Sunday 25 February 2018

Sacked construction workers lose out on €25m in retraining funds

Laura Noonan

Laura Noonan

SACKED construction workers have lost out on €25m earmarked to help them retrain because a series of delays by the Government made it "impossible" to spend the money on time.

The Irish Independent has learned that 6,000 of the 8,800 workers eligible for support in training, education, career guidance or to set up new businesses received nothing.

Some €25m in cash received from the EU from the total €55m fund will now be returned to Brussels.

Under EU rules, the money had to be spent during a two-year window -- and that window closed last month with a huge portion unspent.

It is a major embarrassment after the fanfare when the fund was announced by politicians.

The construction scheme debacle comes as the Irish Independent reveals a series of blunders in similar schemes set up in recent years to help 9,800 workers laid off from Dell, SR Technics and Waterford Crystal.

Those schemes spent less than they had expected to, which will lead to a refund of more than €11m to Brussels once the final numbers have been crunched.

Impossible

Sources close to the construction programme said it was "impossible" to spend all the money because there was just seven months allocated to roll out the massive scheme.

An investigation by the Irish Independent has found that delays by the Government was the main reason for the programme having so little time.

The cash had to be spent within two years of Ireland lodging an application for money under the EU's European Globalisation Fund (EGF).

The construction application was lodged in June 2010. Brussels records show that almost a full year passed before the final details of Ireland's plan were received.

Only four of the 100 programmes that have come before the EU have taken longer to finalise their applications.

The Department of Education, which oversees Ireland's EGF applications, blamed the delays on the size and complexity of the programme, as well as "limited staffing and infrastructural resources".

The construction scheme included the largest number of workers ever supported by the EGF, and was complex because the Government had to trace staff from 3,349 separate employers, the department's statement added.

But the department also had to resubmit applications.

It initially included three different categories of construction workers in one application and then had to break them into separate applications to comply with EU rules.

An internal report by the Department of Education & Skills into the other schemes -- for Dell, SR Technics and Waterford Crystal -- seen by the Irish Independent, strongly defends the scheme and claims the major weaknesses were outside the Irish authorities' control.

But an investigation by the Irish Independent reveals that the programmes suffered from numerous home-grown problems including:

• Workers from Dell, SR Technics and Waterford Crystal were given the opportunity to go to college -- but weren't given any money to cover living expenses or travel. Waterford Crystal workers were eventually given €25.60 a week, which they said was far too little

• Support for third-level education was for a maximum of two years -- some laid-off workers had to drop out of college after the funding ran out, since they were surviving on social welfare and didn't have the money to pay for the third year

• Fees for private colleges were capped at €5,000 a year -- a rule imposed by FAS not the EU. Sources said more money would have been spent if the rule wasn't in place

• The Department of Enterprise decided support for creating new businesses only covered "non-mobile assets" so craft workers who wanted to set up gardening businesses or other mobile services weren't able to.

• People using the new business supports had to come up with at least 50pc of the start-up money themselves, but many laid-off workers were broke and couldn't do this

• Sources said the Irish authorities were acutely aware of the constraints of the national finances and were "scared" to start spending before the EU sign-off came, even though Brussels said countries should pre-fund the initiatives

Irish Independent

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