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Czech Govt adopts official Strategy for Fighting Social Exclusion

Prague, 22.9.2011 16:11, (ROMEA)
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The Czech Government adopted its official Strategy for Fighting Social Exclusion at yesterday's cabinet session. The document, which was drafted by the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities, includes more than 100 measures. The steps proposed are meant to prevent the creation of ghettos in the Czech Republic and to contribute toward improving education, employment, housing and security in impoverished neighborhoods that already exist.

"The purpose of the Strategy is to propose measure to address both the situation of those living in socially excluded localities and the situation of the territories in which such localities form. The existence of socially excluded localities is a manifestation of deeper structural problems in the regions and towns where they arise. We therefore are focusing attention not only on the problems inside the excluded localities that already exist, but also on how to effectively prevent such localities from forming in the first place," the Strategy reads.

"This Strategy is an essential document for fulfilling the country's social inclusion policy during the next three years. It includes legislative proposals that will not involve budget increases as well as proposals that will require financing by the ministries. However, over the long term, the final result of these proposals will be to save the state the billions of crowns that it currently spends annually to address the problems caused by social exclusion, such as those occurring now in the Šluknov district," said Czech Government Human Rights Commissioner Monika Šimůnková.

According to an analysis performed five years ago, there are more than 300 socially excluded localities throughout the Czech Republic, predominantly occupied by approximately 80 000 Romani residents. Most adults living in these ghettos do not have jobs and their families are usually dependent on welfare. Experts say there are already 400 such places today. The situation recently has come to a head particularly in the Šluknov foothills in North Bohemia.

The Strategy involves measures in six areas: Education, employment/welfare, family/health/social services, housing, regional development, and security. The document establishes deadlines by which goals should be met, financing arrangements, and which ministries are responsible for implementation. Money will flow primarily into education.

"We will regularly submit reports to the Government on the fulfillment of various parts of the Strategy. By the end of 2014 we will propose a set of further measures for the 2015-202 period," said Martin Šimáček, director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion in Romani Localities.

Security

The Strategy says a campaign against intolerance and xenophobia should contribute to increasing security starting next year. It will involve an extensive ad campaign warning about the issue of violent hate crimes. Two components of the campaign will target journalists in relation to the publication of a book of interviews with the victims of violent hate crimes. The Agency intends to seek funding for the publication from foreign funds. The fight against loan-sharking, which is currently booming in the ghettos, is also addressed.

The Strategy will establish specialist positions for addressing cases of loan-sharking as part of the Organized Crime Detection Unit (Útvar pro odhalování organizovaného zločinu - ÚOOZ). Two specialists will be professionally trained and familiarized in detail with the issue of loan-sharking and all related aspects. They will be prepared to intervene on the scene when local police require their assistance with investigating loan-sharking cases. Their particular role will be to coordinate and methodologically supervise investigations, to ensure that adequate methods are being used during the identification, interrogation and protection of witnesses as well as during other specific activities.

The Strategy counts on supporting free legal aid to the victims of crime in socially excluded localities. There will be an option for NGOs to represent victims as attorneys-in-fact provided they have included free legal aid to the victims of crime in their mission and statutes. There will also be the option to introduce the institution of victim's trustee, which is a separate function from that of attorney-in-fact.

Authors of the Strategy recommend introducing subjects increasing financial literacy into the elementary and middle school curriculum in the style of the Besip ad campaign "If you don't think, you pay." Communication Working Groups are also envisioned at which all of the relevant stakeholders involved in addressing security matters will be included.

Housing

The authors of the Strategy say that one of the greatest problems in socially excluded localities is the age and quality of the housing stock. Other problems include apartments being occupied without leases, high costs for apartment and building maintenance (due to lack of insulation, which wastes energy), insufficient legal protections for tenants, landlords' inability to collect back rent, and overcrowded apartments.

The social housing model is meant to integrate three "degrees" of housing: Transitional housing in residential hotels in cases of crisis, "training" housing where tenants prepare for a financially independent future, and long-term social housing leases. There is also a proposal to financial support municipalities and nonprofits managing such housing.

The Strategy counts on launching a pilot projects, the Guaranteed Housing Program, the aim of which is to increased the availability of rental housing for households normally perceived as high-risk by private landlords. Such tenants are unable to find housing on the free market even when they are sufficiently competent to maintain a long-term lease. "The Guaranteed Housing Program reduces the risk that landlords take when they lease apartments to low-income groups of residents. The obligation to pay rent rests not with the individual tenant, but with either the municipality itself or with a non-governmental, non-profit organization (NNO) performing social work with the tenants. The risk of tenants not paying their rent is guaranteed by the municipality/NNO through commercially available insurance," the Strategy says.

