on this topic in November, some significant developments have taken place which have gone some way towards allaying fears expressed in both Houses of the Oireachtas and around the country that community employment schemes were to be axed. CE schemes were established to help the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged groups obtain gainful employment. For a variety of reasons, the schemes have broadened their focus to include the development and resourcing of community services. CE schemes have made a valuable contribution in carrying out both these roles. They are of real social value to those who participate in them, not least older, semi-skilled workers, and many worthwhile, non-commercial community activities depend on them. Even in an era of full employment, there are people who do not wish to work outside of their community. For that reason, there will always be a need to provide this type of scheme to ensure that people work in the community for its benefit. As a result of the upturn in economies here and around the world, some people have argued there is less need for community employment schemes. This view fails to take into account the human and social benefits these schemes deliver. I have seen the wonderful work resulting from these schemes in my community in Tipperary and I am sure all of us can bear witness to the benefit of CE schemes in our local areas.
The Government has recognised the tremendous work those on CE schemes have provided to local communities across the country. Therefore, it has decided, in the context of the 2004 Estimates, that the combined participation levels on community employment schemes, the job initiative, and social economy programmes will be maintained at the 2003 level. No further reductions in numbers are envisaged in 2004.
The total allocation of funding for employment schemes in 2004 has been fixed at €351 million. This will support up to 25,000 places across the three schemes. FÁS will be given some flexibility in the management of this financial allocation in order to maximise progression to the labour market while at the same time facilitating the support of community services. These guarantees allow both FÁS and scheme sponsors at local level to have greater certainty when planning what services should be supported. The commitment to fund a pool of up to 25,000 places amounts to a significant level of activity at a time when some 47,500 work permits have been issued to employers in 2003 in respect of generally low skilled or unskilled personnel from overseas.
It has been suggested that people working in areas such as the health services, child care etc. would lose out on this change. As the Minister has said, all health service related CE projects, including those providing services for people with disabilities, have been ring-fenced against any reductions. Other services ring-fenced against reductions include drug task force activity and child care service provision.
Our economy has a strength it never had before. The maintenance of near full employment in a more difficult environment is a remarkable achievement. Some years ago the conventional wisdom was that long-term unemployment reduction could never be achieved and that the State would have to cater for large numbers of permanently long-term unemployed people. This Government has, over recent years had a fair degree of success in its work to generate jobs for all unemployed people. Nothing provides dignity better than a job. The Government has provided an additional 400,000 jobs since 1997. Long-term unemployment, one of the greatest causes of poverty, is down from over 5% in 1997 to approximately 1.5% today.
I would like to highlight the creation of a new rural employment scheme last month. This scheme focuses on providing help where it is truly needed and will provide secure community related employment opportunities for persons in families eligible for the farm assist scheme. It is designed to provide up to 2,500 places and will tackle the twin problems of low income and lack of services in rural communities. The relative decline in farm incomes has caused hardship to families dependent on that income. However, rural communities possess a wide range of skills and talents which are often under utilised. All current participants of CE schemes who have a herd number will automatically transfer to the rural employment scheme.
The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, emphasised that the institution of the rural employment scheme will help to free up places on community employment schemes which will then be allocated to new participants in both rural and urban areas. A number of reviews of community employment schemes are ongoing. I look forward to studying their recommendations. I hope these reviews will re-focus community employment schemes so that those most in need will continue to benefit from them. While the three year cap on participation has been amended to allow those who are particularly disadvantaged to remain on the schemes, I hope those carrying out the review process will see fit to examine the merits of letting the majority of participants continue to benefit their communities past the three year cap. I will endeavour to influence Government policy constructively on this matter.
Mr. Ross: I welcome this debate in the sense that it gives everybody an opportunity to demonstrate their support of the various schemes promoted in their communities. It also gives them the opportunity to be on the side of virtue, to be uncritical and to maintain that community employment schemes are of benefit to their constituents. It also gives them the opportunity to make speeches directed more towards the local rather than national newspapers, a device which is used in the House and with which I sympathise as it is not unknown for me to use it on occasion.
This motion, however, begs some more profound questions, particularly with regard to the role of FÁS. As the promoter of these schemes, FÁS should be the subject of far greater examination. However, it is never subject to examinations in this House because it would be a dangerous matter for politicians to criticise State agencies or bodies which bring nothing but good, in terms of money and resources, to their communities.
The reality is that FÁS is a sort of slush fund to provide grants for employment creation. It rarely comes under any serious examination because politicians welcome those grants to their communities. FÁS is a large, top-heavy organisation which must find something to do with the large amount of money it is given. Traditionally, and under its articles of association, it was created by the State with the worthy objective of reducing long-term unemployment.
A peculiar feature of FÁS is, as Senator Hanafin pointed out, that whereas long-term unemployment has been reduced over a short period of years from 5% to 1.5%, the size of FÁS and the numbers employed by it have increased. It is now an empire. It produces good for many small communities and nobody can quarrel with that. It also does wonderful work in promoting jobs and activities for people with disabilities. However, it has a budget of €859 million per annum. Much could be done with that amount of money.
I have read the annual report but I can find no detail of where all this money goes. I can see from time to time the great virtue of the individual schemes — which everybody in this House will talk about because they affect their area — but they do not add up to anything worth €859 million, or anywhere near that. Incidentally, the 2002 annual report was only lodged in the House several months after the year end last year and we have not yet received the 2003 report. It is difficult to find out what the organisation is doing from reading the report.
