Thursday, October 01, 2009

Misplaced Spending: Community Platforms

Back in the 1980s, the now notorious Fás came up with an ingenious idea, based on similar programmes based in Thatcher's UK from around 1982. Instead of simply paying people on the dole, and at the same time paying for essential community services such as street cleaners etc, why not shove some of the then ever-lengthening dole queues into roles previously carried out by full time, permanent, and in those days, reasonably rewarded workers. Community schemes, as they were called, was the politically expedient way to try to stem the political impact of both sky-rocketing welfare stats and vanishing public services.

In Ireland they called it the CES scheme, and some were not bad. "I've a job scare," said a friend of my Mum's, recently laid off, who was appointed a supervisor on one of these schemes. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but those who were hired were considered to be "trainees" as most were effectively unemployable. Back then, there was still a very large contingent of the population who had no 3rd level or vocational training, and often, lacked even the requisite Leaving Cert that would get them a job.

Community organisations of the time, rightly rose up in protest at this cheap shot - essentially this forced unemployed people to work for low wages, in generally low to unskilled roles (only a small percentage ever had genuinely good, high skilled training - admittedly, there were some really good projects that went on to get proper funding from other state bodies, but many really just filled the gap left between declined public services due to cutbacks and people hanging about with nothing to do). A lot of the opposition disappeared over the years as welfare entitlements were improved - for example, SWA allowances, trainee payments etc. They often still fell slightly short of what originally most of these jobs would have paid, and the skills obtained in many cases were still limited. Finally, one of the later changes to these schemes was the qualifying periods on welfare required, and the length of time people could stay on them. Gradually, opposition to this kind of "workfare" scheme disappeared as it became apparently that it was often a good way to enable those who had made welfare dependency a lifestyle choice to keep their hand in the begging bowl for a few years longer.

It is a terrible indictment today that the so-called "Community Platform" movement fights so hard to retain what was brought in as a fudge to job cuts, services cuts and unemployment rises. We live in an age where essential services like childcare are often dumped into this sector, and instead of shouting loud to stop the downgrading of these kinds of services, unions and communities are fighting for their retention. What we need to put an end to is the dumping of essential services into downgraded substitute sectors and the development of genuine, proper community services. In addition, we need proper, accredited and professional training services that are not just another way to keep your rent allowance or stay on welfare for a few more years.

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