The main item on the agenda of the recent Council of Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Ministers (EPSCO) meeting in Brussels was youth unemployment. Under my chairmanship, EPSCO gave political agreement to a Council Recommendation on an EU-wide Youth Guarantee. The EPSCO Recommendation is that each Member State should ensure that young people receive a quality offer of employment or of continued education, an apprenticeship or traineeship within four months of becoming unemployed. The Recommendation will be formally adopted by the Council at a later stage in Ireland's Presidency - most likely in May.
The Recommendation encourages Member States to implement its provisions as soon as possible once it is formally adopted. It is also recognised that implementation will need to be more gradual in countries with higher levels of youth unemployment and particularly severe budgetary problems.
In anticipation of the formal adoption of the Recommendation, the government will review the current range of youth employment and training policies in Ireland to assess what measures will need to be taken to commence the gradual implementation of the guarantee. This will include the identification of what would be the appropriate timescale for implementation in Ireland's current employment and budgetary circumstances.
The scale and nature of the measures required will depend on the trend in youth unemployment, and in particular the number of young people likely to experience periods of unemployment of more than four months under current policies. In this context, it is a welcome development that the official labour market figures published by the CSO last week indicated that the number of young unemployed at the end of 2012, at 59,000, showed a reduction of almost 9,000 on the same time a year earlier. It is to be hoped that this is the beginning of a sustained downward movement in youth unemployment as the economy recovers. Even so, the implementation of a guarantee will, almost certainly require an expansion in the range of opportunities currently on offer to young people in the form of further education, training, internships, subsidised private-sector recruitment, and supports for self-employment. All of these initiatives will be designed to enhance the labour market prospects of young people.
In this regard the State already provides a significant number of places which are available to young people and the Department of Social Protection took steps in Budget 2013 to increase funding and places for schemes such as JobBridge, Community Employment, TÚS and a new state employment scheme in the local Government sector. In total an additional 10,000 places will be provided. The Department of Education also made provision for the new momentum programme which is providing 6,500 new training places many of which will be taken up by young people. A new recruitment incentive – JobsPlus – has also been developed by my Department and was approved by the Government as part of the Action Plan for Jobs. This incentive will cover the cost of c. €1 in every €4 of an employer’s wage costs and will be launched for availability by July 2013. The size of the any additional provision that is both desirable and feasible will be established over the coming months.
The afternoon session of the EPSCO meeting saw Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Richard Bruton TD, chair a policy debate by Employment Ministers on the Commission’s Annual Growth Survey and Joint Employment Report in the context of the European Semester.
The EPSCO meeting also heard a presentation from EU Commissioner László Andor on the "Social Investment Package", which was published by the EU Commission last week. The package contains the Commission’s communication on the concept of social investment as providing a direction towards growth and cohesion for the EU, as well as a recommendation on “Investing in Children: Breaking the Cycle of Disadvantage”.
I look forward to working with both the Council and the Commission on how best to give effect to the principles and actions outlined in the social investment communication.
The EPSCO meeting is only the start of this process. My intention is to continue work on this important issue with a view to having formal conclusions at the next EPSCO meeting next June in Luxembourg.
Social protection systems are vital in protecting EU citizens against the worst effects of the crisis. Through investment in education and training, they also have a lead role to play in ensuring that citizens are job-ready and in a position to avail of labour market opportunities as the recovery comes.
A fiscal response to the crisis is not enough - there must also be a social response, and I welcome the Package and Commissioner Andor's strong personal commitment on this issue.