Tuesday, 12 March 2013
Topical Issue Debate
Labour Market Issues
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise the matter of parents who wish to return to the workforce after a period in the home raising children. They are not provided with similar rights and entitlements to those on the live register in terms of education and training initiatives and other labour market activation mechanisms. Although the proposal is couched in gender-neutral terms, in most cases we are talking about women who, mostly for reasons to do with child-rearing, opt out of the labour force for a number of years. As they are not in receipt of a qualifying payment, they are not entitled to participate in many of the labour market activation programmes available through the Department of Social Protection or its agencies.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, and I appreciate that not every Cabinet Minister can be in attendance for these debates. However, I had hoped the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, would attend because she is interested in these matters. In recent days, she celebrated International Women's Day. It is not often I find myself comfortable in the company of the National Women's Council of Ireland and SIPTU but it must be acknowledged on such occasions. The two bodies combined to produce a very interesting paper called Careless to Careful Activation. It deals with a range of issues that arise on the basis that women do not present a homogenous group in terms of labour market activation measures. Women who have reared children have different requirements from those who are at the pre-child-rearing stage.
The challenge for the Minister is whether it is possible to have a gender perspective on labour market activation and to move away from what appears to be a gender-stereotypical approach, that one size fits all in terms of labour market activation. I acknowledge it is a lot to ask but, from the point of view of the State, there is a danger of locking out a large cohort of women, many of whom have acquired skill sets at the expense of the State that are in danger of being lost forever. This will have an impact on employment rates in the economy and contribute to household poverty.
On the other side, women in receipt of qualifying payments are, in some cases, harangued and harassed by the Department of Social Protection to participate in labour market activation measures. In some contexts, it places extraordinary pressure on them, including the obligation to participate in training or courses and, subsequently, low-paid employment, as well as leaving them with the onerous task of domestic, child-rearing and care responsibilities. While we can understand the argument that scarce resources must be allocated in a targeted manner, under the current arrangements we are in many instances reaping the worst of both worlds. A cohort of women wish to participate in activation measures and to avail of the initiatives tailored to that purpose by the State, while another cohort of women, by virtue of the fact they are in receipt of payments, are being hunted and obliged to participate in the labour market activation processes. In many instances, labour market activation processes do not subsequently lead to productive engagement in the labour market.
Does the Department of Social Protection, through its many agencies, have the capacity for a gender perspective on labour market activation that designs tailor-made solutions to individual clients? These will not be exclusively women, but in many cases women currently not in receipt of social welfare qualifying payments are locked out of the benefits of activation measures.
The publication I referred to, a joint effort between SIPTU and the National Women's Council of Ireland, addresses many of the issues. The only way to come up with a realistic solution is to allow greater autonomy and flexibility to those who decide who participates. Many participants are unwilling and many willing participants are locked out of these arrangements.
I will respond on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Joan Burton. It is estimated the Department of Social Protection will spend over €1 billion on working-age employment supports in 2013. This substantial expenditure, against a backdrop of significant fiscal consolidation, underlines the Government's commitment to enhancing support for activation and assisting people in returning to employment. Given the scale of the crisis, the key objective of activation policy and labour market initiatives is to offer assistance to those most in need of support in securing work and achieving financial self-sufficiency. This policy objective prioritises scarce resources for the benefit of those who are in receipt of qualifying welfare payments. Accordingly, the employment services and schemes provided by the Department are focused, in the first instance, on the cohort of unemployed people. The major elements of the Government's response are set out in the Pathways to Work policy, which is aimed at ensuring that as job vacancies are created they are filled by people on the live register. The Department maintains a particular focus on those who are long-term unemployed or at risk of becoming long-term unemployed.
The Government believes a work-first approach to activating the unemployed is better than a programme-first approach, given that many who sign on to the live register will exit it again within a short timeframe without any recourse to employment schemes or intensive activation measures. For example, in 2012, of those who signed on to the live register, 43% had left within three months of first signing on. Given these high exit rates, it is an efficient use of resources to use duration on the live register as a criterion for identifying those jobseekers who are most in need of additional support in order to re-enter employment.
The Department has a role in supporting people in moving from welfare to work. A range of employment support programmes are available to eligible unemployed people. These initiatives focus on allowing the long-term unemployed, lone parents and sickness-related welfare recipients to return to the active labour market by supporting them in participating in education, taking up employment or becoming self-employed.
A number of education and employment support schemes such as the back to education allowance, community employment schemes and the rural social scheme are also available to qualified adult social welfare recipients. The requirement to be in receipt of a relevant social welfare payment for a minimum period has always been a feature of employment support schemes and this is considered necessary to ensure that limited resources are directed at those most in need and where optimal benefit will arise for the individual.
It is recognised, however, that not all unemployed people, including those previously engaged in home duties, are dependent on the State for financial support. Some services, such as assistance with job-search activities and the use of online job-searching tools, are available to all unemployed persons, regardless of their duration of unemployment, if they register with the Department's employment services offices. Unemployed persons not in receipt of payments, including those recently engaged in home duties, may also be eligible to avail of skills improvement opportunities, for example, through FÁS training, but are not eligible to receive a training allowance while undertaking such training.
I am disappointed with the Minister of State's response. It was a single transferable speech. I have seen similar responses to parliamentary questions. It does not show any willingness to think outside the box on this issue, which is a significant impediment to a large cohort of women who have skills they acquired previously and who need to improve their skills, sharpen their presentation and so on in order to get back into the workforce. The Minister of State's response was like the dialogue of the deaf. I urge him to have a word with the Minister for Social Protection to see if we can at least get an acknowledgement that there is an issue in this respect. If we cannot have an acknowledge of that, we will not get a resolution.
The Minister of State's response raises an obvious question: what is the success rate of those who are availing of activation measures in transferring from labour market initiatives to the workplace proper? Obviously, if the system is not working - I suspect it is not, and that many people are pursuing course after course and are not successfully transferring to the workplace - that would be grounds for a review of the current regime. I would like to know the position in that respect. If people are not transferring successfully, there is a weakness in the policy approach that should be addressed.
The Constitution is often the last refuge in an argument, but it does contain pro-family provisions. For those women who opt out of the workplace to spend a number of years at home raising their families, surely there is a question, legally and constitutionally, about whether barriers to their re-entry into the workforce are in keeping with the Constitution. If this is the case, there may be an impediment in the future for women who wish to stay at home, if they are going to be treated in this way subsequently.
We need a gender perspective on participation in programmes, and we need to provide flexibility for local social welfare officers or employment service officers to use their discretion where people present seeking to participate in such programmes and avail of them in the same way as anybody else who receives social welfare payments. We must determine whether it would work financially for everybody, including the State, to allow such people to participate on an equal basis.
I will bring the comments of the Deputy to the attention of the Minister. Pathways to Work represents the Government's policy statement on labour market activity, which is committed, as I said, to more focused intervention. Given the limited public resources, it is essential that these activation measures are targeted. The current cohort of people who are long-term unemployed are a particular focus for interventions. More than 87,000 education and employment support programme places were provided by the Department in 2012. There are 450,000 State-funded places providing further education and higher education and training. There are other activation initiatives available to unemployed people which are not contingent on social welfare status, such as FÁS training courses. The Government spent almost €1 billion on employment supports in 2012 and will expend more than that in 2013. A significant number of schemes, such as the back to education allowance scheme, the rural social scheme and community employment schemes, allow spouses or partners to apply for schemes based on their spouses' primary social welfare payments. I will happy to bring the Deputy's comments to the attention of the Minister.