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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 28 Oct 1992

Vol. 134 No. 6

Adjournment Matters. - Vocational Training Opportunities Scheme.

One of the problems of the unemployed is that they are essentially seen as a statistic. Most of the time the fact that they get a lousy time is ignored by everybody, including the media, and the urban unemployed are mostly ignored by politicians. There is an upsurge of outrage when occasionally rural people are treated as urban people are treated all the time. We also see the academic economist, who seems to be single minded in his dedication to undermine whatever dignity the unemployed have, suggesting that they are unwilling to work, that they are lazy and have no incentive to work. Public perception of the unemployed is being moulded in an increasingly negative way. They are now in the very vulnerable position where the Minister who should be defending them — the Minister for Social Welfare — is effectively leading the charge of prejudice against them.

Not much is available to unemployed people. We stick them on Mickey Mouse schemes — Mickey Mouse training courses without any certification or formal qualification at the end, in most cases run by FÁS. Social Employment Schemes, while they are occasionally useful, are regarded by most unemployed people as a necessary chore to avoid being disqualified from the social welfare system. They learn nothing and often cannot see the point of the work they are doing. If they understand the paperwork, sometimes they are allowed to participate in voluntary work.

One of the great exceptions in recent years — the vocational training opportunities scheme — came about because of pressure from unemployed people because in spite of the resistance of the Department of Social Welfare, the unemployed began to struggle through the leaving certificate by subterfuge. If the Department had found out they were studying, they would have disqualified them on the grounds that they were not available to work, but they got over that. Then some people were admitted to third level education but were told that they could not do that. They were told they could stay on the dole forever but could not spend a short period studying which might get them off the dole.

Because of the pressure from the unemployed people, the vocational training and opportunities scheme was very successful, and the value of this scheme is recognised by everybody. It is spoken well of by the centres for the unemployed, the Department of Education and by people who benefited from it. The one fundamental characteristic about this scheme is the enthusiasm of unemployed people, for them it is a way out of the quagmire of unemployment. They do not have to be coerced into it; they do not even have to be enticed into it; they are queueing up to participate. That is an undeniable fact based on information provided by the Department of Education.

The evidence of the enthusiasm of the unemployed for one of the few schemes that leads them to a proper, formalised qualification is a direct denial and contradiction of the malicious vindictive campaign that is consistently carried out against them by sections of the media, by some politicians, by the Minister for Social Welfare and by a bunch of academic economists who have never experienced the pain of unemployment in their lives. The VTOS is the finest evidence we have of what unemployed people will do if we let them, if we do not insist on telling them that they must remain idle.

There is no need to threaten people with the VTOS, there is no need to cajole or entice them, they are queueing up to join. The Minister knows they could fill ten times as many places if the funding was available. That is why many people are so concerned about recent reports and suggestions of coercion.

The almost clinically technocratic Minister for Education, whose philosophy of life is based on a preception of humanity as economically functioning units, on a cold and detached model of market economics, has decided he wants to do something else with this scheme. He wants to make it compulsory. Nobody has ever given a reason that should be so. The scheme has worked very well; there has been no shortage of demand for it. Levels of participation, survival and enthusiasm and the willingness of people to work extremely hard, are evidence of how worthwhile the scheme is. There is no need to make it compulsory.

This Government have an ideological rigidity which, may I say, was not a characteristic of the Government under the previous Taoiseach, whatever I thought of him. He had a capacity to get beyond the idiocies of simplistic economics. Regrettably, and increasingly, the present Government have no such capacity. They are tied into a nonsensical form of antiquated pre-1980s economics which has nearly bankrupted both the United States and Britain. We now have the nonsense of coercion of the unemployed which is a direct response to those who tell us that they are unemployed because they will not work. No amount of evidence will deter these people from that view.

The Minister for Education, good Thatcherite that he is, is looking around for some way to prove his credentials. There is one scheme in his Department which is clearly and directly used by the unemployed, so he says, right, let us make them do it. He has no evidence to suggest they will not choose to do it or that they do not want to do it. He wants to prove that he is as good as anybody else at kicking these poor vulnerable people around, so he is going to frog march them all into what would otherwise be a good scheme.

