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Protecting Community Employment

Cutbacks to Community Employment (CE) were raised several times in both houses (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 12th January 2012, 639-642; Dail Eireann, Debates, 17th January 2012, 808-810; 972-3; 18th January, 68-70).  In the Seanad, David Cullinane (SF, labour) spoke of how the 60% cut in training and material allowances had led to a reduced ability of schemes to deliver services, for they depended on this money for training, insurance, rent, equipment, tools, telephone and everything other than wages.  He cited two projects in Waterford – the Saor programme, with 18 CE workers and the Compact programme, with 19, which were already experiencing difficulties.  Granted the massive level of unemployment, these schemes were a bridge for the many people who had no wish to be unemployed and doing nothing.  They wanted to do something and contribute.  He appealed to the minister to reverse the cut. 

 

Replying, the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, told him that there were now 1,143 CE schemes with 23,300 participants and a budget of €315m.  The point that tended to get lost in a purely economic analysis of these schemes, which viewed them as not providing sufficient progression into the labour force, was that there would always be a role for schemes providing social services, often in disadvantaged areas.  She had asked for a review of all schemes to be completed in March.  It would be undertaken in a constructive manner and all support would be provided to help the schemes remain viable.  Employment officers would make initial contact with the schemes and there would be consultation with the main representative bodies and stakeholders.  The FAS research unit was also making a strategic value for money review of schemes, including Community Employment and this was expected by the end of March.  There would also be a stakeholder consultation event so that she could better understand the role of CE schemes and obtain the views and feedback of sponsors, supervisors and participants.  The review would examine the income and funding of sponsoring organizations, their ability to deliver the programme, the funding from a multiplicity of state sources, income generated and the potential of such funds to cover costs.  Alternative sources of support would be examined so as to avoid duplication.  She was listening carefully to the concerns of voluntary and community organizations and she had given a commitment that no scheme would close pending the outcome of this review.  In the event that changes in the training and material grants created financial difficulties, her department would continue to provide funding for those schemes.  

 

Even granted financial constraints, this was an opportunity to do something very positive about community employment.  It made a valuable contribution, but it would be remiss of her, granted the number of schemes and the number of FAS staff involved (700) not to see how the department could make the best use of its service capacity.  Her objective was to reform the system, increase numbers and give people a good experience while maintaining vital services.  

 

John O’Mahony (FG, Mayo) raised the issue during a topical debate in the Dail, contrasting the way in which terms and conditions for CE could be changed but pensions for retiring civil servants could not.  In his own constituency there were 40 projects with 850 participants and he appealed for the changes to be postponed while her review was taking place.  Pat Deering (FG, Carlow Kilkenny ) spoke of the 326 participants in 19 schemes in co Carlow and in particular of the high rate of progression of one scheme where five or seven participants graduated into employment, one to retraining and only one back to social welfare.  CE was not a one-size-fit-all, for schemes in the disability area were quite different from sports clubs.   Paul Connaughton (FG, Galway E) told of how in east Galway there were 33 schemes, hundreds affected and some schemes already had their funding cut.  Many participants went on to further employment and the schemes were working and doing the job they were supposed to do.

 

Replying to them, the Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton stated that schemes which had already committed to eligible costs would be reimbursed.  If the changes contributed to financial difficulties, the department would continue to provide funding and this had already been made available.

 

John O’Mahony told her that schemes had been in trouble since 1st January, regional staff had no discretion and [the change] was being implemented.  Pat Deering warned of the training going into the VEC system, where the individualization of training would be lost and the prospect of progression lessened.  Paul Connaughton drew attention to the costs of auditing and insurance, which absorbed huge chunks of the budget before training and materials. 

 

The minister told them that schemes should deal with regional social welfare employment officials on a one-to-one basis and contracts which were legal agreements will be honoured.  No scheme would be forced to close until the review was completed.  In the context of the troika and the criticism of activation, we had been asked to find savings.  She agreed that there was scope for saving in insurance and other shared costs.

 

Later, she outlined to Pearse Doherty (SF, Donegal SW) the terms of reference of the review as being to:

 

  • Examine the income and funding of sponsoring organizations and their ability to continue the programme with reduced funding from the department;
  • Quantify the expenditure on training provided and the qualifications achieved by participants;
  • Examine alternative sources of support e.g. funding from other state agencies to avoid duplication; and
  • Establish if income is generated by scheme activity and the potential for utilization of these funds to cover project costs.

 

 

CE drugs projects

Maureen O’Sullivan (ind, Dublin central) specifically raised the issue of CE schemes that were ring-fenced as part of the national drugs strategy, where there were 1,000 places of which 130 were in the north inner city.  She spoke of how these schemes were used in stabilization, rehabilitation and recovery, with care plans for each participant, development education, literacy, numeracy, safety, healthy living and training with a view to employment or further education.  People progressed from CE into third level education.  They would be able to give a first-hand account of what the CE scheme had done for them, ‘a completely different matter [from] people sitting in an office and tossing around figures’.  These schemes had been sent the same forms and there had been no recognition of their special conditions, nor their lower ratio of participants.  Would the minister safeguard them?  The creche facilities attached to the scheme were not ring-fenced, but they were essential for participants and she wanted them considered as well.

 

In reply, the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Roisin Shortall, expressed her full support for this approach of making pathways to recovery.  Drug-specific CE schemes had already made a significant contribution and the 9-point special conditions for this programme had been revised a year ago to ensure a consistent and integrated approach.  She had written to and met the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, to emphasize the importance of the scheme and that it continue to be protected and adequately funded and she also accepted the point about child care.

 

 

Social innovation

Meantime, in a Seanad debate on job creation (Seanad Eireann, 19th January 2012, 790-826) Katherine Zappone (ind, Taoiseach nominee) pointed to the way in which social innovation delivered jobs.  She spoke of the work of the Shanty project in Tallaght designed to address the problem of women’s poverty through education.  The project had started with one room and 12 women in 1986 and now educated 400 adults and 200 children each year, with the Fledglings social franchise in five centres.  They had enabled thousands of people from Tallaght to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty, employed 105 people and contributed revenue to the local economy and the exchequer.  She spoke of the work of Social Entrepreneurs Ireland led by Declan Ryan which supported 150 social entrepreneurs, each of which created an average of 23 jobs.  The social enterprise sector now employed more than 9,300 people and if supported properly, held out the prospect for many more.   The government’s jobs action plan should include social innovation and she suggested a minister of state responsible, a social innovation unit, including social innovation at local level and a social innovation fund, like the Big Society capital equity in Britain.  Social innovation delivered jobs, well-being, more employment and less deprivation.