That Dáil Éireann takes note of the First Report of the Joint Committee on Employment.
I will be sharing my time with Deputy Wyse.
It is my privilege as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Employment to open this debate on the committee's first report, which was adopted last July. It is a measure of the priority attached to the problem of unemployment that the Joint Committee were established, that their recommendations are being acted upon and that five and a half hours of Dáil time today has been set aside in such an unprecedented way to debate the contents of their first report, with the participation of four Ministers.
The Joint Committee are unique for several reasons. It is the first time in the history of the State that outside organisations were invited to nominate representatives to assist an Oireachtas Committee and serve on its sub-committee structure. These representatives include nominees from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the employer and farming organisations and other relevant bodies such as the Combat Poverty Agency, the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed, the National Youth Council of Ireland and the Conference of Major Religious Superiors. It provides a forum for elected representatives of both Houses of the Oireachtas to discuss in depth the issue of employment at national level with the social partners and other interest groups. This is the first Oireachtas Committee to concentrate solely on the jobs issue.
The first meeting of the Joint Committee was held on 12 May and by 23 July we had adopted our first report. In that period 18 meetings had been held at committee and subcommittee level. As chairman of the joint committee and an agreedex-officio member of all three sub-committees I attend each meeting and at all times I have been heartened by the shared concern and cross party consensus we have been able to achieve and sustain. I pay tribute to the commitment and co-operation of my fellow Oireachtas Members, to the very welcome contributions from the subcommittee nominees and to the dedication and expertise of the Secretariat.
The committee is a forum for ideas and in this respect we have received over 100 submissions from individuals and organisations throughout the country in response to our advertisment. We remain open to ideas from all sources and look forward to receiving submissions on an ongoing basis. This committee have established their credibility through the results they have had so far. I would call on any individual organisation with worthwhile suggestions to use the committee as a conduit for Government action.
I would remind the House of the purpose for which it established the committee. Under their terms of reference the Joint Committee are enjoined to examine and make recommendations on all aspects of economic and social policy which have a bearing on employment creation and which can contribute to alleviate unemployment. The committee are also to consider and make recommendations on any other issues or subjects which the Joint Committee consider relevant to their task. One of the reasons why we are succeeding in this task can be attributed to the true cross party spirit of the committee, where the Members are focusing solely on the job in hand and not on political or ideological differences. The Joint Committee's first report does not claim to be an in depth analysis of the problem of unemployment. It is an interim progress report which is short and to the point. It is the result of the initial ten week's work of the Joint Committee. It contains concrete proposals for action by Government and indicates areas on which we will focus in future reports.
I turn now to the background against which the committee are working. While total employment over the past two years had been broadly stable — and that is an important point when compared to the decline in employment in the UK — there are nonetheless 287,100 people on the live register, an unemployment rate of 17.6 per cent. At the last count there were 118,510 people on the live register for one year or more, of which over 54,000 were there for three years or more. We face an enormous problem. In economic terms unemployment on this scale represents a huge waste of human resources and potential wealth creation. Of course, one cannot look at employment purely from the economic view. There are enormous human cost associated with unemployment, particularly long term unemployment. In many ways having a job is the key to wider participation in society. For many unemployed persons participation in society is limited by them not having a job. Not only that, but there inevitably follows a loss of dignity and self worth which carried with it its own social consequences.
My purpose in drawing attention to the economic and human costs is to paint a clear backdrop to the issue so that all the actors on the political stage will see the need for cross party agreement and co-operation to tackle unemployment. We need fresh thinking as to how we tackle the dimensions of unemployment. How can we give unemployed people the opportunity to use their skills and talents for the benefit of themselves and their local communities? At the moment we spend about £1 billion in income support for unemployed people who have to prove that they are not working and that there is no work available. Why not use this money in imaginative ways to provide an option of working, not a compulsion, but an option to work in their local communities with voluntary agencies and public sector bodies like county councils and health boards?
It is quite clear that there is no shortage of useful work that could be done from the perspective of unemployed people and the communities they live in. For example, there is obvious potential in areas such as recycling, tourism-related activities and the development of recreation facilities. What is needed is something to bring together the skills of the unemployed and these very obvious work opportunities. The committee are currently examining various ideas on work for the unemployed with a view to coming up with some practical proposals for action. This is something which could be put into action in the short rather than in the medium or long term.
