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
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
Support packages are provided to vocational education providers, training
providers and labour market programme providers, and to trade union and
Research is funded to support the knowledge base on groups vulnerable to
discrimination, across the nine grounds protected under equality
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.