Time to take responsibility for the community sector

Geraldine O Brien, assistant general secretary, IMPACT

Geraldine O’Brien, assistant general secretary.

The community sector in Ireland is undergoing a painful facelift. One which may appear cost effective in the short-term, but will inevitably crumble under the unbearable pressure of so few resources.

IMPACT members in Local Development Companies (LDCs) have campaigned to highlight the refusal of the Department of Environment to accept a Labour Court recommendation (LCR20890 8th December 2014) to enter into meaningful discussions with community workers, and their union representatives, about changes to their conditions of employment and threatened job losses.

LDCs work in communities with low income families, lone parents, people with disabilities, early school leavers and the travelling community, among others. The LDCs have been facilitating these, and other community projects, for over twenty years. However, the decision has been taken by the Department of Environment to disassemble the current infrastructure and replace it with a tendering process.

The Social Inclusion and Activation Programme (SICAP) is the successor programme to the Local Community and Development Programme (LCDP). Twenty contracts will be offered to the 53 LDCs in place.

IMPACT took part in a protest at the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government at the Custom House last week when the 20 new contracts were due to be announced. The statement has been twice postponed, and the results will finally be announced on Monday (2nd March). No matter what is announced (and we’re expecting many LDCs to lose out to private firms) most will be forced into further rationalisation, and jobs will be lost.

Higher targets, fewer resources

The defined catchment areas for service provision have been expanded significantly, while at the same time budget cuts have been imposed. The LDCs that have been running community programmes in disadvantaged communities for more than twenty years have been given completely unrealistic targets. Targets set so high that failure to reach them is almost certain.

The department has been silent. The new system is meant to roll out on April 1st, which leaves very little time for the companies to get their business in order. Ireland has been hailed throughout Europe as a model of best practice in the community sector. What’s happening now is that this model is being demolished. A highly functional and dynamic system, filled with experienced and resourceful workers, is being abandoned in favour of a model which will lead to the privatisation of these services.

The Department of Environment appears to be washing its hands of the issue, on the grounds that it is not the employer. Nevertheless, the department is responsible for introducing a model that will erode the legacy of great work undertaken by these organisations.

That’s why I’m continuing to appeal to the department to engage with IMPACT to discuss a contingency plan. We need to ensure that provision is made for the transition between the old programme being wound down and the new programme being commenced. If there are going to be job losses, we need to ensure that redundancies occur on a voluntary basis, and with an enhanced redundancy offer.

We don’t want to see any redundancies. These workers have been holding up under enormous strain for years, delivering quality services despite everything. It’s time to ensure that, in this period of transition, they’re afforded their dignity and shown respect for the amazing work they’ve undertaken in the last two decades. It’s the very least they deserve, and it’s time for the Government to take responsibility for whatever happens next.