I suggest to the Minister that this organisation has completely lost its way. I do not wish to detract from the good things it does but it does not merit this kind of budget. If one reads the statement of the chairman, Mr. Brian Geoghegan, one will find it almost entirely aspirational. There is no detail therein. It does not explain what the organisation will do but states it will review strategy. FÁS has been reviewing its strategy since kingdom come because it does not have one. It has money, the support of politicians and communities that want its assistance. It is there to resolve the problem of the long-term unemployed but that problem is to a large extent resolved. The empire, however, continues to grow. Politicians are unhappy about tackling this problem because if they did they would be vulnerable to charges that they are attacking community employment in their own areas, which is nonsense. FÁS should be subject to a very rigid examination of where it is spending its money and what return it is getting from €859 million. FÁS is responsible for the creation of virtually no jobs except the increasing number it gives to its own staff as the empire gets bigger. It is responsible for a certain amount of training, often in respect of jobs in the wrong sectors for the wrong people, and for a certain amount of research. I quote the chairman, Mr. Brian Geoghegan:
FÁS decided last year to prioritise its objectives once again. I thought this meant it would have a single priority, but it has eight. Everything is a priority because the agency is utterly directionless. How can FÁS, which has so much money, run an income and expenditure deficit of €22 million? It seems to me extraordinary given its €859 million budget and an unemployment rate which is down to 1.5% that the State agency still overspends by this amount. It is quite staggering that it should be allowed to do so. Why are its staff numbers increasing while the rate of unemployment is being reduced so quickly? Why does it have eight priorities when it is prioritising expenditure?
Mr. Ross: It is an amazing achievement of political parties to continually place identifiably sympathetic people on the boards of State agencies. Their loyalties and interests can be undeniably traced back to the social partners but not to the job creators. Where are the representatives of enterprise on the board of FÁS? Enterprise is where real job creation exists. Instead of political hacks, we should have those who can put commercial pressure on this €859 million.
Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (Mr. Fahey): I thank Fine Gael for tabling this motion and the Members who have contributed to the debate. Certainly, the contribution of Senator Ross was very different to that of everyone else. I will come to the issues he raised in a few moments.
I am rather surprised to find that the essence of what is proposed in the Fine Gael motion is entirely wrong. It calls on the Tánaiste to suspend the reduction of 5,000 places on community employment schemes at this time of economic downturn in which there is a lack of job opportunity on the open market.
Mr. Fahey: We ended last year with 25,000 places on community employment schemes in addition to 5,000 places in community employment and social economy. We start this year with 25,000 places. In addition, the budget makes provision for another 2,500 places through the Department of my colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, for people in the farming sector.
Mr. Fahey: That means there will be an additional 2,500 community employment places this year, which will bring the total to 32,500. That is a very considerable number of people given that four years ago, when we had the highest level of unemployment, the number was only 39,000.
In reference to the political points made by Senators, a fight was put up by members of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party, including me, to prevent reductions in community employment schemes and to secure increases. That battle was won. In the budget, the Minister for Finance provided for the 2,500 places and did not cut community employment funding despite cuts in quite a number of areas. I am quite surprised Fine Gael cannot even get its facts right. I reject any suggestion that there are cuts in community employment this year. Rather, there will be increases in the numbers employed along the lines I have described.
However, there have been areas of community employment in which there is a need to change policy. That policy change is now being implemented. As I have said, we will provide for people over 55 years and those with disabilities. In addition to the provision being made under community employment for people with disabilities, we are allocating considerable amounts of money to a range of programmes and organisations through FÁS and some non-governmental organisations to provide increased supports to help people with disabilities to go back to employment.
The extra 2,500 places which have been made available to people under farm assist programmes will be subject to a different set of conditions. These will be announced by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. The extra places will allow small farmers who are not unemployed but have a certain amount of work to do on their farms to become involved in community employment work. Some 1,300 such farmers are already on community employment schemes and they will transfer to the new scheme and enjoy the flexibility that goes with it. The other 1,200 or so places will be taken up by people who have been trying to access community employment places. These people will be made available for community employment. I will concentrate the extra places in towns and cities.
Mr. Fahey: That is true and it is a very good thing. The extra 2,500 places being provided under the rural farm assist scheme will enable 1,300 people already on CE schemes to be transferred to that scheme. A further 1,200 who would otherwise be accessing CE will now be in the new farm scheme.
Mr. Fahey: These are an extra 2,500 places in addition to the 30,000 already there. I am acutely conscious that quite a number of people have been on CE schemes on a continual basis. Under this new programme there will be a much greater focus on training and extra funding is being invested therein. There will be greater emphasis on training as opposed to the work experience element of community employment. That will apply in particular to people who will be chosen from the total numbers on CE schemes and who are deemed to be capable of progression. They will be given intensive training followed by a high-support programme to ensure they find employment. For those who cannot find a job and for those with disabilities or those over 55, a new approach will be announced shortly to give them extra opportunities to participate in CE.
In respect of community services, I agree with the sentiments expressed in the House that CE has provided a significant range of community services across the spectrum. I am anxious to ensure that those services continue on a better structured basis. The numbers of people on the scheme will ensure they will continue. The CE schemes are being re-organised. One of the aspects of the re-organisation caused a lot of trouble in east Galway but I am pleased to hear that most people are happy with the outcome——
Mr. Fahey: I am speaking about the structures involved in the organisation of those schemes. There were previously two schemes in Mountbellew and these will amalgamate. It does not make any sense to have two CE schemes operating side by side in a small town such as Mountbellew.
Mr. Fahey: We are spending €351 million this year on the community employment schemes and that is a considerable sum of money. We must ensure value for money and that the jobs being provided through CE are productive.
Mr. Fahey: It is very important to ensure that volunteerism, which has been the bedrock of rural communities in particular, is not replaced. It was beginning to be replaced because CE programmes were simply providing for services that people formerly provided themselves. The new approach will be to help communities who want to help themselves. Where there is a good culture of volunteerism, we will give new and extra schemes to people who are prepared to do the work themselves but require some support from community employment and other schemes.
