A rural social scheme, which is aimed at low-income farmers and fishers and provides a range of local services, is to be reviewed by the Government, which says it is fully committed to its future.
Participants in the scheme must be in receipt of a social welfare payment and provide services in return that benefit rural communities.
The Department of Social Protection will undertake the review which will begin before the end of this year.
It will cover all aspects of the scheme including its social dimension and will be overseen by a steering group which will have a wide representation.
Minister of State Niall Collins told the Senate that Minister Heather Humphreys and Minister of State Joe O'Brien will continue to support and improve the RSS, given the benefits to rural communities.
He said the Department recently reviewed the means assessment disregards for Farm Assist - the main qualifying payment for the RSS.
Farm Assist is a means-tested payment for low-income farmers. To qualify, applications must be a farmer, be farming land in the state, be aged between 18 and 66, and satisfy a means test.
“As part of the review process, the range of agri-environmental schemes that qualify for income disregards to qualify for the farm assist payment has been greatly expanded,” he said.
Minister Collins said these measures were implemented in June 2022 and should increase the number of people who may qualify for farm assist payments and, by extension, can take up a place on a rural social scheme.
Recent positive employment trends in reducing numbers claiming farm assist payments have had a direct effect on the number of people interested and eligible to participate in the rural social scheme, he said.
Minister Collins, responding to Senator Victor Boyhan, who raised the issue, said the RSS projects deliver a range of services which are vital to the social and economic well-being of many rural areas, he said.
Senator Boyhan said Minister of State Joe O'Brien had issued a statement that the scheme was under consideration and review.
“That is important, and we need to address how we will review it,” he said, suggesting that biodiversity and other projects that are critical in communities are also areas to expand the scheme.
Senator Boyhan said the aim here is to extend the scheme to farmers and fishers on the financial margins in order that they can supplement their incomes by doing important and beneficial work in the communities.
Noting that excellent work is being done on the scheme, Minister of State Collins said it currently has 2,873 participants and 133 supervisors.
The Department of Social Protection runs the scheme which is delivered through a network of 36 local development companies and Údarás na Gaeltachta.
He said Minister Heather Humphreys, and Minister of State O’Brien have been hugely impressed by the range and value of the work undertaken on RSS projects, some of which they have had the opportunity to visit and witness at first-hand.
Over the past year, they announced reforms to the RSS to support the recruitment and retention of staff by removing a six-year time limit on the scheme.
This means all participants can now stay on the scheme until they reach the pension age. These changes benefit up to 1,400 participants.
Senator Boyhan said Minister Collins’ comprehensive response demonstrates the Government's commitment to keeping the rural social scheme in place.