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‘Wasters’ – a commentary on Ch.3: Behind the scenes at FAS
The Case for integrating Community Employment Schemes with Local Government & Designating key FAS Training Centers as Regional Technical Institutes Commentary by firstname.lastname@example.org 10/5/2010
‘Wasters’, Shane Ross and Nick Webb Commentary on Chapter 3: Behind the Scenes at FAS
Introductory comment I’ve just read the chapter relating to FAS in ‘Wasters’, by Shane Ross and Nick Webb and feel that while its rich on detail it lacks an overall understanding of the fact that Fianna Fail deliberately turned FAS into a patronage system for its own political and financial gain hollowing FAS’s core function as the national manpower and training agency; a function they served well till the advent of private training schemes which have stripped it of its own inhouse training capacities. While Chapter 3 unearths the corruption and waste that this patronage system created it does not give much comment on the system itself, which is something I’d like to do here. My comment will focus on general observations rather than on specifics because the authors already provide them. The books findings alone provide a just reason to close down FAS and split its core functions between local government and the department of education. Clearly the Community Employment Schemes could just as easily be ran by the integrated development boards which form a growing part of local government’s remit, while FAS’s inhouse training facilities would be better developed into a training institute or regional technical college. This move would save the tax payer in the region of half a billion, cutting out the wasters, the private sector trainers and the junketers as well as removing the system from the reach of centralised political control. But it’s worth considering just how effective Fianna Fail were in turning FAS into a system of political patronage and how that impacts on the unemployed and on communities throughout Ireland. The Community Employment Schemes FAS Community Employment Schemes consume €392million of the overall agency budget of €970M (P73) making the scheme the backbone of the community development - or ‘Third’ - sector throughout the country and thus an ideal lever of political control both in terms of local community structures and the unemployed. For those signing on the dole the dread day is the day their stamps run out and they must pass a means test to obtain social assistance. That day of reckoning can be postponed by: going on the sick; by going back to education or training; or by taking a place on a Community Employment Scheme - facts which the non-compliant will not be advised of. In order to obtain means tested welfare assistance household means must be below a threshold so living in a household as a dependent will likely rule the applicant out. This creates an incentive to claim homelessness, single parenthood, disability, or divorcee status. Applying for a position on a CES Scheme allows a long term unemployed person to extend their claim for the duration of the scheme ( by as many as five years) without having to consider any of these more drastic options. In order to be successful the applicant needs to be ‘Well got’, in their local community the key task being to present as a suitable client for a place on a scheme which will be operated locally by a parish committee/community council. Now being a ‘good client’, is a talent which not all possess for reasons of personality type, life history or perhaps mental health considerations; indeed even being virtuous can
be a bar in a world where political acumen is a prerequisite to participation. If one presents as a misfit or someone who is critical of the system or simply a ‘Who does s/he think s/he is’, type, your options dwindle rapidly and the consequences can be extreme. Remember this is ‘Parish Pump’, dynamics. Rejection at this local level essentially turns a person into an economically and socially disenfranchised pariah and risks marginalising them to addiction, destitution, isolation and ultimately suicide. This is the dark under belly on the system of political patronage and clientelism which Fianna Fail have essentially become the ring masters of through their control of key agencies like FAS; a fact which those driving and working the system are not unaware of. Would any other party manage it differently given the chance? Community development groups must compete for Community Employment Schemes as they provide access to manpower as well as wages for administrative staff and operational budgets. It is also a vital step in securing grants for various programmes of work. Without it a group lacks the Governments official imprimatur or seal of approval and subsequent attempts to advance their cause will likely fall on deaf ears. The schemes also provide those engaged in the Third Sector with career path opportunities beyond the life of the scheme itself into local government and onto the boards of development agencies and grant aiding authorities. But it’s not just community groups that must play the game so also do religious orders, which have a social justice focus, such as: The Sisters of Charity and their own redoubtable Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy who became a key architect of the Combat Poverty Agency and its policies; the Jesuits too make key contributions