The points made by Senator Ross are a little unfair to FÁS. I acknowledge that FÁS receives €859 million each year. He suggested that FÁS is responsible for reducing the numbers of long-term unemployed and that this work is not done. That is a small part of the work of FÁS. The organisation has been undergoing change and it has responded well to the changes in society regarding employment. Aside from the specific challenge of long-term unemployment and providing opportunities for training and work experience, FÁS is involved in upskilling, retraining and lifelong learning. Change in the workplace means there must be adaptability to the global economic conditions and this is the big challenge for the Irish workplace. FÁS has responded in a positive and proactive way to those challenges. There have been very hurtful job losses in particular locations where indigenous industry has closed up and moved to lower wage economies. FÁS has established successful training and re-employment initiatives in those locations.
Mr. Fahey: The figures will prove they have been successful. Job creation is being achieved in job black spots as a result of retraining, upskilling and further education. There is ample evidence that as a result of retraining and upskilling, people who formerly worked in menial jobs in companies which did not pay well, are now in new, better paid jobs. I acknowledge there is still a major problem in terms of numbers of closures and jobs lost. The increasing challenge faced by FÁS and the Department to which I am attached is to continue to work to bring about training and upskilling and provide new job opportunities. I remind Senators that 28,000 new industrial jobs have been created as well as thousands of jobs in the service sector. They are all quite well paid and satisfying jobs. We should not underestimate the contribution made by the service sector to job creation.
I will make a final point which is political in nature. A debate was held before Christmas and a battle was fought. As far as I am concerned that battle was won. Senator Finucane referred to the Labour Party motion which was tabled in the other House. To be frank, the Labour Party motion was a political stunt——
Mr. Fahey: It remains to be seen who came out badly. I assure Senator Burke that since I entered this Department I have worked very hard to build on the good work being done in community employment schemes around the country. We make them more effective and ensure that those on community employment schemes emerge——
Mr. Fahey: I am quite satisfied that the changes have been good. I will reply to the Senator's taunts. If he ever gets the opportunity to serve in Government, it seems he will not be prepared to show the courage to make changes——
Mr. McDowell: I had intended to make a constructive contribution by addressing the issues outlined in the motion before the House. As the Minister of State has invited me to do something entirely different, however, I will do so. It is a bit rich of the Minister of State to accuse the Labour Party of engaging in a political stunt before the Dáil debate last December. He knows well that the debate at that time arose directly from his own comments. As the Minister of State responsible for the implementation of community employment schemes, he went onto the plinth to announce to the public on the radio that he was opposed to the policy he is in charge of implementing.
Mr. McDowell: Not only did the Minister of State make such a statement, but he exhorted his colleagues on the backbenches to overturn the policy, which he is responsible for defending and implementing, at a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting. He came in here today to claim that we are engaged in a political stunt. The Minister's actions represented the most remarkable political stunt I have seen in these Houses for quite some time. We can return to the substantive issue of whether the Minister of State won the argument at that time, but the cheap political point he made at the tail end of his speech does him no credit and does not do our debate any good.
I think all speakers, including the Minister of State, agree that the essential difficulty with community employment is that it tries to do two things which are complementary but which pull in opposite directions from time to time. Community employment was initially designed as a labour market intervention and has been reasonably successful in that regard. I read again this afternoon the report prepared by Deloitte & Touche for the Minister of State's Department some years ago. The report was an examination of the success rates, in terms of progression into full-time employment, of those who participated in community employment schemes. The numbers increased throughout the 1990s, until they reached approximately 40% in the last year covered by the survey, 1997-98. This means that approximately 40% of participants in community employment schemes could expect to be in employment some 18 months later. That is a decent level of progression and success, by any reasonable standards.
The report, which was quite comprehensive, asked participants in community employment schemes whether they thought the schemes were helpful in terms of training, upskilling and, ultimately, finding a job. Some 40% said they were very useful and approximately the same percentage of people said they were quite useful. Only 20% of people felt they were not useful at all. Community employment can be said to have been quite successful over the years if one measures its success as a labour market intervention. It has been particularly successful with particular groups. It has been successful recently in terms of giving useful work and training to lone parents. As long-term unemployment has decreased nationally, the number of lone parents participating in community employment schemes has increased quite considerably.
The second purpose of community employment, on which we quite understandably tend to focus in these Houses, is to support communities. All of us are aware of communities in our local areas which depend on CE schemes. The parochial hall in Donnycarney, in my local area, will be reopened in the next few weeks by the President, Mrs. McAleese, after its recent redevelopment. This substantial facility consists of a large hall and 20 ancillary rooms. I understand that with the exception of the full-time manager, the facility, which cost several million euro, will depend for its operation largely on community employment schemes or on voluntary work.
The Minister of State mentioned volunteers in his contribution. He is right in principle to say that we do not want to supplant volunteerism, but the truth is somewhat bleaker than that, unfortunately. In some parts of this city, volunteerism is dying on its feet. This is partly because people do not have time, partly because people working with children feel under pressure in a way they did not 20 years ago and partly because people are working to a greater extent than once was the case. The level of female participation in the workforce is much higher than it was before. It is sad that volunteerism is very much diminished. We need community employment not only to support volunteerism, as the Minister of State suggested, but also to replace it. We have to confront this inevitable fact.
I read with interest the Minister of State's contribution to last December's Dáil debate, which was initiated by the Labour Party. I do not intend to comment on the more controversial aspects of the discussion. In the course of the debate, the Minister of State referred to a presentation he made to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Social Inclusion about how he would like to see community employment reformed and restructured. He has repeated some of his points this evening. I will not repeat everything he said because we agree on it, generally speaking. He said that labour market intervention measures will be restructured to place greater emphasis on training matters and that he will try to structure community support measures in a way that is sustainable, rather than stop-start, and that ensures that communities can rely on community employment on an ongoing basis.
