Hello ladies and gentlemen and welcome to our seminar on youth unemployment and I would like to particularly thank our guest speakers who will be making presentations so that we can learn more about tackling this very important issue.

The social and economic impact of youth unemployment is by far the biggest crisis facing Europe today. In Ireland the lack of work for young people is measured in an unemployment rate of roughly 27% and persistent emigration.

One of the major lessons of the past is that you have to act urgently if youth unemployment which has emerged because of a recession is to be stopped from becoming a long-term and endemic crisis.

There is a need to target employment growth for all groups in our society, but tackling youth unemployment must be a distinct priority. It has been shown time and again that developing skills and access to work for young people is the key to later success and independence in the labour force.

More than for any other group or any other economic issue, direct intervention by the state is a necessary and proven part of a sustained reduction of youth unemployment.

In spite of this, the fact is that there is no real attention being given to youth unemployment. The only serious initiative launched in the Budget was based on the idea that young people are choosing to stay unemployed.

It is impossible not to see the parallels with the 1980s British tory idea that all that was needed was for people to “get on their bikes”. The Taoiseach and Minister Burton have simply changed it to “get off your couches”.

This wasn’t a once-off slip by the government; it was part of an on-going public relations campaign. Since then we’ve had numerous detailed leaks and exclusive interviews. These said that a crack-down on ‘idlers’ will see large numbers getting jobs.

We reject this idea completely. Yes, every single person who receives assistance from the state has an obligation to seek work – and enforcing this obligation is essential. But it is outrageous to put at the core of government policy the idea that we have high unemployment because people and young people in particular, are choosing not to work.

The root cause of unemployment in Ireland today is not people choosing to be unemployed it is the lack of jobs and a credible, ambitious and clear plan for employmentgrowth is badly needed.

I welcome the fact that the underlying strengths of the Irish labour force are showing themselves in recent employment figures. What I don’t welcome is the cynicism and the complacency of the government’s press release claiming that the growth in employment traces to the Action Plan for jobs.

This is transparent nonsense. The areas of greatest employment growth are untouched by any major activities in the Action Plan. That it is mainly a PR plan is seen by the fact that many of the points had already been implemented before it was published. The Jobs Budget of mid-2011, which provided the core measures of the new Action Plan, was launched with great fanfare, but no Minister is willing to point to which jobs come from it.

The evidence suggests that the net impact of that initiative was to cost jobs.

The CSO figures reveal a two speed –recovery in terms of both regions and types of employment.

Jobs growth will continue because the core skills of our people, our place in Europe and our corporation tax ensures this. What is not inevitable is jobs growth which delivers high-skills, good pay economy.

Of major concern has to be that main drivers of job creation have become lower-skilled, lower-paid employment – much of which is extremely unsecure.

I have said from the first day of the Dáil that my party is committed to providing constructive alternatives. We believe that there is much more that can and should be done to tackle youth unemployment. This is why we have launched a series of proposals for action and it is why we are holding this seminar.

While today is mostly about discussing targeted initiatives, there is no doubt that the single most important contributor to the sustained creation of good jobs is a return to sustained economic growth.

We have been clear in saying that we believe that the consolidation of the public finances is necessary. This is absolutely not the same thing as agreeing that there is no alternative to any and all of the decisions of the government. There are many alternatives which should be tried and there is mounting evidence that choices made by the government have directly undermined economic growth.

A hallmark of economic announcements by this government has been to maximise the spin and minimise the information. In last month’s budget, basic multi-annual information about the state’s finances and the wider economy were not provided for the first time in over a decade. Part of this was because of a failure to reach agreement on key policies.

However, it seems that on December 16th a new media campaign will be launched to present this information as a new ‘economic blueprint’.

What has got lost in the welter of spin has been the fact that every single growth projection made in the last three years has been missed. Cumulatively, growth has undershot official projections by 5%.

A government memo secured by a newspaper ten days ago but largely overlooked by the wider media, shows that the cabinet was informed that the entirety of the savings which emerged from the reduction of EU interest rates and the promissory notes deal have been swallowed up by the impact of lower growth.

While the wider weakness of the Eurozone is part of this, there is now no question but that various policy decisions have had a negative impact on both growth and employment.

Funds identified to provide targeted stimulus two years ago have been left unspent. New taxes and levies have disproportionately impacted on private sector investment and confidence.

The classic example of this has been the pensions levy. The sector was willing to accept a mandatory investment programme but a crude levy was imposed instead which has directly reduced investment levels.

