The number of young people from Northern Ireland who have participated in the Walsh Visa Programme to date is 254. I am satisifed that the jobs available, although they are at entry level to match the limited experience and skills of the target group, offer opportunities for further skills development and career advancement. To date, 139 participants have returned from the United States.
I thank the Minister for his report, which is fairly damming. It was envisaged that up to 4,000 young people a year would participate in the programme. We have 254, with a drop-out rate of 139. The jobs are not satisfactory, and a review of the Walsh Programme is needed. I ask the Minister to review this issue, as it is not satisfactory.
I do not accept that this is a damming situation, nor that it is unsatisfactory. The matter, with respect to the Walsh Visa Programme, has been under constant review from the outset. When the programme was put into operation it was recognised on all sides that the numbers originally targeted to participate annually were overly ambitious. That is the view of the Training and Employment Agency and FÁS, and is shared by the Department of Labor in the United States.
A number of drop-outs from the programme was expected, given the nature of the target group and the difficulties that they were already experiencing in the Northern Ireland labour market. The scale of the drop-out, however, is greater than anticipated and was a key issue for the scheduled review of the programme and the planning of the next phase.
Since early summer officials in my Department have had regular contact with the Department of Labor in Washington and have visited the USA for discussions with them and the US programme administrator. While there some weeks ago, my officials and I took the opportunity to discuss and review the Walsh Visa Programme with the Department of Labor. I also met some of the young people participating in the programme. I assure Members that many of them were quite satisfied with the administration of the programme.
Members will appreciate that there are many reasons, both personal and job-related, for so many drop-outs. I assure Members that when the review of the Walsh Visa Programme is complete, its reintroduction next spring will be in the light of a thorough consideration of all issues raised in the course of this year’s experience.
I confirm that several participants are well satisfied with the Walsh Visa Programme, especially those from the Newry and Mourne area. The uptake was not what some of us had anticipated — something similar to what happened with the Morrison Programme. Will the Minister outline his contacts with the United States and other officials regarding the Walsh Visa Programme?
The contacts are those mentioned in my response to the supplementary. Officials have been in regular contact with the Department of Labor, and FÁS, our co-partners in recruiting participants to the Walsh Visa Programme. On my recent visit to Washington I had a thorough discussion with representatives from the Department of Labor who are administering the programme. I visited and spoke with participants in two locations in the Washington area, and they expressed a considerable degree of satisfaction, some greater than others. Undoubtedly, in a programme of this nature, for some the experience has not lived up to expectations. It is important to remember that the Walsh Visa Programme is targeted on those who have experienced unemployment in Northern Ireland. Therefore, difficulties come into the programme as a product of those individual experiences. Some who have remained are gaining an invaluable experience, and some who have returned prematurely have brought home a positive experience. Not all come back with a negative attitude towards their experience in the United States.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s assurances. Was the drop-out rate connected to the administration of the programme by Logicon, who I understand have had the contract renewed? Given the serious problems which young people encountered earlier this year, is the Minister satisfied that these difficulties will not reoccur, and is he satisfied with Logicon’s performance?
We cannot guarantee that problems will not arise when a programme has many participants. We must expect some problems, either amongst the participants themselves, or as a result of the context of the strange surroundings in which they find themselves living and working.
Administration of the programme in the United States is a matter for the Department of Labor. That Department issued terms and conditions and invited companies to tender for the contract. Only two companies tendered, and the successful company was Logicon. Logicon is in regular contact with the Department of Labor and officials from the Department of Higher and Further Education, Training and Employment.
The three Government Departments involved—the Department in the Republic of Ireland that administers FÁS, my Department, which administers the Training and Employment Agency, and the Department of Labor in the United States — and Logicon have reviewed good and bad experiences from the first few months. We should remember that the project has not yet completed 12 months. I assure Members that there is an ongoing overview of the programme and that it has many positive aspects. The experience that the participants have gained in different workplaces and the new skills that they have acquired and developed will be beneficial to themselves and to our developing economy.