CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion (Report No. 2)

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Social Exclusion, Social Inclusion

The poverty of policy

Pauline Conroy

In July, the European Commission announced a special three-year support programme for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the border counties of Ireland.[1] It amounts to 416 million ECUs (stg£351 million or IR£340 million) when matching funds are added to the 300 million ECU contribution from the European Union structural funds.

Thirty per cent of this new money is to be spent to assist social inclusion. But is there real agreement between the public authorities north and south as to what they mean by social exclusion and social inclusion? A schematic comparison of public policy reveals some paradoxical differences, as well as some similarities.

At first sight, the two administrations share a common dilemma: two previous policies have failed. The strategy of combating poverty and high unemployment by welfarising the labour market did not work.[2] The second failure has been the incapacity of the social security and social insurance system to cope with the growing number and categories of economic and social outsiders.

Since the late 80s in the republic, the mechanism of centralised collective bargaining between employers, trade unions and the state has been legitimised as the principal vehicle for social change.[3] This has been embodied in three successive social contracts: the Programme for National Recovery (PNR); the Programme for Economic and Social Progress (PESP), which contained an important chapter on area-based strategies to address long-term unemployment; and the Programme for Competitiveness and Work (PCW), which included proposals to enhance equality and equity.

The vehicle of centralised collective bargaining excluded large charitable organisations, the voluntary sector and organisations representing people experiencing structural disadvantage or discrimination. And in terms of social and welfare policy none of the programmes has gone further than short-term, incremental proposals. In partial response to this, in 1993 the then government established a National Economic and Social Forum, including the voluntary sector, whose first report that year was, not surprisingly, a mild critique of the PESP agreement.[4]

The core role attributed to trade unions and employers may be contrasted with the emphasis in Northern Ireland on the voluntary sector contributing directly and in an unmediated way to public policy, through the Strategy of Support for the Voluntary Sector and Community Development, launched in 1993, and developments such as the Voluntary Activity Unit,[5] established within the Department of Health and Social Services. The appearance of these, albeit institutionalised, changes has allowed thinking about the relationship between solidarity, justice, social exclusion and discrimination - as distinct from income-based poverty - partially to seep into public policy and policy formation.

Indeed, one of the major divergences in public policy, north and south, has been the development in Northern Ireland of research, consultation and participatory processes-defining, measuring and evaluating policies to meet social need and, perhaps implicitly, help reduce structural exclusion. This has facilitated sharper distinctions to emerge as to the relative roles of active community workers, the process of community development and other social policies.

Over the same period, the republic has seen the opening (and some closings) of a Commission on the Status of Women, a Commission on Persons with Disabilities, a Task Force on Travellers, an Education Convention and a Working Party on the interaction of tax and social welfare, as well as a substantial report on poverty[6] and a strategic plan to combat it.[7] These latter have, however, scarcely moved from the aspirational to the policy level.

In contrast, the critique of the policy of Targeting Social Need[8] in Northern Ireland and technical research to define areas of deprivation[9] have certainly contributed to a shift in thinking in economic policy. Defining its strategic objectives for 1995-6, the Department of Economic Development describes as one of them: "to target resources effectively on those people and areas in greatest need and to develop policies and programmes in line with the Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment Initiative".[10]

The incorporation and integration of such a social and rights objective into economic policy can be viewed in the light of the announcement by the minister for social welfare, in Dublin eight weeks later, of a National Anti-Poverty Strategy. The strategy includes: "recommending the type of institutional mechanisms to be put in place to ensure that the issue of reducing poverty and social exclusion is firmly on the agenda of all Government Departments and agencies and that there is appropriate co-ordination across and between Departments in this area".[11]

The minister did not, however, adopt the proposals laid out by the Combat Poverty Agency in its submission to his predecessor in 1993: that promoting social rights should be declared a goal of policy, that those affected by poverty and social exclusion should be recognised as social partners, and that all departments and agencies should be required to make targeting social need one of their strategic goals.[12]

It is in the area of rights - social, political and civil - that one meets surprising north-south differences. In the republic, there is no formal prohibition on discrimination and unequal treatment, and legislation on equal treatment in pay and social security has enormous enforcement problems. The northern guidance document Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment,[13] which moves public policy from anti-discrimination to active promotion of fair treatment, has no equivalent south of the border. The government partners in Dublin are, however, pledged to anti-discrimination legislation through an Equal Status Bill, to improve the status of immigrants and refugees, as of persons with disabilities, and the civil rights of travelling people.

The large-scale consultations organised in Northern Ireland to respond to the European Union peace package and to the Department of Environment's flagship urban regeneration programme, Making Belfast Work, revealed a deep-felt frustration that community groups would not be listened to in forming macro-economic and social policy, and anxiety that short-term expenditure plans would render social and economic developments unsustainable. The massive expansion of area-based partnership structures throughout the republic, reliant on EU funding and often operating outside local government and health board structures, would give grounds for similar worries for the future.[14]

North and south, poverty and social exclusion are approached with trepidation. Locked into economic models that relegate social exclusion and deprivation to residual outcomes of the market, policy nevertheless is grappling with the discourse and the costs of social exclusion, while hesitating as to the means to realise its reduction.

In this framework, one cannot be too surprised at the tendency to replace the concept of exclusion with the happier notion of inclusion. Social inclusion is a term which conjures up a familial sense of belonging - without the entitlements, rights and resources which might have to be devoted, realistically, to its achievement.


1European Commission, Special Support Programme for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border Counties of Ireland 1995-1999, Brussels, 1995
2 C Duggan, Employment Programmes: Prospects and Issues, Work Research Centre, Dublin, roneo, 1993; E McLaughlin, Flexibility in Work and Benefits, Commission on Social Justice/IPPR, London. 1994
3New Thinking for New Times, p27
4National Economic and Social Forum, Negotiations on a Successor Agreement to the PESP, Office of the Tánaiste, Dublin, 1993
5Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, Partners or Adversaries: Agenda for Action, Belfast, 1993
6 B Nolan and T Callan eds, Poverty and Policy in Ireland, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1994
7Combat Poverty Agency, Strategic Plan 1993-1995, Dublin, 1993
8 NICVA Public Affairs Project, The Implementing of Targeting Social Need, roneo, Belfast, 1994
9B Robson, M Bradford and I Deas, Relative Deprivation in Northern Ireland, Centre for Urban Policy Studies, Manchester University, 1994
10Department of Economic Development, Growing Competitively: a review of economic development in Northern Ireland, Belfast, 1995
11 Address by Proinsias de Rossa, minister for social welfare, July 18th 1995
12 Combat Poverty Agency, Building a Fairer Future, Dublin, 1993
13 Replacement to Circular No 1/90, which came into effect in Northern Ireland in January 1994
14A Kilmurray, 'Community Action in Northern Ireland: post-ceasefire', Community Development Journal, vol 30, no 2, Oxford University Press, 1995

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