The need for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence to establish as a matter of urgency a panel of equality experts for Equality Mainstreaming Supports to the SME sector, given that the EU funding for this programme runs out at the end of 2013

05/20/2013
Question Posed To: 
Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence

I want to take the opportunity, at the outset, to emphasise my continued

commitment, and that of the Government to promoting good employment and

equality practices by all employers in Ireland, including those in the SME

sector. As we have highlighted on a number of occasions, there is a body of

evidence that, in addition to improving the welfare of workers, such

practices have advantages for firms in respect to improving competitiveness

and stimulating innovation.
The panel to which the Senator refers relates to activities undertaken by

the Equality Authority under an overall Equality Mainstreaming Approach

programme. This programme was set up under the 2007 to 2013 Human Capital

Investment Operational Programme in Ireland. The Equality Mainstreaming

activity is jointly funded by the European Social Fund and from the

Equality Authority's Grant-in-Aid provision, to a maximum of €4 million

over the period of the ESF programme. In this context, I should explain

that expenditure incurred in 2014 is also covered.

Overall the programme aims to contribute to improving access to the labour

market for specific groups experiencing barriers to employment. It does

this by supporting small and medium enterprises, providers of vocational

education and training, and providers of labour market programmes to make

institutional changes to combat discrimination, to promote equality and to

accommodate diversity.

The selection of individual projects for funding is a matter for the

project management, within the criteria set out and agreed with the ESF for

the overall programme. There are a number of distinct strands to the

programme.

Support packages are provided to vocational education providers, training

providers and labour market programme providers, and to trade union and

employer networks.

Research is funded to support the knowledge base on groups vulnerable to

discrimination, across the nine grounds protected under equality

legislation.

The development of resource materials is funded, supporting good practice

in combating discrimination, promoting equality and accommodating

diversity. For example, an employer’s guide to equality in the workplace

was developed with the Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, and

is actively disseminated within the SME sector by that body.

A fourth strand involves the provision of consultancy support benefiting

enterprises. In the form of projects undertaken on a sectoral basis with

groups of enterprises and other stakeholders, such support is ongoing.

In the first 4 years of the programme, equality expertise was also made

available to enterprises on an individual basis under a grant scheme for

SMEs. Under this grant scheme small businesses have been offered from one

to four days’ consultancy support by expert equality trainers and

facilitators to put in place equality policies and practices. This support

was paid for directly by the Equality Authority. 282 individual SMEs

benefited from direct interventions of this nature, with spending on the

SME Grant Scheme amounting to €759,000.

As I explained, it is the Equality Authority in its role of project manager

which has responsibility for the selection of individual projects for

funding. In preparing its workplans, the Authority is advised by a National

Framework Committee comprising of social partners, the Department of

Justice and Equality, the Department of Finance and other stakeholders.

Senator Conway will be aware that this Committee took a decision in early

2011 that it would not be prudent to operationalise the SME Grant Scheme in

that year. In the current difficult economic environment, the Committee

proposed that a sectoral project approach, through which equality expertise

could be made available to enterprises, might be an effective mechanism for

engagement with the SME sector. Accordingly, the SME Grant Scheme did not

operate in 2011 or 2012 and it is not planned to operate it in 2013. I

support the decision made by the Authority, which is a valid one in the

very difficult economic and budgetary context we face.

While the Equality Authority has made no announcement regarding its

priorities under this programme for 2014, I am also advised that the

Authority has not closed the door on reinstating an SME Grant Scheme in the

future, if and when the budgetary outlook is more favourable.

I thank the Senator again for raising the important topic of the

mainstreaming of equality on the Adjournment.