Existing participants in CE schemes will not be affected by eligibility changes – Breen

November 23rd, 2012 - Pat Breen

Fine Gael Clare TD, Pat Breen, has welcomed confirmation from the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton TD, that existing participants in Community Employment (CE) schemes will not be affected by changes to the eligibility criteria. Deputy Breen raised the issued during a Topical Issues Debate in the Dáil, with particular reference to the threat the changes could pose to two schemes in Co. Clare.

“I was very concerned about the potential impact of changes to the eligibility criteria for CE schemes, which came into effect last month. The changes would have a particularly harsh impact on those over the age of 55, who would find it extremely difficult to find alternative employment. This problem is heightened in rural areas where job opportunities are more limited. CE schemes play an essential role in filling a void in rural areas, by providing meaningful employment that makes a real difference to local communities.

“In the Dáil, I made particular reference to two schemes in Clare; the Kilrush youth services scheme and the St. John the Baptist community and development scheme in Ballyea. The Kilrush youth services scheme provides a lifeline for people in the town; it supports the local community hospital, maintains the local graveyards, parish hall and church grounds, as well as working with the local tidy towns committee and the west Clare cancer group.

“Most of the participants in the St. John the Baptist scheme in Ballyea are over the age of 55, and make an invaluable contribution to the local community. These individuals provide support to the local community and work with local amenity projects in maintaining the abbey and the graveyard in Killone. They also played a pivotal role in the development of the Lissycasey Cascades Loop, a scenic walk through the area. The organisers and participants on both of these schemes were both very concerned about their future due to eligibility changes.

“I am very relieved to have received confirmation from Minister Burton that existing participants on these schemes will not be affected by changes to the CE criteria. Only new entrants will be affected by the changes, which are being introduced in line with the Pathways to Work policy. Minister Burton said her Department will continue to liaise with schemes to ensure their viability. If these schemes were discontinued it would create a significant void in rural Ireland.

“I am delighted that the Minister has taken on my concerns. Furthermore, following my queries, she has arranged for a clarification to be issued to the sponsors of CE Schemes, advising of the changes and how they are taking effect. While difficult decisions are inevitable as a result of our economic situation, we must ensure these decisions make sense. I am glad that common sense has prevailed in this instance, and I would encourage the Minister to continue to work with these schemes and make it easier for people aged 55 and over to continue their worthwhile work.”

ENDS

Contact:
Sarah Meade
Fine Gael Press Office
06 618 3379

Note to Editors:
Please see below the Topical Issues Debate tabled by Deputy Breen, and the response from Minister Burton.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister for coming before the House in order to clarify some issues that have arisen in respect of the eligibility criteria for existing participants on community employment schemes, which, I am informed, changed on 8 October last. I have been contacted by a number of schemes with regard to this matter and I am informed that in order to qualify for more than one year on a community employment scheme, participants over the ages of 35 and 55 are now required to have been signing on and in receipt of social welfare payments for three years or more prior to joining a scheme. These individuals could previously remain on schemes for three and six years, respectively. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the position in this regard.

Extended access to employment on these schemes for those over the age 55 was facilitated as a result of the difficulties which those in this cohort faced in the context of trying to secure alternative employment. It has been acknowledged that during the Celtic tiger era, those over 55 years of age experienced difficulties in securing employment. Surely it should be recognised that there are even fewer employment opportunities for them at present. There are major problems with regard to isolation in rural areas and there are very few job opportunities outside of agriculture for those in this age group. Community employment schemes are filling the void by providing meaningful employment that makes a real difference within communities. It makes no sense, therefore, to pull the plug - if that is actually what is happening - on some of these schemes in the middle of a recession.

I wish to refer to two schemes in particular, namely, the Kilrush youth services scheme and the St. John the Baptist community and development scheme in Ballyea, County Clare. However, I accept that there are other schemes which have either similar or other concerns. The schemes to which I refer were renewed last year on the understanding that the status quo would be maintained. The sponsors of the Kilrush scheme are debating whether it is feasible for the scheme to continue in light of the changes. I am informed that the scheme stands to lose 15 participants this year as opposed to five. This is in an area in which very few job opportunities exist. I have a constituency office in Kilrush and I am aware that the youth services scheme provides a lifeline for people in the town. Those on the scheme support the local community hospital and work to maintain the local graveyards, the parish hall and the church grounds. In conjunction with the tidy towns committee, they also see to the upkeep of Kilrush and Kilkee. Furthermore, they provide assistance to the west Clare cancer group.

The position with the St. John the Baptist development scheme in Ballyea is similar. I met representatives from the scheme on Monday last and was informed that out of a current complement of 22 workers, only five will remain in place at the end of January 2013. The majority of the workers on this scheme are over 55 and they are making an invaluable contribution to the local community. These individuals provide support to my parish, Ballynacally, and to the community in Ballyea. They also work with local amenity projects in maintaining the abbey and the graveyard in Killone. Those on the scheme support the community in Lissycasey. They played a pivotal role in the development of the Lissycasey Cascades Loop, a 3.7 km walk through a local area.

I am informed that if the schemes in question are wound down, a number of full-time employees who have given great services to the communities in the past will be affected. These people deserve recognition for their efforts. I am aware that the Minister is a great supporter of schemes of this type.