I am disappointed that the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, did not take his ideas further in his unscripted contribution this evening. When he spoke on this matter in the Dáil in December, it was clear that the presentation he made to the Cabinet sub-committee had not been progressed to the point where he could make an announcement. The Minister of State should tell us whether the restructuring of community employment, which he has proposed, has been agreed. When he spoke in the Dáil in early December, he made it quite clear that the Minister for Finance did not agree with him. He patted himself on the back by saying it is important on occasions to take a stand by standing up to the Minister for Finance.
We need to know whether the Minister of State has resolved his problems with the Minister, Deputy McCreevy, and the Tánaiste. If he has not dealt with these difficulties, much of what he has said this evening is simply guff and aspiration. I hope the Minister of State wins his battle, if that is what it is, with the Minister for Finance. We need to structure the supports for community employment schemes so that communities know what is happening from year to year. They need to know that they will have people to run services such as meals on wheels, support for persons with disabilities or crèches. They need to be sure that they will be able to continue to provide such structures in communities.
It is important that I state that I support the Minister of State's point, made in the Dáil in December, that community employment incurs very limited additional costs. The difference between sustaining somebody on social assistance or unemployment assistance, and sustaining somebody on community employment, is €24 or €25 per week. In that light, we are entitled to ask why the Minister of State or some of his colleagues are seeking to reduce the numbers of participants on CE schemes. One has to come to the conclusion that the decision is ideologically driven, essentially, by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, who is the leader of the Progressive Democrats Party, and her soul mate in the Department of Finance. This makes no practical or political sense to me nor, I suspect, to many Members on the Fianna Fáil benches.
I wish the Minister of State a fair wind if he is still fighting the battle. If he has lost the battle, which I suspect may be the case, he should have the courage to put his hands up and say “I fought the battle, I lost and I am off now”.
Mr. McDowell: One way or the other, the essential point is that communities that depend on these services deserve certainty into the future. This is also true of individuals who have gained dignity through participation in the labour market by means of community employment schemes.
Mr. Leyden: I support the Government amendment and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to the House. I look forward to seeing her here during the year. I express my appreciation of the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, who made an excellent contribution.
Mr. Leyden: I would also like to express my thanks to the Fine Gael Senators on the Opposition side, if “opposition” is the correct word, for putting down this motion, which gives us an opportunity to expand on the excellent work being done by the Government in this area.
Mr. Leyden: When I read the motion, I wondered why it was being brought to the attention of the House at this stage. It is certain that the contributions on the matter will not set the House on fire because the heat has gone out of the issue at this point.
Mr. Leyden: I hope the House will not be divided on the Government's amendment. It is possible that, on reflection, the Opposition will decide to support the amendment proposed by this side, which “notes that the number of places being supported under the Community Employment (CE) Programme in 2004 is being maintained at 2003 levels and that the total allocation for employment programmes has been fixed at €351 million which will support up to 25,000 places across the CE, job initiative and social economy schemes”. This is quite an achievement in difficult times. The amendment also states that Seanad Éireann “commends the Government on the introduction of a new rural social programme which will create up to 2,500 additional community-related employment places”. I will return to this as it is an excellent initiative. It also states that Seanad Éireann:
That commitment is very much part of the Government programme. The amendment goes on to state that Seanad Éireann “notes the Government's success to date in dramatically reducing the numbers of persons in long-term unemployment — a key target group of active labour market interventions”. Members should note that the percentage of people on unemployment benefit has been dramatically reduced, which is an enormous achievement. No Government has achieved more in this regard.
That is our amendment to the Fine Gael Party's motion. I am not sure if the Labour Party is supporting the motion, although I have my doubts. I added my name to the motion which went before the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party last December, in which the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, was much involved. It is a feature of the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party that we can put forward different motions at party level on the fifth floor, which is a place many people would love to be. Having been out of it for nine years, I was delighted to be back in the parliamentary party offices.
Mr. Leyden: The parliamentary party gets maximum attendance. I do not want to disclose anything confidential, but yesterday evening at our parliamentary party meeting we had a motion about Irish citizens abroad, particularly in England, who may have fallen on hard times, as highlighted by a recent RTE programme. There was a move within our party to ensure that we assist these people in every way possible.
Mr. Leyden: We encourage a Minister of State to put forward his or her concerns to the Tánaiste or the Minister for Finance and to the Taoiseach. The matter is worked out within the party so that we come out united in our approach and united in the best interests of the electorate. That is what has been achieved in this matter. It has been an enormous achievement. Late last year, great concerns were expressed up and down the country about community employment schemes and others of this type.
Mr. Leyden: The rural social scheme was mentioned in the 2004 budget. The focus of this scheme, which will consist of approximately 2,500 places, is to provide ongoing income and employment support to small farmers who can no longer make a viable living on the land. At the same time, the scheme will ensure the provision, at a reasonable cost to the Exchequer, of sustainable, top class services in rural areas. This is a major initiative by the Government, in which the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has been very much involved. In his Department, since he brought in initiatives such as CLÁR——
Mr. Leyden: Late last year I received some representations from people who had problems in this area, but not to the extent that has been put forward by the Fine Gael Party. Perhaps its members tried to stir up difficulties in certain areas. However, there have been some achievements, one of the most important of which is in the area of personal carers for people with disabilities. The position of carers is to be mainstreamed in the Department of Health and Children and the health boards. These people are permanent personal assistants. This is an area that must be considered carefully.
This is a wonderful achievement for the Government which has taken place in difficult circumstances. The Opposition should be delighted with the progress made in this regard. Unemployment is currently at its lowest level for some time. Approximately 400,000 jobs have been created since 1997.
Mr. Leyden: Long-term unemployment, one of the greatest causes of poverty, is down from over 5% in 1997 to approximately 1.5% today. This is an enormous achievement by the Government. I sympathise with the Fine Gael Party for being in Opposition. People ask what is the difference between one party and another. The answer is that one is in Government and one is out. The Fine Gael Party is out and we are in, and we intend to stay in for a long time.