At the same time, the public capital budget has been cut more than required to meet overall fiscal targets.

 Putting the banks themselves in charge of the vital work of debt restructuring has delayed the return of a functioning financial system which job creators cannot work without.

 Growth will continue to undershoot projections until such policies are reversed.

Equally, we have shown in our Budget proposals how there is room for targeted stimulus spending – particularly in the area of tackling youth unemployment.

I believe we have to show our young people that we have faith in their abilities and the first part of this is to act early and comprehensively to stop those at the margins drifting out of education, training or employment.

In the past Ireland developed a reputation in Europe as one of the leaders in early intervention for marginal youth. A wide range of programmes including Youthreach were developed under the principal that we had to flexibly respond to the needs of each individual.

Various international studies showed how these early intervention measures delivered a swift and sustained reduction in youth unemployment and a long-term reduction in structural unemployment.

We need this spirit to be renewed.

A first step is to restore a dedicated careers and guidance service into our schools. This is the first full school in our modern history where the state is not providing any dedicated funding for careers and guidance.

Independent research shows how this service is most important and most effective in helping pupils from disadvantaged communities and families. These are the people facing the most difficult choices when leaving school and these are the people most likely to become unemployed.

There is simply no way of developing a working intervention and training system without people working in our schools to help young people to access it.

This is fully affordable while still hitting overall fiscal targets and it should be restored immediately.

Earlier this year the European Council agreed that there should be a pan-European Youth Guarantee. Under the Guarantee every young person is supposed to receive a “good quality” offer of a training, education or employment place within four months of becoming unemployed or leaving full-time education.

As is unfortunately the case with too much of what the EU has been doing in recent years, the practical action to back up this Guarantee is completely insufficient.

In Ireland the allocation of €14 million under the youth guarantee scheme equates to €223 per person under the age of 25 currently on the live register.

The National Youth Council of Ireland has estimated that €273 million would be necessary to implement the youth Guarantee model in Ireland along the successful Swedish model lines.

The Youth Guarantee Scheme is however an important policy goal and one we have supported. However, the most recent plans to implement the Guarantee here fall well short of what is required.

We believe that a series of actions to increase training and work-placement opportunities are required immediately and we have shown how the relevant funding can be provided.

These should include provided ICT-specific training across a range of professions. This reflects the need for a general up skilling.

Making sure that young people have the skills and experience required to take up job opportunities is one half of the agenda – the other half is of course to support the creation of jobs for them to fill.

No one sector is capable of providing the growth and jobs that we require. In fact the need to ensure we have a diversified economy is more obvious today than ever.

The strategy for competing successfully in the international economy which was developed over more than a decade has worked. The strongest part of our economy through the crisis has been the export-oriented sector.

Decisions to invest in key skills, infrastructure and research have paid off, with most of the recent jobs announcements tracing directly to the strong base built up over the years.

To protect and build upon this is essential. This includes the need to recognise that the state’s role has to be that of enabler. We need to understand that new industries and new types of employment are emerging all the time.

We cannot have a return to the policy of decades ago where the state sought a high level of control over what areas are supported.

This is a point which has received no attention so far, but the growing evidence of researchers being lost to the system and rigid funding policies is something which needs to be debated.

There are clear gaps which need to be filled in education and training in fields where Ireland has an important industrial base. The growing interest in third-level courses in key technological and scientific areas which has emerged in the last five years is welcome and can be built upon.

The area of job creation which is suffering most and which is in most need of attention is the small and medium size enterprise sector. Ranging from local shops to larger businesses capable of growing into major concerns, this sector must recover if employment is to recover.

This is why we support a significant enhancement in start-up and expansion funding for the sector. A small amount of support can go a long way in this sector.

The Irish economy and the Irish people have many great strengths. This is why I have always said that our country can and will recover.

There are many constraints to policy that are inevitable – but equally there are many choices which are still there to be made.

The challenge of youth unemployment is urgent. A failure to act now will have a long-term impact which will be tougher and cost more than the range of options which are open to us today.

The international economic situation is weak, but it is still open to us to shape the future.

If we show more ambition and give a greater priority to tackling youth unemployment positive results will come. Intervening early to keep young people in training and education, helping them with key transitions, prioritising areas where there are opportunities but not enough skills and, vitally, helping job creators are all parts of the solution.

The need is there, the policies are not complex, what is required is commitment.