Ireland's National Action Plan on employment

Ireland's National Action Plan on employment, in response to the EU Employment Guidelines, was unveiled in April 1998. The social partners were consulted during the formulation of the plan. Reactions to the plan have been mixed, with some claiming that it is largely a repackaging of existing policies and contains little that is significantly new.

The Tanaiste (Deputy Prime Minister), unveiled Ireland's National Action Plan on employment on 20 April 1998. All the EU Member States have drawn up such National Action Plans (NAP s) in line with the Employment Guidelines which arose from the special Employment Summit in Luxembourg in November 1997 (EU9711168F). The Guidelines set out a a framework for national action under the four "pillars" of employability, adaptability, entrepreneurship and equal opportunities. The NAPs were to be considered at the Cardiff European Council meeting in June 1998.

Contents of the plan

The NAP will involve an annual expenditure of IEP 1 billion which will come from existing Exchequer funding. The key objective of the Plan is to reduce unemployment from its current level of 9.4% to 7% by the year 2000. The Tanaiste maintained that the NAP would involve a different approach than in the past because it would focus on preventing unemployment rather than curing it.

The Plan is divided into four main policy areas, based on the EU guidelines: employability, entrepreneurship, adaptability and equal opportunities. The employability section proposes tackling youth unemployment. FAS, the national training agency, and local employment services will be instructed to contact all persons aged under 25 who have been on the "live register" of unemployment for more than six months with a view to providing them with a job, training or other employment support. This approach is intended to prevent welfare dependency amongst young people, and will be extended "on a phased basis to all over-25s" who have been on the live register for 12 months.

The plan also contains measures to target early school-leavers and unemployment "blackspots", as well as rural poverty. Other key elements include measures to: enhance organisational flexibility; develop entrepreneurship; strengthen equal opportunity policies, promote better childcare provisions; and improve work opportunities for disabled people.

Consultation with the social partners

Letters were initially sent out to the social partners informing them of the EU Employment Guidelines. The draft NAP document was made available to them around 19-20 March 1998, so that they could make their respective contributions. As part of this consultation process, a meeting took place on 25 March between the relevant government departments and the social partners, chaired by the Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister). Nineteen different social partner organisations were involved in providing an input into the process. These organisations came under four "pillars" - the trade union pillar, the employer and business pillar, the farming organisation pillar, and the community and voluntary organisation pillar. The views of the social partners were taken on board and a number of amendments were agreed at the meeting. The plan was then finalised, submitted to Government for approval, and then despatched to Brussels for consideration at the Cardiff summit in June. There are plans for ongoing consultation with the social partners as well as a progress report.

The general feeling amongst the social partners was that the timescale for the consultation process was not as long as it should have been. This was because the document had to be generated quickly due to the tight deadlines that had been imposed by the European Commission. An Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) spokesperson suggested that in the context of the time available, the consultation process was as good as it could be but, that in future, the EU should allow more time.

Within the context of the current national agreement, Partnership 2000 (IE9702103F), the Government was committed to considering the views of the social partners during the drafting of the Plan. As part of the partnership process, ICTU and the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC) issued a joint statement on partnership and adaptability which was included in the appendix to the finished plan. Accordingly, ICTU and IBEC had an important joint input.

Reaction of the social partners to the final plan

There were a number of reactions from the social partners to the finished plan. The general opinion was that it was primarily a repackaging of existing policies with little significantly new being added.

The response from ICTU was that the plan did not really go beyond existing measures and that there was a lack of specificity with regard to targets and timetables. In a document entitled Proposals for implementation of the EU Employment Guidelines, ICTU recommended that "as the substance of the Employment Guidelines parallel the main themes of Partnership 2000, they provide the opportunity for the Government, in consultation with the social partners, to set targets and deadlines in relation to the many employment-related commitments in Partnership 2000". For instance, the unions stated that the NAP should "specify numerical targets in respect of a year-by-year implementation of the Guidelines for the two specified categories of youth and long-term adult unemployed". There was a feeling that these recommendations on targets and timetables were not really addressed in the plan.

In addition, the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed (INOU) believed that the plan did not involve any additional funding and that the needs of long-term unemployed people were being neglected. The INOU general secretary suggested that despite the portrayal that IEP 1 billion was going to be spent on the plan, the reality was that there was no additional money being spent. There was also the fear that the "process could be driven merely by targets to get people off the (unemployment) register rather than any notion of what scheme or job is best suited to a particular individual". However, the INOU did express enthusiasm for the section of the report which states that tax reform will focus on the low paid.

Commentary

Although some of the provisions contained in the National Action Plan will undoubtedly be important in the battle against unemployment, it is apparent that the plan is primarily a repackaging of existing measures. There are also no additional spending commitments because the plan will be financed through existing Exchequer funding. Furthermore, there is a danger that the possible reorientation of resources from policies to tackle long-term unemployment towards policies to prevent youth unemployment could exacerbate existing social problems in certain communities. Although the combating of youth unemployment is crucial, it would be a mistake to deal with it in a manner that could be to the detriment of the long-term unemployed. Policies and resources might be better focused on both. (Tony Dobbins and John Geary, UCD, and Brian Sheehan, IRN)

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