Mr. Leyden: In the interests of the country, the people's party is in charge — that is Fianna Fáil. We respond to the needs of the people when it comes to any scheme. I know it is difficult being in Opposition at this time. Members are grasping at straws, hoping for some sort of banana skin that the Government will slip on. It will not happen. We are in and we intend to stay in. We will fight the European elections and the local elections and we will win.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to the House. She missed the extraordinary contribution of her colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, earlier. In my 18 months here, that contribution ranks as the most nonsensical and idiotic response I have heard to a motion from any Minister. It was further marred by an abusive personal attack at the end, which he should have withdrawn. However, he did not, and I hope the point he made will be highlighted because it shows what a petty and vindictive nature he must have. What he said was beneath contempt.
The Minister clearly had not read the Fine Gael motion because he launched into a tirade about how there will be more places on the FÁS community employment scheme under the new rural social scheme. The rural social scheme has nothing to do with the FÁS community employment scheme. It is being run by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs under the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and is a completely separate scheme. The Minister of State did not know this; obviously, he had no idea what he was talking about.
He then launched into another spiel about how this new scheme will be a great success. Senator Leyden and other Government Senators also spoke about how great the scheme would be. We were told on the day of the budget that there would be 2,000 places, which has since been increased to 2,500. Perhaps there will be this many places. However, I must point out that there are at least 2,500 farmers in Kilkenny alone, and I am sure there are many more in other parts of the country, who would be eligible for the scheme. It is certain, with the way agriculture is going at the moment, that many more farmers will become eligible in the future. People should not jump up and down about the fact that there will be 2,500 places for small farmers. It is a drop in the ocean. This scheme is not a triumph — it is nothing about which to scream and shout.
Senator McDowell made some pertinent points about the structure of the CE scheme. When it was set up it was intended to be a labour market intervention mechanism at a time when there were record levels of unemployment. These levels have now dropped significantly. However, the number of places on CE schemes has also dropped significantly over the past few years. An example from my area is the scheme in Mooncoin, County Kilkenny. Fifteen years ago when the scheme was set up, there were almost 40 people on it but now there are only nine. Unemployment in Mooncoin, or in any other part of the country, has not dropped that much. The Government is fooling itself if it believes this is the case. I do not know where Senator Leyden lives because he claims he did not receive much representation on this issue. However, I have never received more representation on any issue since I became involved in politics. I have not seen such emotion expressed on any other subject. Senator Leyden should get into the real world if he claims he has not received any representations on this issue.
I agree with Senator Ross's comments that the structure of FÁS is top-heavy. It is ironic and wrong that when last year's numbers on the community employment schemes were being cut, there were increases in FÁS directors' salaries. It was shocking and badly managed. It was utterly wrong that, at a time when the scheme was being dramatically reduced, the directors were landing themselves increased salaries. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, speaking off-the-cuff, informed the House that there have been no cuts in the community employment schemes this year. However, we are only a couple of working weeks into the new year. Does the Minister of State want a pat on the back for saying that x number of people were on the schemes on 31 December 2003 and the same number are on them on 1 January 2004? That is a foregone conclusion. The Fine Gael Party is pointing out that over the past number of years, there have been significant decreases in the numbers involved in the community employment schemes.
Senator McDowell pointed to the relatively small additional costs involved in keeping someone on a community employment scheme, as opposed to the live register. It is significant that it is such a small amount of money. For that small amount, so much can be done in different communities where these schemes provide valuable services.
We all are interested to know from Senator Leyden what goes on behind the closed doors of a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting. The Senator may be interested to note that the predicament of Irish immigrants was brought up by the Fine Gael Party in this House last year. The Government did and said nothing about the issue at the time. Maybe the Government should wake up to what others are saying. Just because the Fianna Fáil Party decides to have a discussion on a matter, does not mean it invented it. This has been a serious issue for a long time and I hope we will have a Private Members' motion on the plight of Irish immigrants, who through no fault of their own, are working overseas.
A number of Senators referred to the matter of volunteering. Again, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, was out of step. Most Members involved in local communities will know how difficult it is to get people involved in community groups of one sort or another. The Minister of State stated how he was going to do x, y and z to promote volunteering. However, this will not be easily done. In most families, both parents tend to be working and they do not have the time or the energy after work to commit themselves to voluntary work. The community employment schemes fulfil an important role in both urban and rural communities in helping to offset the decreasing number of people becoming involved in volunteer work. The Government should not stick its head in the sand, claiming that this problem can be reversed easily.
I am surprised to see, as in Senator Leyden's remarks, an adoption by the Government of a thorough Progressive Democrat ethos. The Progressive Democrats won the battle on the development of Lansdowne Road, a battle Fine Gael has been saying for the past five years should have been won. The Taoiseach's aspirations for his pet project in Abbotstown were shot down yesterday, not before time and after losing much valuable time for Irish sport. In a recent article on the Progressive Democrats, they were described as the prophets of doom. I would hate to think that the Fianna Fáil Party——
Mr. J. Phelan: ——will sell its soul to the prophets of doom and be subsumed into a Progressive Democrats ethos. Judging by the contributions made by Fianna Fáil Senators in this debate, this seems to be already happening.
Mr. U. Burke: I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science, Deputy de Valera. She is a welcome change to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey. I found him to be a source of provocation throughout his address because of the contempt and disregard with which he treated the House by delivering an off-the-cuff address that did not deal with the substance of the motion.
Mr. U. Burke: I will admit to that because I had my reasons. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, has been clearly defeated on this issue. Prior to Christmas, he made valid pronouncements as to his intentions for the schemes. He got the support of 40 Fianna Fáil backbenchers, yet at the last moment, was beaten into submission. He has now obviously thrown in the towel on retaining the community employment schemes.
