Wednesday 20 November 2019

Only a few suffer with 'work allergies'

After four years in office, a question Mr Noonan must ponder is why his Government has failed to crack down on those who are, in his words, allergic to work?
After four years in office, a question Mr Noonan must ponder is why his Government has failed to crack down on those who are, in his words, allergic to work?

Thomas Molloy

One of the oldest chestnuts in politics is the lazy welfare recipient who just won't work. The archetype plays well because there have indeed always been some people who don't want to work, but the number is far smaller than politicians like to believe.

We know this because unemployment fell to little more than 4pc during the boom. That tiny percentage put paid to the lie - often expressed by ministers from all parties during the recession of the 1980s and 1990s - that large numbers of people just didn't want to work.

The timing of Michael Noonan's remarks is interesting. Unemployment is falling but it has stayed stubbornly at 10pc for the past three months. It is tempting to wonder whether the outburst betrays frustration at the Government's failure to push the rate into single digits before the two referendums and the Kilkenny Carlow by-election.

That may have played a role but the outburst is also likely to have been inspired by Fine Gael's need to put some policy space between the party and Labour before next year's elections, as well as a long, simmering frustration with Labour leader Joan Burton's failure to reform how the State manages job programmes.

One of the common observations among the many organisations that examined Ireland in the wake of the financial crisis was that the State was ill-equipped to help those searching for work.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has called repeatedly for back-to-work programmes that include sticks as well as carrots. This means, for example, that everybody on the dole should be assigned a case officer who works with them to make sure that they are actively searching for work. Foreign observers have pointed out repeatedly that the long-term unemployed are left to rot here.

This sort of tough love is just not happening enough in Ireland, although it is common in countries with much lower unemployment rates than ours. Instead of genuine reform, we have been treated to a change of name for the politically toxic job agency, Fas, but little else.

After four years in office, a question Mr Noonan must ponder is why his Government has failed to crack down on those who are, in his words, allergic to work?

Another worthwhile task for Mr Noonan, before his next outburst, would be a determination of the real level of unemployment.

We may say that unemployment is running at 10pc, but this country has extraordinarily high numbers of people on disability benefits and other welfare payments. It is common knowledge that many of these people are not disabled and are effectively receiving disability instead of the dole.

In short, unemployment is still high enough to prevent many honest, hard-working people from finding a job. While Mr Noonan is absolutely right to criticise the minority who prefer the dole to working, a more interesting question is why the Government continues to ignore international advice and has failed to devise a benefits system that catches out the work-shy while helping the rest?

Irish Independent

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