The committee have been particularly conscious of long term unemployment. We see the need for action across a range of fronts to tackle this problem. That is why we are looking at new ideas along the lines I have just mentioned but our first report which is now before the House also contained a number of specific proposals for more immediate attention and action.
We looked at the social employment scheme which provides paid work to participants on a part-time basis for 12 months. There are many such schemes around the country providing valuable experience for the unemployed and carrying out work of social value. There are however difficulties in the operation of the scheme such as the lack of continuity and the uncertainty for both participants and sponsors. These problems need to be addressed.
In our report we recommended an expansion of the numbers on the social employment scheme in the context of a more planned approach to tackle the problem of uncertainty. I am glad to see that the Government and the Taoiseach underlined this in the Dáil yesterday. The Government are acting on this recommendation with the provision of an extra 1,000 places on the community employment development programme and an additional 4,000 places on the social employment scheme.
In looking at the problem of long term unemployment the committee were also conscious of the link between the level of educational attainment and job prospects. We recognised the need for measures which would assist unemployed people in acquiring the qualifications which would enable them to get back as viable candidates in the labour market. It is worthy of note that some 45 per cent of unemployed people have primary level education only. This is why we recommended an expansion of the vocational training opportunities scheme which provides second chance education based on training and personal development opportunities to long term unemployed persons. We recommend in the report before the House that the numbers on the scheme be increased by 1,000 to 2,000 by the end of the year and the Government are acting on this recommendation. Looking further ahead we favour the expansion of the numbers on the scheme to 10,000 as soon as resources permit.
I have concentrated on our recommendations relating to unemployment but the key to addressing the unemployment problem remains the creation of sustainable jobs. My committee believe that wealth creation is the key to sustainable job expansion. In Ireland's case, economic growth will always depend largely on how successfully we can compete on international markets. Our export trade represents no less than 70 per cent of GNP, so the concentration of our industrial policy must be on ensuring that Irish firms, as underlined in the Culliton report, develop and maintain a competitive edge on export markets by more investment in management skills, international marketing skills and technological know-how.
My committee, in recognition of the difficulty which clearly exists for small firms in obtaining start-up and working capital, recommended that an equity for jobs fund should be established to meet this need, an essential factor in the drive to create jobs. It is gratifying for the committee that our recommendation was taken up by the Government and incorporated into the £150 million jobs fund which was established recently and about which we expect to hear more detail.
The kind of partnership of resources represented through the new county enterprise boards should make a significant contribution to easing the particular difficulties experienced by smaller firms and I welcome it, but the committee believe that further steps may need to be taken so that companies can be confident that they will continue to have access to equity finance in the longer term, and we will make the recommendations on that matter. Indeed, we expect to make further recommendations on this subject in our next report. We need to ensure that capital is available not only for risk taking enterprises but also for those which are seen to be productive and employment-intensive.
It is clear that taxation and all other policies must be consistent with the goal of increasing sustainable employment. The committee have pointed out that there is a need to stand back and assess the overall direction in which all the various policies which affect employment and unemployment are actually going. In the absence of a clear overview there is a danger that individually well directed schemes may have less than their full impact. What we are saying, for example, is that all Government Departments should consciously have an employment element in their policy decisions.
Let me now turn briefly to deal with our autumn work programme in which we are vigorously engaged at present. We have outlined our work programme for the autumn in our first report. In addition to developing proposals on work for the unemployed and equity finance for the longer term we will also be exploring how we can best utilise our EC membership to tackle unemployment. There are two main channels for action, one is through the Structural Fund mechanism and the other is by raising the unemployment problem to a higher priority on the EC agenda. We have a series of ongoing consultations to focus on the opportunities available. I should say that the chairpersons of the three sub-committees will elaborate on a number of the issues that I have just touched on in my introductory remarks.
Our autumn programme will also include an examination of the upcoming NESC report which seeks to throw light on one of the more frustrating features of the economy, that is, how the economic growth rate, particularly in the late eighties, has not led to a corresponding increase in net employment. Other elements of our autumn work agenda will involve the examination of opportunities that we have been advised of in the commercial semi-State and local authority sectors as well as tourism and the internationally traded services sector. The committee will be working through this agenda in the course of the autumn with a view to coming up with concrete proposals for action in our second report in December.
In conclusion, all in all, we have a full programme for the next few months. I know that I speak for all my colleagues on the committee when I say that we are determined to find genuine, lasting solutions to the problem. We aim by Christmas to publish our second report which will contain a series of solid recommendations on how we can significantly reduce the number of people who are registered as unemployed.