IRELAND is on the cusp of being the first eurozone country to exit an international bailout this December. The Budget delivered last week was a vital step to achieving this goal.
It also contained essential new measures to help create new jobs.
This remains our top priority as the Government inherited in 2011 an unemployment crisis on a scale that Ireland has never seen before.
A quarter-of-a-million jobs were lost in the preceding three years, many of them to young people.
The private sector is now creating 3,000 jobs a month but we need to do more if we are to get Ireland working again.
To accelerate the pace of job creation, the Budget contained a €500m tax stimulus package to help create jobs and an additional €200m capital programme to help local Irish businesses.
We want to see these new jobs go to those who are unemployed. But, unlike after past recessions, we cannot rely on economic growth alone to reduce the dole queues.
Ireland is now part of a dynamic labour market of over 500 million people and we need to make every jobseeker as 'work ready' as they can be.
The inadequacies of Ireland's social protection system were cruelly exposed when the crisis hit. Decades of inaction by previous governments meant that Irish jobseekers were abandoned to the dole queues and the hatch with little support.
This is why Ireland had a problem with long-term unemployment even before the recession. The number of jobless households went from 10pc to 15pc between 2004 and 2007 despite significant economic growth. When the recession hit, this figure ballooned to 22pc last year, double the average across Europe.
This is unacceptable and can't be allowed to fester, otherwise we'll be living with the long-term social and economic consequences for years to come.
A whole new approach to work activation and welfare reform is required to break the cycle of welfare dependency.
Through our Pathways to Work plan we are fighting back against long-term unemployment and youth unemployment. Joan Burton has started the process of introducing big changes to the welfare system such as the rollout of the one-stop-shop Intreo offices to provide full employment and welfare supports.
People have asked why is there a focus on the under-25s. As recently as September, the OECD again highlighted the disastrous consequences of young people becoming long-term unemployed. They are at greatest risk from becoming permanently disengaged from work. We cannot allow welfare dependency to take root.
The OECD also recommended supports should be focused on providing more 'work activation' schemes and away from passive income supports.
In other words, our young people should be continuing in education and training, not languishing on dole queues.
This is what Budget 2014 has started to change.
We have allocated an additional €14m to increase the number of training and education places available for young people. This has added 1,500 new places each for both the JobsPlus and JobsBridge scheme for under-25s.
There has been much ill-informed criticism of the JobsBridge internship programme but the facts speak for themselves. Young people are voting with their feet as the scheme originally set at 5,000 places has now exceeded 20,000. And, most importantly, 60pc of interns have secured paid employment, double the European norm. And a minimum of 2,000 training places will be ring-fenced for under-25s who are out of work in 2014, at a cost of €6m. These places will be provided under a follow-up to the successful Momentum programme, which operated in 2013.
We will continue to prioritise young people for places in existing and new schemes.
The Budget changes will also ensure that young people will be financially better off in education, employment or training rather than passively claiming welfare.
For example, people under 26 who participate in a Back to Education course will have their jobseeker's allowance increased to €160 per week. That means that in addition to the enhanced career and job prospects from improving skills and education levels, there is a huge financial incentive for young people to participate in education, employment or training.
At the end of the day, work must always pay – and the Government will continue to implement its Pathways to Work strategy to ensure that our system supports work and training over welfare.
We are still in the early phases of reforming our welfare system and there is still much to do. We are moving to put in place more jobseeker case workers from external service providers and we will target the welfare traps that prevent families taking up work.
Reform is never easy as it will involve changes for many people. This Government will not shy away from the challenges ahead.