Adjournment Debate. - Social Welfare Benefit Administration.

Deputy Quinn gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of the administration of the Department of Social Welfare whereby people on unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance are being required to produce evidence of having sought work, in the form of letters of refusal of jobs from prospective employers. Deputy Quinn is in order.

Let me start by thanking you, a Cheann Comhairle, for according me the time to raise this matter in the House. I do so with some reluctance. I do so because it is my view — and I use my words with consideration — that this Government are in the process of terrorising a certain number of people who, through no fault of their own, cannot get work and who, as a consequence of the way in which standard procedures of administration are being interpreted, are being forced off the live register so creating, in a totally artificial sense, an apparent improvement in the figures for unemployment, thereby giving a further boost to the illusion that this economy is perhaps somewhat on the mend in relation to employment figures.

I am conscious, having made that statement of terrorisation — and I use the word advisedly — that it is not being made for the first time. As far back as 10 March of this year during debate on Second Stage of the Social Welfare Bill, my colleague Deputy Pattison, in his contribution for which the Minister who is here now was present also, raised this problem. Deputy Pattison from Carlow-Kilkenny who was a junior Minister in the Department of Social Welfare and, as a Deputy, is extremely well versed in areas of representation, had the following to say, as reported at column 2412 of the Official Report:

I want to refer to the whole area of unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance. In this area there is a crazy practice where recipients of these benefits are sent around like fools to various employers looking for letters to the effect that the employer concerned has no work available for them. The position has got so bad in the last few months that some factories I know of have put notices on their doors that they are not issuing letters to these people. I know one factory where the management claimed they would have to have a full-time clerk typist typing letters to the local exchange down the road telling them that there is no work available. I cannot think of a more crazy system. The Government are providing all kinds of inducements to do away with jobs. I am thinking of the redundancy packages particularly as they pertain to rural areas where a manual worker's main hope of getting a job rested with his local authority, working on roadworks, drainage, building of local authority dwellings and so on. That was the main source of manual workers' employment in rural areas. The Government have effectively done away with all of those jobs.

He goes on to say, column 2413:

I cannot for the life of me understand the logic of this type of practice, of people having to appear before appeals officers producing anything up to 20 letters from all kinds of people, shopkeepers, farmers, whoever; they have to tramp the roads appealing for these letters. I should be very glad if the Minister would offer some explanation of this practice. After all, we have a very efficient, widespread Manpower service which monitors closely any job opportunities or any prospect of employment in given areas. That being the State way of doing things, surely that should be sufficient in this day and age to satisfy that State requirement?

That is what my colleague said on 10 March of this year in the course of Second Stage debate. What was the Minister's response? His response, as reported at column 2523, referred to various items raised in that debate. The House will recall that the primary issue in question was the extension of PRSI to the self-employed. The Minister will recall this better than I do, because I was not present in the House at the time. He chose to close business at that time, because the question was put at 5 p.m. Deputy Woods, Minister for Social Welfare, did not at any stage in his reply refer at all to the substance in part of Deputy Pattison's contribution.

The matter that you have been good enough to allow me to raise this evening cannot and does not come as a matter of surprise to the Minister for Social Welfare. He chose not to reply on 10 March. That may well have been due to pressure of time. It was quite clear from the amount of time left to the Minister on that occasion that there was not much time available. I am giving the Minister an opportunity now, exclusively, to refute the charge that there is any form of terrorisation involved in asking people to obtain letters from employers.

