Stealthy privatisation of community and public services.

By David Connolly.

Thursday the 19th February 2015 is a day of great significance for workers and organisations in the Local and Community Development sector. On that day Local Development companies will be informed of the outcome of a tendering process imposed by the Department of Environment (DoE) for participation in the new Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme (SICAP). This programme will run from April 2015.

These fifty-one local development companies were, in effect, forced to submit detailed competitive tenders for thirty-two designated “lots” based on county boundaries. These same companies have been operating in the same geographical areas for almost twenty years delivering Government-funded programmes that tackle poverty and social exclusion. New structures in the Local Authorities will make the decisions in relation to the offer of contracts and the oversight of programme implementation. This fundamental change in local development will have a seriously detrimental impact on the poorest and most disadvantaged communities across the country.

In early 2014, in a fundamental shift from previous practice, the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government [DoE] decided that their new SICAP funding programme would be subject to a public-procurement process. This requires the existing local development companies to participate in competitive bidding, in some cases with each other, or with private or voluntary-sector providers. This approach was presented in the context of the reform of Local Government and as being a requisite for compliance with new European Union procurement Directive.

The local development companies were originally established by Government in the early 1990s to tackle-long term unemployment in the most disadvantaged areas. They have developed and managed a whole range of initiatives and services including access to employment, adult education, training and lifelong learning, enterprise support , community development, child-care and rural development. At this stage they also managed a plethora of Government funded programmes including the local employment service, LEADER, Jobs Clubs, TUS, Rural Social Scheme, and the Community Employment programme.

Despite the general success of the work undertaken, the previous and current Governments have consistently targeted these companies for substantial cuts and continual restructuring. Since 2008 their core budget has been cut by over 50 per cent. The Community Development Programme was terminated. The work of the Local Employment Service was privatised last year. Further funding cuts of between five and fifteen percent were imposed in the most recent budget. The forthcoming announcement of contracts for SICAP could result in the closure of up to fifteen local development companies.

Almost 2,000 workers are employed in these community-based local development companies. The majority are members of Trade Unions, mainly SIPTU. The Union members have fought a rearguard action over the past two years to try and prevent the damage to this vital community infrastructure. Different tactics have been adopted to engage with the local employers and with the Department that controls the funding and determines role and function of the companies.

However, Senior officials in the DoE with the backing of the previous Minister, Phil Hogan, have been determined to drive these public services down the route to privatisation. This approach is consistent with the broader agenda being pursued by this Government. The Minister refused to meet with the workers representatives. The Department has ignored a recent Labour Court recommendation that there should be full and inclusive engagement between the Unions, Employers and the funding Departments.

The signs are ominous. The current obsession among senior public servants is to force significant sections of essential public and community services into private ownership, through enforced procurement and privatisation. This is imposing increased hardship and despair on the poorest and most vulnerable communities, many of whom are being abandoned to market forces for future services. •