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.