The Minister's annual report for 1985-86, published by himself carries his signature on page 7. I assume that while he was not necessarily an office-holder in that period, he takes responsibility, in issuing the report, for its contents in some shape or form. In that report he talks about special initiatives for the unemployed on page 29. On page 30 he talks about the difficulties that were there and the various schemes that have been introduced and goes on to talk about the question of fraud and abuse. At the end of page 32, it is pointed out that despite all the protestations one hears in the lounge bars, bars of golf clubs and elsewhere, the number of actual prosecutions that have taken place in relation to social welfare fraud for 1985 was 175. That was for disability benefit, unemployment benefit and unemployment assistance, combined. For the same categories for 1986 it was 151. There are approximately a quarter of a million people who are on unemployment benefit or unemployment assistance — and let us include, for roundness of statistics, disability benefit as well. Out of a labour force of approximately one million, we are talking in real terms of prosecutions, according to the figures that we have most readily available, of 175. There is a gap between the actual prosecutions and the requirement that is being sought by the administration of the Department of Social Welfare.

Why have I raised this matter today in this House? I was aware, in general terms, of the need for various officers of social welfare administration throughout the country to satisfy themselves that a person was genuinely seeking work. That is clearly part of the legislation and a part of the system the Minister inherited. I have no dispute with that nor could anybody. What I dispute is the manner of administration. The way in which this rule is being interpreted amounts to a form of bureaucratic terrorism designed to make people feel inadequate, guilty and dependent on assistance and benefit. In the case of benefit they have paid for it and in the case of unemployment assistance they are entitled to it by virtue of their citizenship in this State and the provisions of this Legislature.

The person to whom I refer was forced to retire from work because of a physical disability. He was forced out of employment by a semi-State company and his record was quite clear to the administration in the Department of Social Welfare and in the relevant local labour exchange. This person is not young; he has a family consisting of one child and a dependent wife and it was clear from his records that he was obliged to cease employment through no fault of his own because of an injury in the course of employment with An Post. This man has now been obliged not to produce one letter from an employer saying that he could not get work but to get three letters.

I have been fortunate in that I have enjoyed good health all of my life and have been able to obtain employment for virtually all of my working life as an adult. It is humiliating enough for a responsible adult with obligations, as is this person, and as are many others, to confront the reality of unemployment, but it is adding insult to injury to force them to go around employers and shopkeepers, not to look for a job because they know there is none available, but to look for a letter saying that there is no job and to be told by the employer that he does not have the time to engage in that sort of bureaucratic nonsense, and that he has already informed Manpower, now known as FÁS, that they do not have work. That may be an understandable response from a busy employer, but it is of no comfort to the individual who has been humiliated. It is no use trying to convey that message to the official behind the hatch in the employment exchange because he has his requirements to follow as set out by the management within the Department of Social Welfare. That is my central point.

I am aware that the Minister is not responsible for this system which has been operating for a long time, but the Minister is responsible for the way in which it is currently being administered. Having regard to the points made by Deputy Pattison on 10 March and having regard to the Minister's knowledge of the situation, I put it to the Minister, that there has been an intensification of the way in which the system is administered for reasons upon which I can only speculate. I invite the Minister to give his official version as to the real reasons.

I would remind the Minister of the various labour force projections that have been made by an array of economic and social commentators. The labour force here continues to grow despite the levels of emigration and it is likely to continue to grow for some period, certainly until the mid-1990s. While demographic projections are notoriously unreliable, it is quite clear that, for the next two to three years and certainly for the duration of the period of office of this Administration, having regard to the current level of socio-economic policies that they are pursuing with the support of Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats, this country will see no effective reduction in the levels of unemployment and that approximately 16 to 18 per cent of the labour force will remain unemployed.

Whatever about young graduates coming out of training centres and third level institutions and young people coming on to the labour market with marketable skills able to accept the reduced level of wages which are now being offered, it is clear that the categories of people like the person I have described, men in their forties with no particular skills who have suffered in industrial accidents with a background in manual and semi-skilled labour are not likely to get employment. All the employment schemes are posited on the analysis that that kind of person will not get employment because of the continuing shake out of agricultural employment and the reduction in local authority road works type employment and other kinds of traditional sources of semi-skilled employment. According to Paul Tansey and other commentators and indeed the NESC report, the best prospects for employment, having regard to the increasing size of our labour market is that we will be looking at at least a quarter of a million people unemployed for the next two to three years. Whoever gets a job in the next two to three years it will not be the kind of person to whom I have referred. Yet that person is being forced to jump to bureaucratic terror in order to find letters of refusal from employers in order to comply with the requirements of the Department of Social Welfare.

