The Rural Social Scheme (RSS) is at a “critical juncture” and “faces inevitable decline” if issues aren’t addressed, according to the group representing Local Development Companies (LDCs).

Joe Saunders, CEO of the Irish Local Development Network (ILDN) that represents Ireland’s 49 LDCs, spoke on the matter yesterday (Wednesday, May 19).

The ILDN is calling for the rollout of a nationwide Local Employment Service, as well as reforms to eligibility under Tús, the Rural Social (RSS) and Community Employment (CE) Schemes.

Addressing the Joint Oireachtas Committee for Social Protection Rural and Community Development and the Islands yesterday, Saunders said:

“The RSS in particular faces a critical juncture and it faces inevitable decline if impending impacts of eligibility rules are not addressed.

“The six-year rule introduced in 2017 is about to kick in and, if left in place, will remove 38% of the scheme’s 3000+ participants in a 3-year period. Together with the 13% who will leave at retirement age, this means over half of the scheme will be removed.”

This, the CEO claimed, represents a cliff-edge scenario for rural communities in “work undertaken, experience and leadership lost, a reduction in biodiversity in pushing landowners off the land and their replacement by monoculture practices”.

He added that ILDN urges the government to review this rule ahead of Budget 2022 and bring forward reforms to protect participation in this important scheme.

“Eligibility reform is needed to ensure that this important scheme survives. In our submission to the committee we have laid out a number of potential reforms to all three schemes which we believe would be of benefit.”

On a broader note, Saunders highlighted the uncertainty in the labour market, stating:

“Now is not the time to embark on a realignment of existing LES [Local Employment Service] operational areas as is being proposed – with the introduction of a dual strand procurement process that will fundamentally disrupt activation services when they are needed most.

The CEO outlined his organisation’s proposals as follows:

  • All Local development companies that do not have an existing LES would pilot an LES-type service, reflective of the Covid-19 context and changing socio-economic profile;
  • In this period, existing LDCs with LES contracts will continue to deliver the current LES service but provide enhanced services.

This proposal, Saunders claimed, “offers an agile and affordable response to the inevitable high demand for employment services”.

Continuing, he said in the proposal there is: integration with existing rural employment and inclusion services; no requirement to develop infrastructure from the start; and no disruption to existing services from realignment of operational areas or loss of skilled staff.

Commenting on Tús, RSS and CE, Saunders added; “We believe it will be critical to allow for maximum participation in important schemes such as Tús, Community Employment and RSS in the years ahead.

“The Tús programme has seen reduced numbers prior to the pandemic and exacerbated by it.

“A number of reforms to eligibility criteria, length of time on scheme and crucially improved referral processes are needed to ensure that this programme stays at the heart of the state’s activation options and continues to serve those most in need of valuable work experience prior to fuller re-entry to the labour market,” Saunders concluded.