both on the ground , through men like Fr. Peter McVerry , and also through policy inputs from men like Fr. Sean Healy S.J who virtually enjoys a statutory function in relation to commenting on the national budget and Social Partnership Process, as do CORI, The Conference of Religious of Ireland ; even down to the street level work the Capuchin’s and White Friars do in Dublin or the countrywide efforts of The Vincent de Paul all must cleave to the system of political patronage to a degree by virtue of their dependence on it. So while they may critique the specifics they take care not to ‘bite than hand that feeds them’, despite the fact that the system is in some respects creating the very problems they’re trying to deal with. Add key local opinion formers from all walks of life and retired public servants into the mix of community workers, local community groups, the ordinary well got ‘Joe soap’ scheme workers, the GAA, the Church and religious, Parents Committees , the local body politic and you’ve pretty much got a 360 degree circle – a sealed bag, so to speak. Working through all of that, like political agents, are Fianna Fail’s ‘Grassroots’, who might as well all have degrees in social anthropology so skilled are they at manipulating local narratives and personalities. And God help the weak witted should they cross them. Now try to be the odd man out in that equation. So phrases like ‘You’ve got to go along to get along’, or ‘Say nothing and keep saying it’, or ‘Say nothing till you hear more’, come into use; cryptic Irishisms which spell out the social reality to those with any wit but deny the witless lest they spoil the game. About 99.99% of those who remain unemployed in their local community setting ‘Cop on’, at some stage and experience a kind of spontaneous political apostasy along the road to the local dole office some day before their entitlements run out. They then simply chose one lifeline or another, and discover that they are all politically strung. This is the great genius of Fianna Fail and it is best described
as such. Just because none of the other political parties managed to crack this cultural nut doesn’t necessarily make it wrong albeit it incredibly cynical. Of course all of this is copper fastened by the fact that Irish ballot papers are numbered and finding out whose playing the game and whose pretending to play the game is a simple enough matter. So the next time you vote, in any election, just check the back of your ballot paper; you will find it is numbered and therefore can be traced back to you, if needs be. I learnt this many years ago in the West when after polling day the local Fianna Fail TD thanked me for voting for him with the confidence of a man who knew for sure I had. I figured it out later but was well perplexed at the time. So allowing Fianna Fail to put its hand on the tiller of this veritable pillar of the community development sector through FAS is like handing them a skeleton key to every community in the country and one which is well worn come election time. Who is to blame? - everyone and no one in particular, it’s just a very shrewd piece of socio-political manipulation and one which needs to be put beyond party political reach in future by assimilating the CES Schemes into local government. Now local government is itself ‘plenty political’, but it’s far too diverse spatially and politically to be politically ham strung in the manner FAS has been.
FAS Inductees. The book doesn’t give a global figure for the amount of FAS funds going to private trainers but it must amount to hundreds of millions. Under Mary Harney’s influence (as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment) a policy decision was taken to out-source training in FAS and progressively reduce their own excellent in-house training facilities which had been the core function of ANCO, its predecessor. Key training facilities were closed down and a new national training institute shelved for no good reason. Or so it would seem. In reality these in-house training capacities made courses on offer from the private trainers seem laughable. Instead of a six week live in placement on a construction operative training course with access to well maintained collection of diggers, low loaders , dumpsters and dozers the trainee is now offered a three day crash course on a mini-digger from a private trainer who has been sanctioned at a FAS/Fianna Fail Induction course. Welfare recipients are obliged to sign on in their local FAS office where they are appointed an Employment Officer who ‘determines their training needs’, and assigns them to a private training contractor regardless of the plethora of multi-lingual FAS leaflets pointing up their own inhouse training opportunities. The ploy is in directing the trainee – and more importantly the trainee’s €500 training allowance - to a member of the privatised FAS/Fianna Fail business network. The staff act like skilled sales personnel directing the trainee into the network regardless of how many inhouse training leaflets they may clasp in their dear little hands. And if the poor witless applicant does not get that accessing that training allowance can become a process which is simply not worth the candle then wait for it; I’m still waiting for a cheque from Dundalk for a menial course I complete five years ago, while, meanwhile the advisor concerned has been promoted to said location. God be good to her.