While I understand that changes to the eligibility criteria are driven by the desire to increase the number of opportunities for people to participate in community employment schemes, I am of the view that, if they proceed, people will be obliged to return to the live register at a time when few other employment opportunities exist.

The future of these schemes is threatened as the sponsor will find it difficult to replace existing workers. Time spent on community employment schemes no longer counts as eligibility for social welfare payments. A person who decides to accept a place on a community employment scheme may not have sufficient stamps at the end of a year to qualify for social welfare payment. In my view, this would be a disincentive to working on a community employment scheme. I ask the Minister to clarify the regulations governing these schemes.

Minister for Social Protection (Deputy Joan Burton): I thank Deputy Breen for raising this issue. The underlying eligibility criteria for entry to community employment has not changed. Eligibility for entry to community employment is based on applicants being in receipt of welfare payments for a defined length of time, notably jobseeker’s allowance, jobseeker’s benefit, one-parent family payment and persons in receipt of disability-related welfare payments. Persons in receipt of jobseeker’s and lone-parent type payments can qualify for one year on community employment under the one-year part-time integration, PTI, option if in receipt of a payment for 12 months or more. Being in receipt of the same payments for three years or more qualifies a person for the part-time job option which can last up to three years, subject to annually renewable contracts. However, the practice of using the duration on a community employment scheme under the one-year part-time integration option, PTI, to build up eligibility to participate in the three-year part-time job option, was amended in a recent updating of community employment operating guidelines, published on 8 October 2012 and issued to CE sponsors and departmental staff.

The reason for this amendment was to reserve the longer time duration on CE for participants who are very distant from the labour market and most in need of the longer duration part-time job option. Some minor amendments were made to the CE operating guidelines based on feedback from staff and supervisors and this document will be updated as and when required.
I wish to clarify that this amendment will apply to new entrants only. This amendment is in line with the pathways to work policy where one third of the places on community employment schemes are focused on shorter, more intensive, active labour market interventions. The effect of this change will be to increase the number of vacancies available on CE schemes. The number of people able to avail of a CE placement will increase as more vacancies become available due to a greater number of exits from the programme. This still maintains the overall number of places on community employment schemes. The number of places on employment programmes in general, including CE, rural social scheme, Tús etc., is under continual review to ensure that it is adequate for the needs of the labour market. Since 3 April 2000, all community employment scheme participation is subject to the maximum participation limit of three years overall for those under 55 years of age and six years overall for those aged 55 to 65 years.

Participants who were or are in receipt of a CE-qualifying disability-linked social welfare payment can avail of one additional year on top of these maxima. Department officials are actively liaising with sponsors to facilitate recruitment and to ensure continuity of service for projects and for the local communities.
I will refer to the schemes referred to by Deputy Breen. Kilrush youth centre services has 21 participants and one CE supervisor. It is due to roll over on 28 January 2013. It has eight vacancies to be filled under the current rules. A further six would have had to finish if the amended rule were applied to all CE participants and not just to new entrants. Exit interviews for these participants will be conducted as part of the individual learner plan process, along with a referral to the employment services. St. John the Baptist Association Limited, has 20 participants and rolled over on 29 October 2012.

The main objective of community employment is to enable long-term unemployed people to re-enter the labour market through the provision of training and work experience on a fixed term basis. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter and I wish to assure him that the Department of Social Protection will continue to liaise with the sponsors to fill vacancies on community employment schemes on an ongoing basis. I value community employment schemes. I have emphasised the retention of opportunities and placements for people who are so anxious to get back to work and to contribute to their community. However, as the Deputy is aware, we have offered an additional 11,000 places in Tús and in the JobBridge scheme. I hope to be able to continue to expand opportunities for people who are anxious to participate in community-type employment in their localities.

Deputy Pat Breen: I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. She knows the value of the community employment schemes. She visited County Clare a few weeks ago and I am sure she was in a number of towns and villages to see the wonderful work of these community workers. My concern relates to the over-55 age group. These are people who have given a lifetime of work to their community and they are now unemployed. They do great work in the CE schemes: they often do the work that was formerly carried out by local authority workers. Their opportunities for work are very limited when they leave the CE schemes. It is difficult to find a job when one is 55 years of age, particularly in rural areas. I appreciate their work, as do most Members. I am pleased the Minister is liaising with the schemes to ensure their viability. If these schemes were discontinued it would create a significant void in rural Ireland. Without the participation of the sponsors, rural Ireland would be a very different place. I urge the Minister to continue to improve the schemes and to make it easier for people over 55 years of age to continue their work in these excellent schemes.

Deputy Joan Burton: I thank the Deputy for his remarks. I congratulate the community employment schemes in County Clare. I have had an opportunity to meet with workers on the schemes and to meet the sponsors of schemes. I can testify to the very valuable community work and the contribution of the community employment schemes. The scheme sponsors endeavour to provide opportunities for people to advance themselves in the employment market. I am pleased to say that we have retained the schemes and the supervisors. Good supervisors are fundamental to the success of the schemes. We have been in a position to develop a number of new initiatives. County Clare has been outstanding in opting to take up initiatives under the Tús scheme as well as under the community employment schemes. I can assure the Deputy that we are very anxious to support the community work carried out by CE schemes