Mick Clifford: Voluntary sector does ‘the State some service’

In this country the community and voluntary service is largely used to fill gaps left by the State
Mick Clifford: Voluntary sector does ‘the State some service’

One day strike action yesterday by Fórsa members at Enable Ireland in Tralee, Co Kerry, as part of a series of three consecutive one-day strike actions in care agencies in the community and voluntary sector.

EVERY country needs what might broadly be described as a community and voluntary sector. In a democracy that does what it says on the tin, the sector would be top heavy with charitable and voluntary organisations, raising funds for worthy causes or providing a community service, as done by organisations such as the GAA.

In this country the community and voluntary service is largely used to fill gaps left by the State. Some would say that it is effectively there to provide a yellow pack service, underfunded, understaffed, underpaid, and outside the responsibility of either the permanent or elected government.

Two incidents in the last 10 days illustrated where the State has farmed out responsibility to this manner.

A man’s body was found in a flat in Kevin Barry House on the northside of Dublin; Tony Dempsey’s body had been there for a number of days previously, including during a visit by support staff for the Peter McVerry Trust, which had organised the tenancy.

The McVerry Trust is doing the job of the State, housing people with complex needs and attempting to attend to those needs. How are these tasks any different from other aspects of social and healthcare which the State undertakes simply because that is its function?

If, as should be the case, the State had been doing this work there would have rightly been widespread condemnation at how the case had been handled leading up and including what appears to have been a fatal assault on Mr Dempsey.

Instead, responsibility lies with a body which is effectively part of the charity sector.

Cherry Orchard attack

A Garda car being rammed during an incident in Cherry Orchard, Dublin.
A Garda car being rammed during an incident in Cherry Orchard, Dublin.

Last Monday, youths in three stolen cars rammed a garda patrol car in west Dublin. The incident in Cherry Orchard occurred to the sound of cheering from some of the other youths who had gathered to watch. Thankfully, the two female gardaí in the patrol car were not physically injured, although they were reportedly traumatised.

What occurred was, in the first instance, a criminal act which is being investigated by the gardaí. There are, however, deep-rooted social issues in that area, primarily deprivation which leads to alienation from society.

Many of these issues revolve around a relatively small number of families, but, as with in similar areas around the State, the services required are not provided.

Non-governmental bodies, from the community and voluntary sector, do what they can with stretched resources. In this respect it’s as if the State has withdrawn from these areas, and thrown some — never enough — money at non-governmental bodies who are expected to just get on with the job.

The reach of the community and voluntary sector goes way beyond dealing with housing and social deprivation. The whole area of disability is, for the greater part, covered by charities. Then there are hubs like family resource centres. There are 121 of these dotted around the country. They provide a vital service for families in need of support, including therapy, youth programmes, parental advice, and support and education.

More than 30,000 parents and families accessed these services last year. Currently, the family resource centres are campaigning to ensure that each centre receives a minimum of €166,000 — a paltry sum — in order to provide the most basic of services. Any equivalent agency operating within the HSE proper would be on a budget far in excess of that.

Again, the needs in this area can be complex and again the State’s answer is to farm out responsibility, ensuring that the job gets done on the cheap and that the State removes itself from not just its duty but responsibility.

All of that would be bad enough if those working in the area were considered State employees in all but name. That doesn’t happen. Employment conditions are not linked directly to agreements covered in the public sector. Many are on contracts, some not even acquiring that level of security. Pensions, the great, often unspoken, advantage provided to those working in the public sector are not available to the more than 180,000 employees in these agencies and organisations.

This is best illustrated by the manner in which these employees were treated following the last recession. Cuts right across society were applied to public sector pay in the period from 2008-13. The non-governmental agencies were not governed by these pay agreements, but were informed that their employees would be expected to take at least similar cuts.

On a debate in the Dáil in 2018, a memo from an HSE area manager to a community group it was funding under Section 39 of the Health Act was read into the record. “It is our intention (the HSE’s) to include in service agreements with all agencies, including those funded under section 39, the condition that staff should not be remunerated at levels above the statutory pay scales.”

Fair enough. Everybody takes the hit. 

But then, as the economic clouds lifted and public pay began its journey to full restoration, what happened those who work in the voluntary and community sector? Nothing. They were just told to scramble for what you can here and there.

Strikes

This week, hundreds of employees in the sector took part in strikes in counties Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, and Donegal in pursuit of better pay and conditions. It’s part of a wider campaign by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called Value Care, Value Community. On Wednesday, for instance, pickets were placed on St Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville and the Irish Wheelchair Association and EmployAbility in Cork City.

This was not supposed to happen. For decades, governments have traded on the goodwill of people working in the sector, metaphorically patting them on the head for providing a service that in the broadest sense involves primal assistance to some of the more vulnerable people in society.

Just as nurses were once regarded as an easy touch both because their work had a vocational element and because they were overwhelmingly female, so also the same attitude is retained in dealing with the community and voluntary sector.

We should be well beyond that now. It’s bad enough that the sector is used as a means to plug gaps in the State on the cheap, but the treatment of employees, as if the recession never really lifted, is a little short of a disgrace.

Government for so long has been dictated by the interests of those who can shout the loudest or exercise the greatest power. Most within the community and voluntary sector were always too busy with their work to put effort into ensuring their contribution was properly valued. Basic fairness demands that that change and those who do this vital work get what is their rightful due.

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