That Seanad Éireann:
- Ireland recognises the contribution young people make to our society, including working and volunteering in their communities and through their advocacy on national and global issues;
- the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution enshrined the rights of the child in Irish law;
- the establishment of the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth was the express provision by Government to ensure the vindication of those rights;
- the youth of our country have been stoic in the face of considerable challenges to their quality of life and opportunity throughout this pandemic;
- youth can be often portrayed negatively; we strongly reject this unfair characterisation of young people, and instead commend young people as they navigate the unique challenges they experience, for instance, they have:
- not been able to avail of the full student experience either in second or third level education;
- not been able to meet in each other’s homes;
- been denied their usual rites of passage, have not been able to engage in youth and sports activities, they have no social outlet;
- young people have been disproportionately impacted in their ability to work and earn their own money, and consequently disadvantaged in their own agency during this pandemic;
- year on year since the establishment of the Department it has received increased funding; we welcome the increase of €5 million in funding for youth services in Budget 2021, bringing the annual investment to €70 million in funding for youth services nationwide, to benefit youth organisations and their work supporting young people throughout the country;
- the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has taken extremely positive actions in the support of third level students including the welcome introduction of a €15 million fund to assist third level students access technology including laptops and devices, the doubling of the Student Assistance Fund; the €5 million increased funding for mental health support; the SUSI rebate and the provisions for Traveller students at risk of dropping out of third level education;
- that the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science established a new group, chaired by the USI, to examine how we can improve student well-being at this time;
calls on the Government to:
- recognise the unique challenges affecting our country’s youth;
- recognises the impact of this pandemic on our youth at all education levels;
- create channels of engagement, traditional or otherwise, to ensure that the voice of young people and their needs are respected and heard;
- take action in accordance with their needs, as expressed by them.
My motivation in bringing this motion forward was the repeated press reports last November about young people and all they were doing wrong in the midst of Covid, the complaints about breaches of Covid restrictions and the photos and videos circulating that were all castigating young people and their behaviours. To be young is quite a challenge. Young people are ever thought of in terms of what they will give to society when they are older and I have a real problem with this. They are considered intimidating if they gather in groups but this is just because they do not have anywhere else or a designated place to meet. They are loud and cause fear just by being young and exuberant. This age group has handled challenges never before experienced. Even outside of Covid they cope in a cyber age. They have to figure out social interaction, appropriateness, consent and what is real and what is not in an online environment where reality is frequently distorted and engagement can be twisted and disseminated even before any right of reply.
While these young people coming up are better educated than any generation before them they still face unprecedented challenges. Those in their 20s have now lived through two dramatic economic shocks and all of the consequences that flow from this. The funding of mental health and recovery programmes is very timely and important as the youth generation is the generation that has had the rug pulled out from under it quite literally.
Despite all of the judgment and narrative surrounding them, young people make huge contributions in the here and now. In their youth they enrich our society. Their views are significant and their perspectives are challenging and refreshing. The optimism of youth is a resource to be harnessed by leaders. The purity of their perspective, which is not tarnished by disappointment and life experience, should be a shining light and it is important that their voices are heard, their perspectives are considered and their views impact.
Childhood, youth and old age are finite periods in our lives when a lot of change can happen in a very short space of time. For the very young, throughout Covid the milestones of development have passed without being shared. Children have taken their first steps without the presence of grandparents. Holy communions and confirmations have been cancelled, or if they proceeded they did so without the pomp and significance that every child deserves on such an occasion. Birthday parties did not happen and some children, like my own child, spent months at a time without playing with any other child. Young people have had their junior certificate cancelled, and while this might have been a cause for celebration, and it certainly would have been for me in my day, that right of passage was missed and the maturity of the experience of the exam is now a confidence deficit that must be addressed.
In the initial days of the lockdown, youth work programmes were cancelled as the country got to grips with what it meant to be in a pandemic. Youth work staff have not received the absolute credit they deserve for all they did in the past year. Projects such as the St. John Bosco Youth Centre youth work programme in Dublin immediately pivoted from engaging with large numbers of participants to having to go to zero face-to-face contact and interaction that was only online or by video and phone contact. It published a fantastic document on the nine months of the pandemic last year and all it did and achieved with young people during that time. It created and developed online programmes. It distributed art packs. It had anti-racism initiatives. It held an online cafe and a video blog chat, Bosco Inspires, which involved interviewing various guests relevant to young people. When the lockdown eased it painted murals depicting the country's front-line services. It painted "We are Drimnagh" as a representation of the community of Drimnagh and what aspects were relevant to them. The same creativity and engagement was demonstrated in many organisations that engage youth, such as the GAA and the Irish Girl Guides, which got involved in an extraordinary level of volunteerism making their communities better places.
One of the strategic goals of the Minister is to help those who are vulnerable, including children, young people and at-risk individuals, to overcome adverse circumstances and achieve their full potential. Last year's budget for the Department was an unprecedented investment and I call on him to ensure it is maintained this year and, if possible, increased.
As for the school leavers of the past year, they travelled an emotional roller-coaster with the leaving certificate. They missed their debs and their holidays. They were not able to travel abroad to work. For those who did get into college, the first year was nothing of the uplifting liberating experience it should have been.
I acknowledge that significant investment has gone into ameliorating the awfulness of last year for them, and that continues. I set that out in the wording of the motion. Recent figures show that when the PUP is excluded youth unemployment stands at 15%, up 4% from the pre-Covid seasonally adjusted average of 11%. I appreciate that moves to address this are already in place or will shortly be announced and that the Department has been involved in those measures. The capacity of the Intreo centres has been expanded, there are an extra 100 job coaches, the JobsPlus subsidy for employers to hire young people has been increased, and an employer can get €7,500 for employing a young person who has been unemployed for more than four months. Employers are incentivised to employ young people.
I appreciate the apprenticeship schemes, the back to education and back to work allowances and the soon to be finalised pathways to work strategy for 2021 to 2025, which will be published by the Department of Social Protection. These initiatives reflect a whole-of-government strategy that will build on the support measures already in place to assist young people in their journey to work. Other measures that would help young people include addressing the sudden rise in insurance for international students, ensuring quick pathways to driving tests for young people who are anxious to get on the roads and hastening all of the initiatives the Government has planned.
I have asked the Minister to create a pathway to engage with young people. It needs to be interdepartmental to ensure the response is assured across Departments. We need to establish a youth collaborative forum, similar to the effective forums established in many other areas of the Department, to hear the unique challenges of young people and enable them to suggest, request and influence the Government's output in accordance with all that is ambitiously set out in the programme for Government and by the Department.