Having regard to employment prospects, if people having been humiliated, fail to get a number of letters of refusal from employers in their area, they will be cut off and will lose their only source of income so that people who are already poor will be made destitute. Various economic commentators, political apologists for this administration or others, are saying that there is an upturn in the economy and that levels of unemployment are decreasing. The Minister has a difficult task. The process of Government is not easy. We on this side of the House have never suggested that it was, but what is going on at the moment is crazy. The Minister was told that it was crazy on 10 March but due to the constraints of time I suspect that the Minister was not in a position to respond. I am now asking the Minister to respond.

The Deputy has raised a case which, even on the face of it, is dubious. I have every sympathy for the person in question. If the Deputy provides the details of the particular case I will be very glad to look into the matter.

It is a general case.

The person to whom the Deputy refers was forced to retire from work in An Post because of injury and the first thing which comes to my mind is, why is that person not on injury benefit, invalidity benefit or disability benefit? Perhaps the person is not available for work. If the Deputy supplies the details I will certainly look into the case. It is a particular case but the Deputy generalised and made sweeping allegations which are totally unfounded. No matter how he feels about a particular case I know from experience that they are unfounded. In an effort to support his argument he referred to the comments of Deputy Pattison during the course of a debate in relation to PRSI on 10 March. In all of the cases we have looked into they came by and large to nothing.

The Deputy suggested that a new interpretation is being put on the standard procedures but as the Deputy knows it is a statutory condition for the receipt of unemployment assistance and unemployment benefit that persons must be available for and genuinely seeking employment. The relevant legislation governing entitlement to unemployment payments is contained in the Social Welfare (Consolidation) Act, 1981, as amended by subsequent legislation. The officers who are statutorily appointed make those decisions independently and no pressure whatsoever is put on them but under the legislation they must satisfy themselves that the people concerned are available for and genuinely seeking work. The question of whether a claimant may be considered to be available for and genuinely seeking work is a matter which is determined by statutorily appointed deciding officers and appeals officers who are independent in the exercise of their powers, and the Deputy is well aware that they have shown their independence over the years. Their independence is something which I value greatly and is important in the operation of the system.

Each case is determined on its own merits and I am confident that the officers involved discharge their functions in an absolutely impartial manner. In determining cases where the question of availability arises, the criteria used by deciding officers and appeals officers are broadly whether a genuine desire and intention to obtain work is present; whether there are domestic or other commitments or circumstances which might limit the person's freedom to accept or might prevent acceptance of full time employment which would normally be suitable; or whether restrictions are being imposed by the person or the kind, place or hours of employment, any of which would unreasonably diminish the person's prospects of obtaining work. The decisions are made through the interpretation and application of any or all of these broad criteria having regard to the evidence available in the case.

At the new claims stage detailed information is requested from the claimant on a questionnaire to be completed in respect of the claimant. For example, the claimant is asked what type of work he or she is seeking and the hours of employment being sought. The claimant is also asked what specific efforts have been made to obtain employment and to furnish any documentary evidence he or she may have. Claimants are also asked whether they have registered for employment with FÁS. Details of the ages of any children in the household are also required to be furnished as well as particulars about who will care for the children in the event of the claimant finding employment.

Claims are reviewed subsequently on a regular basis to ensure that the claimant continues to satisfy the conditions for entitlement to payment. The review consists of an updating of the previous examination including details of the recent efforts by the claimant to obtain employment. This may be done orally over a counter in the exchange or through the use of a written request to be handed or posted to the claimant. In carrying out these reviews claimants may be asked to furnish any documentary evidence they may have about their efforts to obtain work.