Now as hundreds of thousands of social welfare recipients annually present themselves to FAS for training, those allowances start adding up into a very lucrative number for the inductee business networks. Many of the courses are asinine and as Ross and Webb highlight often given by trainers unqualified, under-experienced or poorly provisioned for the task. But here again one must ‘Go along to get along’. There is simply no ‘not playing’, the game. If you need that manual lifting certificate or that FAS Safepass cert you need it. Yes! there is a FAS course in how to lift boxes and I have the cert to prove it along with the Safepass card – now out of date of course. I have to say the course is worth attending just to see the 1970’s UK made film of blokes clad in cardigans, turtle neck jumpers, tank tops and terylene trousers lifting empty cardboard boxes onto office tables. You literally cannot walk onto a site anywhere in Ireland without one of these certs. The alternative is of course site visits from Health and Safety Inspectors, which would be far too practical and cost effective. Just imagine the scene “We are taking elevenses today boys to watch a Health and Safety demonstration which includes a very compelling movie of men in cardigans and terylene trousers lifting empty cardboard boxes onto office tables” – I digress. But such a system would not foster a culture of political patronage and control in the way that outsourced training does, because all the trainers are already playing the Fianna Fail game and the rooms are pervaded by a sense of ‘Going along to get along’. No doubt if anyone attempted to screen such videos on site many a chip buttie sandwich would take flight but in a politically contrived setting everyone keeps a studied and compliant expression on their face, while quietly wondering ‘Is this for real’? This policy shift was a product of the fact that Minister Mary Harney, as a Progressive Democrat, was a neo-liberal privateer by conviction and would in time marry FAS Director Brian Geoghegan. So to say that there was a meeting of hearts and minds between Fianna Fail and PD culture within FAS which gave rise to a mutually agreeable arrangement would be an understatement. While Mary and Brian may have married too late to suffer the pitter-patter of little feet the country is in many respects littered with their inductee progeny, and plainly not all of us think it a good idea. The real danger in my view is that this horde of FAS Inductees will effectively survive the chop while the agency is axed making off with the Department of Social Welfare training allowances - a real case of the cuckoo in the nest displacing the brood to claim the territory. Now while that outcome would suit Fianna Fail down to the ground it would destroy the true merit of what ANCO and FAS have been about over the years and deny the unemployed proper skills and training which realistically can only be given in institutional settings by properly provisioned, qualified and experienced trainers. The Junketeers. Not wishing to rehash the plethora of facts and figures which the authors have offered in this regard I really just want to comment on how this aspect of FAS spending is really also to do with maintaining and clearly identifying the FAS patronage system with Fianna Fail. The authors point out how the agencies considerable advertising budget is used to placate the media and keep curious journalists at bay – at least till Shane and Nick came along. The decision to move the jobs training fair from the RDS to Croke Park on an ‘Accept it or we’ll cancel it’, basis clearly forms part of the effort to culturally identify the agency with things Fianna Fail; so also the motive for the match tickets and season seats. This is all about saying who we are and who were not; a party political branding exercise of sorts. The curious
greeting ‘You’re one of us’, asked searchingly and accompanied by a slap on the back by way of establishing the degree of receptivity to the charge. The late night drinking sessions to see who can ‘hold their own’, ‘stand their round’, and ‘keep the peace’. All part of the extended induction process. The foreign junkets too are a way of implicating and compromising all at once ensuring a culture of acquiescence and of ‘Going along to get along’, right to the top. Had Nick Webb accepted that all expenses paid junket to Florida would he be the co-author of this book today? Methinks not, because compromise is a curious thing; we’re often compromised before we know it and certainly so where lavish expenditure like this is concerned. Inviting ICTU and IBEC and the Chambers of Commerce on to the agency board is also clearly designed to create a culture shift from that of state based institutional trainer to private ethos trainer in what amounts to an orchestrated attempt to buy all objectors off and transform FAS permanently into a private political patronage system for Fianna Fail after its is axed no doubt by virtue of the very debacles on which the books is based; think cryptic and then infect that with cryptosis and you have the measure of the mindset. While the Fianna Fail plan may involve passing the Community Employment Schemes onto local government in the hope of regaining control of their political culture later, it surely will involve axing the management and training aspects of the agency while privatising its training facilities leaving its inductee network to make permanent claim to the Department of Social Welfare Training allowances. Add to that the gross manipulation of the Agency by industrial players during the Celtic Tiger years when all they did was act as a conduit for immigrant workers who were placed on a conveyor belt from the moment they arrived, to outsourced FAS trainers and directly onto sites and you will understand why I as one of the longterm unemployed Irish who waited five years for a placement that never came went to the bother of writing this review. Conclusion. In a time of crisis Fianna Fail, having crashed all the red lights, bailing out buddies left right and centre, saving a bank which broke the nation (and by the Governor of the Central Banks own admission did not have to be bailed out) strain public belief looking to bring in a last budget with which to bind the incumbents just as they did with the Social Partnership Process. Programmes of government negotiated outside of government and now setting the incoming governments budgets for them – for an entire Dail term. After which they will graciously call an election so that they do not have to take the rap for its implementation or face the bond markets in the new-year. My hope for this book is that is ensures the right parts of FAS get the chop (the corrupt management that knowingly allowed the agency to degenerate into political patronage system and the network of private inductees who exploited that fact) while the aspects which serve the public interest (the Community Employment Schemes and in-house training facilities) get integrated with local government and the regional technical college system. But for that to happen someone is going to have to pull the plug before the budget gets passed otherwise the incumbent government will be faced with a fait accompli in this regard. Fine Gael need to get their head round the fact that the next government is
more likely to be a Labour led Fianna Fail coalition than Fine Gael led Labour coalition. So this is a timely publication which ought give the opposition pause for thought. The Fianna Fail plan seems, to me at least , to be akin to saving the cancer and cutting out the patient. But this is Ireland afterall.
Shane Ross’s Blog address: http://www.shane-ross.ie/archives/797/wasters/ The Google book review link: http://books.google.com/books?id=4P6SgAACAAJ&dq=wasters&hl=en&ei=dw-rTMOECYvMswaK76mcBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result
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