Fine Gael's misguided policy of employment 'activation'

On reading the election manifestos of the main political parties and the United Left Alliance there is no doubting the nearly everyone standing for election sees jobs, their maintenance and creation, as a critical issue in this election. There are similarities across many of the manifestos as they identify the need to build on the country’s strengths from the potential of the agri-business to the potential of the green economy. However, they differ in how they envisage engaging with unemployed people and ensuring they are offered real hope of a job while in the meantime they are given adequate social welfare supports to meet their needs. Brid O'Brien of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU).

In our election manifesto launched on the 17th February, the INOU posed four questions to politicians:

  • What will you do to tackle unemployment?
  • Will you reverse the cuts made to Jobseekers Allowance and Benefit?
  • How will you improve services to unemployed people?
  • What will you do to create decent jobs?

Questions one and four had two different foci as the INOU has criticised the current Government’s response to the unemployment crisis as being limited and driven by their need to ensure that all new initiatives were cost or revenue neutral. As the Live Register has trebled since the beginning of this crisis it is not possible to tackle unemployment without investing in additional resources. The INOU disputes the Government’s (and the Fianna Fail election manifesto) claims that education and training provision have been substantially increased, as effectively what happened was that existing courses were modularised and split into shorter courses. Such a policy may have been viable if job losses had been limited and job creation had been maintained but given the scale of the losses and the lack of job growth there is significant gap between demand for education and training places and their supply on the ground. The additional investment Labour, Fine Gael, and Sinn Fein propose in the creation of education, training and job opportunities are to be welcomed.

The United Left Alliance and Sinn Fein are clearest about supporting social welfare payments for unemployed people. Fine Gael proposes cutting jobseeker payments by a further €10 over the next three budgets which would bring the single rate down to €178 by 2014. It seems extraordinary that a party that is only offering 20,000 additional jobs per year is planning on further impoverishing unemployed people. And though welcoming Fine Gael’s proposed additional 45,000 activation places the fact that they are targeted at young people only is questionable given that 80% of the Live Register is over 25. It is important that no group is forgotten when responses to unemployment are developed and this is particularly crucial if genuinely seeking work criteria are to be more rigorously enforced.

Activation is included in many of the manifestos both as part of their response to addressing unemployment and reforming pubic services. Activation is the term used to describe the process whereby unemployed people are supported to move off a welfare payment ideally into a decent job but in the current climate more realistically into education or training. The current Government has confused too often during this crisis the issue of welfare fraud with the issue of activation in the public domain which has served no purpose other than to perpetuate the myth that unemployed people don’t want to participate in the education, training or employment options they are given. Unemployed people and service providers on the ground are very clear that inadequate provision and in particular the lack of jobs is the real barrier to activation. And so it is disappointing to see both Fine Gael and Labour make a play on this issue as well. What is urgently required is the development of an integrated employment and social service which has at its heart the needs of the individual and ensures that people are given access to their entitlements as quickly as possible; they are given the very best advice and support; and that the system engages with them pro-actively. Unemployed people have been calling for this for a long-time. At a time when many people are calling for public sector reform, it is crucial that any subsequent developments are informed by principles of inclusion, equality, effectiveness and efficiency. The Green Party envisages such change more positively “so that the dignity and rights of customers receiving the services are fully respected”.

Finally, though there is a lot of very welcome material about job creation across the manifestos, the INOU remains concerned that even if the job creation envisaged materialises it is not sufficient to get unemployed people back to work or offer hope to all the young people who will leave college and school over the coming period. An integrated Jobs Strategy that looks at all elements of the labour market from the community and voluntary sector to the public to the private sector from the sole trader up to the multi-national is urgently required. Such a strategy should not only look at potential job growth but also look at where jobs should be maintained and developed from the arts to community development to public and private service provision to the smart economy.

More from the INOU: Unemployment 2011 - what's happening?

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