As regards the question of producing evidence of efforts to get work, documentary evidence of refusal of requests for employment is not essential to show that a person is genuinely seeking work. Local offices of my Department do not insist on such evidence being made available but if claimants do happen to have such evidence readily available they are requested to furnish it. It is accepted that many employers nowadays receive numerous requests for employment from unemployed persons and such employers would not be expected to give written letters in respect of all such requests. However, when deciding entitlement to payment evidence would be required that the claimant was actively seeking work and in this context details of approaches to employers would be sought. The claimant would be required to give names of the employers who were approached.

Most claimants are in a position to supply such evidence. Therefore, it does not necessarily require a letter from an employer but the individual would have to give some indication that they had approached employers. I know of many cases where people have said they got into difficulties in this respect and when they were questioned it was very often found that they gave a bad impression to a deciding officer. There is no point going in and saying in a vague way that they did so at some stage; the person has to be able to say where they went and when they went there. It would help if they had some letters from employers and most people do. There are some people who have a lot of letters and there are others who seem to have none at all but even people who do not have any letters are approved and there is no doubt about this, as I know from experience.

Furthermore, the fact that a person can produce documentary evidence from employers would not in itself prove that such claimant was genuinely seeking work. The validity and usefulness of such evidence would have to be examined by a deciding officer in arriving at his or her decision. If, for example, an unskilled labourer produced documentary evidence that he was seeking an office job, such evidence might not be of great value in determining the person's entitlement. Another example of documentary evidence which might be of little value to the deciding officer would be where the employer who refused to offer work was found to be a close relative of the claimant.

I think it is important however that people should not get things out of perspective. Although statistics are not maintained of the number of cases disallowed because the claimant was found not to be genuinely seeking work it is known that the total figure is only a tiny fraction of all claims allowed. Furthermore, I think we should concentrate on the positive elements of what is being done to help the unemployed. I have always adopted a flexible approach in relation to entitlement to unemployment payments. In the present economic climate when there is not a significant number of job opportunities available I think it is only right that unemployed persons be allowed make constructive use of the free time available to them.

Within this flexible approach claimants can participate in various activities without affecting their unemployment entitlements so long as they continue to be in the labour market and continue to be available for and genuinely seeking work. Examples of these activities are participation in part-time education courses and voluntary projects. Claimants are also allowed to take two weeks holidays in the year without affecting their entitlements. Recently, I decided that unemployed athletes who are chosen to represent Ireland in the forthcoming Olympic Games will continue to be entitled to unemployment payments while they are abroad. I intend to pursue this line of removing any stumbling blocks in the way of unemployed persons who carry on normal social or recreational activities as long as this does not run counter to the need for control against abuse.

There are a number of schemes which cater for unemployed persons that I would like to refer to in particular. These are the Jobsearch programme, the part-time job incentive scheme and the educational opportunities scheme. The Deputy will also be aware of the scheme I introduced very recently, the pre-retirement allowance scheme for persons over 60. I can assure the Deputy that I am very anxious to ensure that flexible arrangements are available for those who are on the unemployment register and I will be pursuing this matter at great length in the future.

Let me ask the Minister a question in order to seek clarification. The Minister stated that the local offices of his Department do not request letters of refusal but I can tell him that in this case the person was asked to obtain three letters of refusal. He was told letters of refusal would suffice.

What I said was that these would not be the sole condition. They would be but one factor which would be taken into account. If a person could show by way of a letter of refusal that they had been pursuing employment that would be satisfactory. The Deputy may have a specific case in mind and if he gives me the details I will look into it.

There is one final remark I would like to make. Last year we interviewed over 140,000 people in respect of the Jobsearch programme and only 1.4 per cent of the total were disallowed. The normal procedures were applied and I would like to keep the matter in that perspective. The number actually disallowedpro rata was very small. I am very anxious to pursue any cases which the Deputy may have in mind and to ensure that the arrangements in respect of the unemployed are as flexible and as reasonable as possible.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 10 May 1988.