There are cuts throughout the country. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, admitted there were problems in County Galway. The problems manifest themselves through the loss of 1,500 places in community employment schemes. He referred to the situation in Mountbellew. However, I wish to outline the personal profiles of nine people from Mountbellew who have been out of work because of the suspension of the community employment scheme. Michael, in his early 60s, a widower, living alone who was on his first scheme, is 12 months out of the scheme. Mary, a widow in her late 50s living alone, on her first scheme, is 12 months out of the scheme. Oliver, in his late 30s, single, living alone with special needs, is 12 months out of the scheme. Michael, late 30s and living alone, is out of the scheme for 12 months. Gerry, single with medical conditions and unable to obtain full-time work, is out of the scheme for 12 months. Martina, single, living in community housing and receiving mental health support is 12 months out of the scheme.
There are others in this situation to whom the Minister of State referred. This is what he is leaving behind when he says there are no cuts. In my county, 1,500 people are affected. In the specific case to which he referred, the record stands at 12 months out of work. Throughout the day I tried to contact every Department in some way connected with the proposal by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, for 2,500 additional places in the rural social schemes. When the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, made the announcement in that regard he said it was at the back of his mind since 2002, but from what I gather today it is still at the back of his mind. There is no trace of information in any Department about how a potential applicant can make an application in this regard or to which Department he or she can do so. There is no evidence that such a scheme is up and running or otherwise. I was horrified to hear the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, say, whether in error or otherwise, that people would be transferred from the current social employment schemes to this new scheme, maintaining there would be no cuts. We were told there would be 2,500 additional places on the new schemes for people essentially engaged in farming. An applicant must have a herd number. However, the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, has said he will transfer some participants on community employment schemes to this new scheme — the record will show that. There is confusion in that regard. Tension has existed in the background between the senior Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and the junior Minister, Deputy Fahey, since 2002, which manifested itself in the run-up to the budget at the end of last year and now there is confusion because even though they share a constituency one of them does not know what the other is doing. That is evident from the Minister's reference today to such a scheme being in the back of his mind. It must still be an idea in the back of his mind because there is no evidence of such a scheme being in place. If there is, I will gladly accept the point and be pleased to hear where we can direct people, in need of a new position, to apply for it.
One county has suffered 1,500 job losses under such schemes in the past 12 months and I want to know what is going on. There is obviously a game going on. I reject much of what Senator Ross said. He does not have an understanding of the benefit to participants of CE schemes and of what FÁS has done for the many people who have participated in its schemes, received valuable training and secured gainful employment. That is all many people want.
FÁS schemes are affected most in areas where people have the least opportunity of securing alternative employment. People with the profile I outlined, whether they come from Galway, Donegal or Kerry, would have little chance of securing employment. The Government ring-fenced funding for the schemes and will not make further funding available, therefore, no additional places can be provided.
We were guaranteed by the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey — if he was present I would challenge him on this — that places and funding for schemes in RAPID areas would be ring-fenced. If participants on schemes raise their position with a particular Minister, principally the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, they are advised that the Minister may consider it. The promise given regarding ring-fencing has been broken. There is no continuation of places on such schemes in RAPID areas, which is a devastating blow to many people not necessarily only in terms of social employment but in terms of schemes which provided valuable support to people with special needs. Those people are the worst hit. Why has the Government, which can afford to spend a great deal of money in other areas which are not necessarily a priority relative to these schemes, decided it will not allocate any further funding to these schemes and that the ring-fencing promised cannot be guaranteed? It is a crime and a shame and that is why the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, ran from the reality of what faced him in this regard. He has thrown in the towel. He may have pastures green in sight for the future and, if he has, he must accept he has failed in terms of his involvement in community employment schemes. Perhaps it would be good if the electorate sent him elsewhere in the near future.
Dr. Mansergh: I welcome this subject being put down for discussion because community employment schemes are of great value. On Monday, the last day I was in Tipperary, two people raised this issue with me, one being a man over the age of 50 who drives a bus for disabled people. He got an extension of a further six months to his position after three years, but was concerned about still having a job next May. In all probability, I believe his place will be rolled over. I also visited a sports pitch in the county and the point was made that it was maintained by FÁS community employment schemes. Such schemes are important for the people participating on the them, especially older people, and for communities.
I am glad the Government did not act, despite some expert advice which it was suggested, at least in the newspapers, was offered to it that community employment schemes should be slashed. The reason there was such concern in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party in this regard, which was not well understood by the media, is that there was a leak of a report of an expert group last September recommending severe cutbacks in the community employment schemes. The Fianna Fáil parliamentary party was not in favour of that and made that clear. It was not clear to me at any stage that the Government had taken that view on board, but people were concerned about the advice that was offered.
As a trade union official in Tipperary said to me during the week, one cannot always say that a scheme employing 20 people could not be equally effective employing 19. It must always be open to Government to make slight adjustments in accordance with overall conditions. One of the factors that has worked reasonably favourably in the past year is that the unemployment position has hardly deteriorated, certainly not to the extent that many people feared given the downturn in the economy. That does not alter the fact of the great social importance of the scheme.
The importance attached by members of the Government parties to maintaining schemes is well understood throughout Government because there are gaps in provision. There are many activities covered by such schemes which are not, by any stretch of the imagination, commercial but, nonetheless, have a community value. In some cases over time they will be converted into permanent jobs and that is fine, but a gap exists and, in that respect, community employment schemes are vital. While accepting there continues to be concerns in the community and among constituents, most of those concerns are not so much about people being let go but uncertainty about what their positions will be in a few months' time. I hope that will clarify itself for the vast majority of participants in a benign way. I am glad the Government decided to maintain community employment schemes.
