Community groups in crisis

THERE are about 6,100 voluntary and community ‘charitable’ organisations in Ireland.

It is estimated that the equivalent of 53,000 people are employed full-time in the community and voluntary sector. The sector is also one of the economy’s biggest financially, accounting for an estimated €6.5 billion in services and economic outputs – the level of state funding alone amounting to €1.89bn.

The work of those active in the sector encompasses everything from lone parent support services, Traveller rights advocacy to drug rehabilitation and even organising historical pageants. Within the next 12 months the equivalent of 10% of jobs in the sector, or more, will be lost.

Perversely, the cutbacks come at a time when community sector services have never been more in demand.

National coordinator of the Community Workers Co-operative, a body representing 800 sector workers, Ann Irwin, believes the cutbacks will have long-term impacts on equality and anti-poverty work at local level, with many “core service providers being forced to close or massively reduce provision”.

As well as an economic onslaught, the sector is defending itself from criticism. Some claim that rather than empowering communities, the earlier role of the Catholic Church was replayed, with dogmatic outsiders seeking to exert control in economically deprived neighbourhoods.

“There is an enormous amount of disquiet and a need for inquiry into the sector to ascertain just exactly what we got over the past 20 odd years. It would appear to me that there are certain cliques, certain kinds of groups controlling community projects certainly in the urban areas,” according to Independent Dublin councillor and artist Mannix Flynn.

He points to problems in the financial governance of schemes, most recently with the decision of the state-funded body, Pobal, to end its support of the Dublin Inner City Partnership (DICP).

The partnership closed earlier this month following the discovery of “irregularities” in staff payments. Last year, a similar report uncovering “governance issues” resulted in the Kimmage, Walkinstown, Crumlin Partnership in south Dublin closing.

SIPTU community sector organiser Gerry Flanagan dismisses as “ludicrous” claims that some partnership managers were receiving up to €20,000 more than their agreed salaries, stating that the Pobal audits that implied such over-payments calculated the entire cost of a worker, including PSRI and pension payments, rather than gross pay.

What is agreed is that Partnership chairmen are well paid. Under the Towards 2016 partnership agreement their pay scales are linked to that of assistant principal officer grade within the civil service at between €66,000 and €82,500.

But Mr Flanagan points to what he sees as the targeting of “some of the more vocal” organisations who have opposed government policy as a worrying factor in the recent controversies.

With only a fifth of the sector unionised, he believes the Government sees the community sector as “a soft touch” for cutbacks.

“Twenty-two thousand people employed in community employment schemes had a cut imposed on them in January of 5.6%. Job Initiative people that work 39 hours a week had a 5.6% cut imposed on them – they earn €428 per week.

“The approach of forcing through redundancies, wage cuts and changes in work conditions is aided by the complex nature of the sector with partnerships, CDPs and Pobal all separate limited companies and as such independent legal entities.

“The direct employers are smaller agencies that were all constituted as independent limited companies in accordance with government policy. They were instructed to implement these cuts in breach of the wages act which they are liable for; however these instructions came from funding bodies with the proviso that if they didn’t they would have their entire funding cut.

“In the case of the DICP you had Pobal deciding to cut their funding. This decision was appealed, with Pobal hearing the appeal themselves and refusing to meet the workers involved,” said Mr Flanagan. It is also claimed that Pobal is refusing to engage with SIPTU at the Labour Relations Commission.

However, according to Pobal’s human resources manager Enda Doherty, as his agency and each of the Partnerships are separate legal entities it would “not be appropriate” for a state-funded company to engage with the LRC concerning the layoffs.

This leaves the DICP’s four employees, including its director, David Connolly, now redundant due to the Pobal decision, legally only entitled to discuss their redundancies with themselves.

Mr Flanagan believes such a smoke and mirrors approach is demoralising the entire sector.

“In the absence of any forum in which to hold the funding body Pobal accountable for its decisions nobody feels safe.”

He believes it is certainly unfair, and legally questionable, that although Pobal exercises de facto control of the community scheme it funds it claims to not be answerable to these projects’ employees. The situation leaves the thousands employed in Pobal-funded projects with seemingly no legal recourse if their jobs are ended.

What is not disputed is that the economic crisis heaped fresh demands on voluntary and community organisations, not only in traditional areas, such as the need to help people with cash, shelter, food and food parcels, but in newer areas, such as money-lending, debt and mortgage arrears, and youth unemployment.

However, in the past 18 months, budgets for voluntary and community organisations have been reduced by 18%. A study of the effects of these cuts by IMPACT indicates the community sector will have contracted by about 15% in two years.

During this period many state organisations important to the work of the voluntary sector and concerned with social policy (Combat Poverty Agency, Office of Active Citizenship) have been closed, merged, abolished or integrated. Others, including the Equality Authority and Human Rights Commission, have had their budgets cut to such a degree that informed observers see them as no longer fit for purpose.

Claims that the vacuum left by the receding community sector will be filled by volunteers does not stand up to scrutiny.

Social policy researcher Brain Harvey, who compiled the IMPACT report, said all studies internationally indicate that if you have good state services you have strong voluntary services; if you have weak state services you have weak voluntary services.

This is a particular problem in Ireland with Mr Harvey’s comparative research indicating the rates of volunteering and voluntary sector formation in Ireland are low compared with Europe.

Among the service providers facing a very uncertain future are the scores of Community Development Projects (CDPs) which provide local services, managed and largely manned by people from their host communities.

CDPs’ creation began with the European Poverty 2 programme (1984-9), which funded 15 local community development projects aimed at alleviating poverty.

When the EU programme ended in 1990, a state Community Development Programme was instigated to continue its work. Over the next 20 years under the management of the Combat Poverty Agency, the number of CDPs expanded to over 180 projects, providing services such as childcare, healthcare, drug counselling, youth clubs, and support for senior citizens. CDPs typically have a core of two to three staff and an annual direct state budget, in most cases provided by Pobal, of less than €80,000.

Many also manage to attract additional funding streams.

Around 400 full-time workers are employed directly by CDPs, with several having seconded to them dozens of others employed through community employment schemes, work programmes or professionals funded by bodies such as the HSE.

CDPs governed by voluntary boards of management, which consist of people from the local area, or in the case of ‘targeted’ CDPs such as those assisting Travellers or lone parents, persons from these categories.

In late 2009, the Government announced a new Local and Community Development Programme (LCDP) which would combine the Local Development Social Inclusion Programme (LDSIP) and the Community Development Programme. This has resulted in CDP’s management board being disbanded and the organisations coming under the control of 38 partnership boards.

Partnerships’ governing boards are made up of the representatives of the same groups which take part in national partnership discussions. The individual boards consisting of some locals (so-called ‘community directors’), business people, appointed trade unionists and councillors. In the case of the DICP board, the chairwoman was government appointed business woman Joyce O’Connor, sister of disgraced former Anglo Irish Bank boss Sean FitzPatrick.

Government plans also envisage partnerships being bound more closely in their work with local authorities.

Many believe the real aim of the ‘reforms’ is the staged closing of the CDPs. Ten CDPs in the Dublin area and one in Tipperary have seen their funding ended. Such moves are being opposed by many in the community sector.

Ms Irwin said: “Community development should be an expression of participatory democracy. Democracy at its lowest level. I don’t see why that has to be controlled by local authorities, by the state or even by the partnerships, I think it is a reflection of a healthy democracy if it can allow the most marginalised to express themselves and support them in doing that.”


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