The upshot will be that this ideological nonsense will destroy a scheme which could, if it was expanded, properly and generously, with good funding, give many people, of varying age groups and backgrounds the chance to escape from this nightmare of being on the dole, of the nonsensical demands of the Department of Social Welfare, the increasingly threatening Minister for Social Welfare and the perpetual stigmatisation by a large section of Irish society.

This was and is the way out for many people. It is the way back to dignity, pride and a sense of having achieved something. This Minister, with his ideological boots, walks straight into the middle of this scheme and threatens to destroy the good in it. It will not work if it is compulsory. If the section is based not on people's willingness to do it, but on some other criterion such as age or duration of unemployment, it will spoil the most important quality of the scheme which is people's enthusiasm for it.

If there were empty places we could debate this matter again. When there are vacant places, let the Minister tell us what he proposes to do. For now, the problem is not vacant places but not enough places for those thousands of unemployed people who, once they saw a good idea, did not need any Minister to coerce, cajole or threaten them to join. They could see and knew from experience that it was worthwhile. I appeal to the Minister, before he destroys something good, imaginative, creative and useful, to drop the draft idea of making compulsory something as good, useful and life enhancing as this scheme.

I want to thank Senator Ryan for raising this matter. I also welcome the opportunity to talk about the vocational training opportunities scheme in this House as I did two weeks ago in the Dáil. I agree with almost all the comments made by the Senator.

The scheme was started in 1989 after a pilot phase in Limerick and Tallaght. There were 260 places available on the scheme then. The number of places now is 2,060 which includes an additional 1,000 places this year. A further substantial increase in the number of places on the scheme is under consideration.

The purpose of the scheme is to provide educational and training opportunities for the participants in order to help them get jobs, to increase their employability, and to help them to avail of other educational and training opportunities which will lead to employment.

Various studies in Europe and elsewhere have established a firm link between unemployment and low levels of education and training. There is clear evidence that the same applies here. Statistics show that 87 per cent of long term unemployed people have not completed second level education and that 60 per cent have no second level qualification. It is to redress this situation that the VTOS was established.

The scheme has proved itself to be a great success. It meets the needs of people who are unemployed in a flexible and effective way. Those who are involved in the scheme — and here I must pay tribute to the vocational education committees through whom the scheme is operated — consider it as one of the most important educational initiatives in recent years. The reaction of the participants is also very positive. They are spreading the good news and the demand for places on the scheme is strong. especially in areas where the scheme is already operating. Even with the current substantial increase in the number of places, it has not been possible to accommodate all those wishing to participate.

I am aware, of course, of references in the public press to plans to introduce compulsory attendance for those who are under 21 years of age and who have been unemployed. However, these reports were out of context and did not give the complete picture. The issue of compulsory attendance under the VTOS does not arise at present as the demand for places exceeds the number of places available.

I want to take the opportunity to quote from a reply to a parliamentary question which was answered in the Dáil last week by the Minister for Education:

There are no plans currently to change the voluntary nature of attendance by the long term unemployed at courses under the vocational training opportunities scheme.

The level of unemployment continues to be a major cause of concern, and as I have said, a clear link has been established between education and training levels and unemployment.

Addressing the issue of the educational level of the unemployed involves two approaches. One would be aimed at stopping the flow of people from the education system with inadequate education and training, the other would seek to redress the inadequate educational and training levels of those already unemployed. The VTOS plays an important role in the second approach.

As the Minister for Education has indicated on a number of occasions, the further expansion of the VTOS is under consideration. Apart from the provision of additional places, consideration will be given to the broadening of the scheme to include other groups currently outside its scope and to lower the minimum age limit currently set at 21.

As the VTOS is but one of many responses to the broad issue of unemployment generally it would be reasonable that in the development of new proposals consideration should be given to a wide variety of issues and options, including questions relating to the conditions for the payment of social welfare benfits. However, I can assure the Senator that it will be a major concern of the Minister's to ensure that any changes in the VTOS do not detract from what is already a very succesful scheme.

I thank the Minister for, at least, telling us that compulsory attendance under the VTOS will not arise immediately. I wish we could get away from talking about options and conditions for the payment of social welfare benefit. To any sane human being, that means that in the Department there is the clear intent of forcing some people to do these courses. No matter what he says elsewhere, if the Minister is talking about options, about access to social welfare that people can either starve or go on courses, then they have no choice. That is compulsion.