Education

According to the Strategy, an efficient, fair education system is considered by all experts to be the central tool in the fight against the inter-generational reproduction of social disadvantage. The vision of this section of the Strategy is to provide everyone with an accessible, efficient, fair and inclusive education system which has the capacity to qualitatively meet the individual needs of all children in mainstream education. The system should be capable of identifying a child's needs and responding to them adequately by instituting the corresponding measures. It should also be capable of restricting, to an essential degree, the inter-generational reproduction of social exclusion.

In education, the Strategy counts on a 50 % increase in the per capita financing available for socially disadvantaged pupils and on clearly defining social disadvantage. With the aid of other measures, this should result in a transition from the "special education" system to a system that provides support measures at all levels of education.

One of the aims in this area is for a counseling center to operate at every elementary and middle school. The size of each center will depend on the number of pupils and will be financed through the basic financing of schools (not addressed by fluctuating subsidies).

The Strategy counts on instituting mandatory nursery school attendance for children who might have problems with learning at elementary school. This mandatory attendance should be accompanied by field social work services for these families. Nursery school tuition for boys and girls from "excluded" localities will either be discounted or free of charge; a special subsidy program of the Czech Education Ministry will subsidize their tuition. The enrollment of children into "preparatory classes" instead of attending nursery schools should be restricted, as nursery schools are considered a much more efficient tool for preparing children for the demands of elementary school and continuing degrees of education than preparatory classes are.

The strategy also plans to subsidize meals, school supplies and transportation for schoolchildren from the ghettos. The subsidies should ensure that children are fully included and will be learning under the same conditions as others. The measures will replace the current subsidy program supporting Romani pupils at middle schools. All socially disadvantaged pupils would be supported.

The authors of the Strategy also propose extending mandatory school attendance to 10 years for everyone. Pupils would be obliged to study two years at middle school and to complete a vocational certificate at a minimum.

The family, health and social services

Families with children living in socially excluded localities or at risk of social exclusion usually face multiple disadvantages. Many factors accumulate to cause a family to become socially excluded. "The intervention of the public administration and other entities for the purpose of legally and socially protecting children is not uniform. These entities do not have enough methodological oversight during their work with families and do not cooperate. Repressive elements predominate in their performance, to the detriment of support services," the Strategy says of the current state of child welfare services. The Strategy also warns that a disproportionate number of families are frequently broken up as a result of the court-ordered institutionalization of children.

Currently almost 50 % of the children placed in institutional care are there for economic or housing reasons. Ideally, as of 2014, no children under 3 years of age, and by 2016 no children under 12 years of age would be institutionalized. Legislatively, the institutionalization of children for purely socioeconomic reasons would also be restricted.

Emphasis is placed on creating a functional network of social services in socially excluded localities and ensuring the long-term, sustainable financing of those services. For municipalities with expanded social services, the Strategy says it will be key to introduce an obligation to elaborate a mid-range plan for developing those services.

The authors of the Strategy want to introduce the position of health/social assistants as part of field social work program. These assistants would ensure preventive health care in socially excluded localities and would be able, if needed, to facilitate professional medical check-ups, which the Strategy says would be significant for children in particular.

Employment and the welfare system

Integration into the labor market is, according to the Strategy, a key presupposition of social inclusion. Unemployment in most socially excluded localities is between 90 and 100 %. In regions with high unemployment exceeding 15 - 20 %, the demand for jobs exceeds opportunities many times over. In such a situation, people from excluded localities are essentially unable to access the labor market.

According to the Strategy, the welfare system does not motivate employment. The difference between the minimum wage and welfare does not make minimum-wage employment sufficiently preferable to welfare.

The Strategy proposes creating a system of degrees of employment. This would facilitate the use of logically interconnected combined instruments of labor policy and would provide care to job seekers after they start work. The first degree of this system would be employment for public services. Those who perform well at public services would then be assigned to the second degree, the performance of community service. The third degree would be employment by a transitional social enterprise with subsidized wages. The fourth would be for the job-seeker to find a job on the commercial labor market or even become an entrepreneur.

The authors of the strategy also recommend supporting flexible forms of work, such as less than full-time employment. "The Labor Code makes it possible for people's wages to be calculated on an hourly basis and for them to be paid daily if necessary," the Strategy states. The aim of the measures would be to support flexible employment and remuneration of a type that will be minimally demanding for employers in terms of administration and finance and that will motivate socially excluded people to find legal employment.

Ghetto residents and long-term unemployed persons should also be made use of for labor involving public works. Current legislation already makes it possible for a certain percentage of a vendor's staff to be hired from the ranks of the long-term unemployed for public works projects.

Regional development

This section of the Strategy proposes measures aiming to support social enterprises as a tool for increasing employment in structurally underdeveloped areas of regions where a significant part of socially excluded localities are located. The Strategy also includes a proposal for ensuring that loans will be made available to social firms or to prepare foundations to support small projects contributing to social inclusion.

ČTK, Gwendolyn Albert, Zdeněk Ryšavý, ryz, Czech Press Agency, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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