About 1,400 rural workers must step down next February unless a six-year participation rule is changed in the Rural Social Scheme (RSS).
The six-year rule is causing enormous stress to participants, who are effectively on notice that they will lose their jobs next year, said Liz Macdonald, a Co Galway RSS supervisor who is joint chair of the RSS national committee.
"We feel strongly this restriction should be abolished immediately", she told the Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands.
She said RSS supervisors are already struggling to fill vacancies and to supply the services on which communities depend, even without the danger of losing nearly half of the participants to the six-year rule.
Minister of State at the Department of Social Protection Joe O'Brien has said the six-year rule "is very much on our radar" in a review later this year of the RSS.
He has confirmed there are almost 400 RSS vacancies and said he wants to broaden the scheme and get more people involved.
However, the six-year rule is only one of a number of challenges to the scheme, said RSS staff during the committee debate, in which it was revealed by committee chair Denis Naughten that RSS participants are paid only €1.28 per hour. Mr Naughten said it was also clear the RSS should not have a six-year time limit.
The RSS provides part-time employment and income support for farmers or fishers who are in receipt of certain social welfare payments, and who are underemployed. The scheme is funded through the Department of Social Protection (expenditure in 2021 was €51.5m and the budget in 2022 is €52m.
The scheme has a quota for 3,350 participants. At the end of April 2022, there were 2,892 participants and 134 supervisors.
Work carried out by RSS participants includes:
- Maintaining and enhancing walking routes and bog roads;
- Energy conservation work for older people and those at risk of poverty; Village and countryside enhancement;
- Social care and care of older people;
- Community care for pre-school and after-school groups'
- Environmental maintenance work at community and sporting facilities;
- Helping at not-for-profit cultural and heritage centres;
- Community administration or clerical work.
The RSS is delivered through 36 local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta. Participants must continue actively farming/fishing and must retain entitlement to a qualifying social welfare payment.
Eligibility for participation in RSS derives from Farm Assist, with the Farm Assist means assessment applying to the scheme. A person can qualify for Farm Assist if they are aged 18 to 66 and engaged in farming and meet the statutory scheme conditions.
However, Farm Assist recipient numbers are declining, with about 4,800 farmers availing of it, down from 5,300 in 2021, and almost 5,790 in 2020. This has a knock-on effect on the number of RSS participants.
From next month, an income disregard of €2,540 from an increased list of agri-environmental schemes will increase the number potentially applying for the RSS, through qualifying for Farm Assist.
The six-year time limit for RSS participants was introduced in February 2017 for new entrants. However, it does not apply to 390 participants aged over 60, they can remain in the RSS until State pension age.
Co Galway RSS supervisor Sean Broderick warned the RSS could die due to the six-year rule, and because Local Development Companies which manage the RSS will lose funding, if they can't find enough participants.
Liz Macdonald told the Oireachtas committee that means testing is another barrier to RSS participation.
When the RSS was set up, participants' spouses could have an off-farm income of €300 per week. This changed, reducing the uptake of RSS positions. Many found themselves no longer eligible to participate as their families grew, and their means disregards reduced.
Ms Macdonald called for means-testing over a five-year period, to reflect peaks and troughs in farm incomes. She said the scheme was not attractive to the 6,000 farmers in receipt of Farm Assist.
RSS staff who addressed the Oireachtas committee also called for better pay in the scheme, and wider eligibility criteria.
Adrian Kane of the Siptu trade union, which represents the 400-plus supervisors who work in Tús and the RSS, said they had not had a pay increase for a significant number of years.