There is a little restructuring for the rural social programme but the scheme is broadly as is. There is no basis for claiming some kind of doomsday scenario with the schemes are being slashed and so on. Broadly speaking there is stability, which is good, and on that basis I am happy to support the amendment.
Dr. Henry: I support the motion although Dr. Mansergh has spoken eloquently on the amendment. Senator Ross had many criticisms of FÁS but he was criticising the chiefs running the programme rather than the Indians doing the work. The community employment schemes have been of great value to various organisations I have been involved with in different parts of the country.
One of the best aspects of the scheme is the fact that people can help community organisations by getting involved in the scheme. Those organisations would not be able to employ people were it not for the scheme, which has been extremely valuable. People should not think their work was not of value. Some people may feel that they had made-up jobs because the scheme has been removed from their areas or organisations, but that was never the case. They all did very valuable work.
I hope the Government takes notice of the motion, as I do not believe it is trying to do people down. People should continue to feel of value because they are of value and the majority of people in these jobs have done very good work, while criticism should be considered as being directed at the overall plans of FÁS. I will be supporting the motion.
I support the motion. Dr. Mansergh said employment is not rising but he would find the most recent figures from the CSO dreary reading. Every employment exchange in my constituency of Carlow, in Tullow, Bagenalstown and Carlow, has shown marked increases in numbers of clients. There are only 200 extra people in the Carlow exchange but that is a big percentage of the population of Carlow and unfortunately there will be 60 more in March when a factory in the area closes and relocates in Germany.
The CSO figures on relative incomes also make for startling reading. Carlow is now the poorest county in the country outside the BMW region, which was a wake-up call for me. We can all get caught up in our lives and think everyone is wealthy, with everything they need, but these figures can bring us back to earth. The figures also indicated that relative income in Dublin was very high, which might suggest there is no poverty in Dublin, but I accept that that is not the case. These CSO figures bring home problems in a concrete way.
The community employment schemes are a way to deal with these problems. They have been so successful that we may have taken them for granted. I refer to the schemes in country areas in particular, as rural areas are most affected by these cutbacks. The cutbacks were announced in 2002 and it is baffling that the Government congratulated itself on maintaining the number of CE scheme places at the 2003 level when it did not admit that it reduced numbers in 2002. In addition, many community employment schemes in the health area were ring-fenced and could not be touched, which meant that schemes involving sports, amenity trusts and tidy towns suffered cutbacks. I have personal experience of schemes being amalgamated, which resulted in supervisors losing their jobs and worker numbers being halved overnight. That is the reality and I am not being political.
There is no doubt that community employment schemes have given a new lease of life to certain people who were not as lucky as many of us with educational opportunities. Some of them did not finish primary school and perhaps got married young, having families at an early age. They found at 45 or 50 they were able to get the necessary training and go back into the workforce. They then felt they were a valuable part of society. I cannot understand why the Government is keen to put those people back in the dole queues. There is very little monetary difference between the salary of a CE scheme and unemployment benefit. It makes no sense to return these people to the dole queue when one considers the benefit to such people of having a job which makes them feel good. Our motion refers to the boost to self-esteem for people involved in community employment schemes and such considerations show that it makes no sense whatsoever to discontinue schemes or cut them back.
I reiterate that cuts in the community employment schemes have been felt in rural areas particularly and it is time the Government addressed this. I look forward to hearing more details of the so-called additional 2,500 community-related employment places and the rural social programme. I look forward to seeing how that is to be implemented but unfortunately the Government's credibility in this area is very low.
I support the motion, which is worthy of the good debate we have had. Social employment schemes have done tremendous work throughout the country. County councils have done great work through FÁS schemes for many years, building stone walls, widening corners, removing ditches and so forth. Trades have come back to communities, such as the art of building with stone, and that has been done by FÁS. Local authorities have done great work with the community employment schemes and with the involvement of local communities, particularly in rural areas. It is a shame to see 5,000 places being cut so drastically.
Many community employment schemes have provided caretakers for small schools and have helped to look after GAA, soccer and rugby pitches and clubs. Sporting facilities all over the country are being looked after by those on community employment schemes. It is an absolute disgrace that 5,000 CE places can be just wiped away. The Minister said the new rural social programme will create 2,500 new places. I do not see the point of replacing one scheme with another. Community employment schemes have been tried and tested over the years. Those communities that put in the greatest effort got the greatest value from them and this has been proven across the country. Inner city schemes have done great work for the underprivileged. The creation of a new rural employment scheme with a total of 2,500 places is codology.
In most homes both parents have to work to keep the house going, pay for their children's education, keep their car on the road and ensure bills are paid. Voluntary effort in communities has eroded over the years. People do not have as much free time as they work more and travelling to work takes longer. In many areas, community employment schemes have replaced voluntary effort in respect of looking after schools or GAA and soccer pitches.
The reduction in these schemes will place a great burden on rural sporting organisations. From where will the voluntary effort come? The Government's move to reduce these schemes for the sake of a few million euro is short-sighted. People are waiting in the long grass for Government representatives to knock on the door next summer because they know the value of community employment schemes to their areas. People want schemes to continue to look after the local school, football pitch or whatever else. I give my full backing to the motion before the House.
Mr. McHugh: I wish to add my weight to the debate. I endorse the motion and record my support for community employment schemes in general. I accept that some schemes have shortcomings and may be of questionable value. At one time so many schemes were in existence that some of them may have been of dubious merit.
From my experience of community employment schemes in County Donegal, their contribution to their communities has been significant and substantial. I do not refer simply to keeping graveyards, siocs and grass verges clean, I speak of the empowerment process whereby people, who might not otherwise have been able to access it, received training on these schemes. Single mothers and men out of work for ten or 15 years have benefited from the schemes. They provided an opportunity for people who did not have the confidence to go back to full-time education and for those who left school early.
Senator Ross was highly critical of the bureaucratic structures of FÁS. I commend FÁS for its foresight in regard to community employment schemes. It was the first organisation to address the issue of lifelong learning. It was also the first to accept that people fall through the loop and leave school early. The schemes provided such people with confidence and the money to get driving lessons, do a course in assertiveness, knitting or craftwork. It also succeeded in getting them out of the house. This is an aspect of the schemes we need to address.
Supervisors of community employment schemes have been trodden on. I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, will agree with me from his contact with supervisors in his constituency. These supervisors have never been made permanent; they worked on year to year contracts. I know supervisors who have been in charge of schemes for up to ten years. Without permanency, such people had no opportunity to progress their career path. They have had little recognition for their work. Even though FÁS provided the mechanism for the courses, it was the supervisors who gave direction to the schemes.
Many seasonal tourism projects require FÁS participants for four to five months in the summer time. It will never be economically viable for the Flight of the Earls heritage centre in Rathmullan to employ someone for 12 months of the year. This is a seasonal project and it is necessary that the work carried out heretofore by FÁS employees continues. If the centre is to be viable, staff are needed to welcome visitors, provide entertainment, conduct interpretative tours and so on.
The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, referred to the rural social schemes announced by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, under the recent budget. This will be a good scheme for farmers who are being driven off the land, those who will find themselves sitting idly at home. However, only 2,500 places are being provided and, as Senator John Phelan indicated, there are probably 2,500 farmers in Kilkenny alone who could avail of that scheme, not to mention the other counties. In practical terms, is it feasible for a farmer in the Rathmullan area in Donegal to provide interpretative tours in the Flight of the Earls centre? Perhaps, in time, they will have the confidence to do this.
I listened to the earlier stages of the debate on the monitor. At one stage it was like watching the “The Oprah Winfrey Show” with the shouting of abuse and hurling of criticism in an emotive manner. This is not necessary in the House and does not add any weight to its credibility. We should be practical rather than emotional on this matter and carry out some evaluation of the schemes. I recall that FÁS carried out annual evaluations where each participant and supervisor was asked about the benefits of the scheme, its impact on job opportunities, educational status and self-esteem. We should carry out similar investigations rather than conducting a slagging match in the House.
I plead with the Minister of State to follow his heart. He stood up for this issue and is aware that community employment schemes have been successful. They have contributed to the socio-economic life of communities in rural and urban areas. I urge him to use his influence at parliamentary party meetings.
Mr. Finucane: I thank Members for their contributions which I followed closely on the monitor. I sought a copy of the Minister of State's speech as I wanted to analyse it in more detail. I do not think he had a speech, which is unusual, as most Ministers come in armed with information. Has he lost interest in this issue? Is he not as concerned about the matter as he was prior to Christmas? This may be an incorrect reading of the situation.
Mr. Finucane: I wish the Minister of State could convince the Minister for Finance. In 1998, there were 40,000 participants on the scheme. AnCO and FÁS were the forerunners of this scheme. As a result of the schemes, there was a great growth of community centres in rural areas. Another pattern then followed and many of the schemes became involved in practical activities in towns and villages.
My concern is that the scheme probably will be further reduced at the end of the year and the long-term objective is to get rid of it entirely. If this is done, a vacuum will remain unless alternative finance is put in place. The alternative finance will have to be met by the local authorities as they probably will have to employ additional staff to carry out the work currently carried out under community employment schemes.
Senator Mansergh referred to GAA clubs. Many GAA clubs, and others sports clubs, rely on people participating in the community employment scheme. The Minister of State spoke of encouraging volunteerism. There has been a change in society as regards volunteerism. People are under pressure through work and financial commitments. Much research has been carried out on the lack of volunteerism in the United States of America; the book Bowling Alone deals with the American experience. While the Minster of State's encouragement of voluntary activity is laudable, I am unsure how successful it will be.
The rural social programme is correct and I am prepared to give it a chance. It may give a chance to farming smallholders who need a top-up income. I wonder where it dovetails into place. Does it replace or extend the farm assist that is currently paidby the Department of Social and Family Affairs? Although this was announced in the budget, we have seen no concrete proof of it. Senator Ulick Burke has tried in vain to find details of the programme and how people can participate in it. I hope those details will be forthcoming soon. I am sure the 2,500 additional places will be taken up.
I respect what was said about FÁS; it has done excellent work over the years. I worked with AnCO for ten years. When I joined AnCO it had approximately 200 employees. FÁS subsumed AnCO and the National Manpower Service and became a large organisation. I accept that at certain times in the cycle of such a body, its functions must be re-appraised. I am sure this is currently being examined within FÁS.
We are glad to have tabled this motion. Community employment schemes are often raised with Members in their constituencies. Public meetings are often held when schemes are amalgamated and concerns are expressed about reductions in numbers. Members are often asked to seek flexibility from local FÁS representatives. This issue has become more contentious in recent times as there are concerns about the reduction in the number of places.
|Bohan, Eddie.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brennan, Michael.||Callanan, Peter.|
|Dardis, John.||Dooley, Timmy.|
|Feeney, Geraldine.||Fitzgerald, Liam.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Kenneally, Brendan.||Kett, Tony.|
|Leyden, Terry.||Lydon, Donal J.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Minihan, John.||Morrissey, Tom.|
|O'Brien, Francis.||O'Rourke, Mary.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Ross, Shane.||Scanlon, Eamon.|
|Walsh, Jim.||Walsh, Kate.|
|Bradford, Paul.||Browne, Fergal.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Burke, Ulick.|
|Coonan, Noel.||Cummins, Maurice.|
|Feighan, Frank.||Finucane, Michael.|
|Henry, Mary.||McDowell, Derek.|
|McHugh, Joe.||Norris, David.|
|O'Meara, Kathleen.||Phelan, John.|
|Terry, Sheila.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
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