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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Vol. 805 No. 2

Other Questions

Illness Benefit Applications

Catherine Murphy


6. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to any differential rate of refusals for disability benefit between applications when the applicant concerned has a mental health related disability and those who have a physical disability; if she can provide figures for the past three years outlining such refusal rates broken down by the former and the latter; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25862/13]

Claims for illness benefit, formerly disability benefit, are submitted following the customer's consultation with his or her general practitioner, GP, or doctor. Departmental medical assessors are not involved in reviewing illness benefit claims at claim stage, as a claim has already been certified by the customer's doctor. Customers may subsequently ask to attend for medical assessment by a departmental medical assessor for a second opinion as to whether the customer is incapable of work. The opinion of the medical assessor following this assessment is submitted to a deciding officer for consideration regarding the customer's continued entitlement to illness benefit. Any person who is dissatisfied with a decision made by the Department may have that decision referred to a social welfare appeals officer for determination. All assessments carried out by the Department's medical assessors are made in accordance with evidence-based medical guidelines and protocols and conform to the ethical conduct and behaviour guidelines of the Medical Council.

It is difficult to distinguish on a statistical basis between physical and mental health incapacities in respect of illness benefit. Illness benefit claims as recorded on the Department's IT system hold a single "certified cause of incapacity", as reported by the person's doctor. This is the primary condition that is initially diagnosed by the primary health care provider. However, a significant number of patients may have associated conditions and it may be the latter that render the person incapable of work on an ongoing basis.

It is not the case that the Department is using medical reviews to reduce the number of people in receipt of illness benefit. I have set out a statistical table below that shows the number of medical examinations carried out in the past three years and the percentage of recipients found capable of work. The percentage found capable at examination has fallen in the past two years.

% of Illness Benefit Recipients Examined & Found Capable 2010-2012





% Found Capable




Number Examined




I take the Minister's reply on board. This question was submitted following discussions with a number of Deputies. People with mental health difficulties seem to be disproportionately affected, given the increase in the number of clients presenting at our constituency offices. The question should probably have asked about the disability allowance as well. Will the Minister ask her Department to examine this issue in order to determine whether there is a trend and, if so, rectify it?

I appreciate the Deputy's concern, but we do not assess a person's illness. That is the job of his or her doctor. When someone applies for illness benefit, he or she has received a doctor's certificate. It may be that a person has a number of conditions including physical and mental health elements, but it is whatever the doctor certifies as being the primary illness from which the person suffers that appears on the certificate.

I do not have available statistics on physical versus mental health diagnoses. I will ascertain whether that type of information is available in the Department, but it would not tend to be, as the doctor is the one who describes the condition. A significant number of people with mental health issues are in receipt of social welfare income support.

I listened to the Minister's answers. I have also encountered this issue. The perception - it may only be a perception - seems to be that someone with a mental illness is not taken as seriously as someone with a physical and, therefore, visible illness and, as such, a different approach is taken. Given where we are as a society and the considerable increase in rates of depression and mental illness, I hope that the word will go out from the Minister and the Dáil that there can be no differentiation at any stage. This could help to address the perception.

I will be helpful for the Deputy. Currently, 22 medical assessors, including the chief and deputy chief medical advisers, conduct medical assessments across a wide range of the Department's schemes, including illness benefit. Of these assessors, six have postgraduate qualifications in the mental health field, for example, the MRCPsych and the diploma in clinical psychiatry. They also have extensive clinical training and experience in psychiatry as well as membership of recognised professional bodies, such as the Royal College of Psychiatrists in London and the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland. The medical assessors have an ongoing commitment to continuing medical education so as to ensure that standards are maintained and enhanced. They work in a collegiate way.

As result of a recent recruitment campaign for medical assessors, seven were recruited, of whom two have mental health qualifications, for example, the MRCPsych. The further recruitment of medical assessors is under way.

Job Initiatives

John McGuinness


7. Deputy John McGuinness asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will outline the use of private contractors in the Intreo activation service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25826/13]

Intreo is the new employment activation and supports service model that the Government promised to deliver in the programme for Government and under the Pathways to Work initiative. It integrates the employment services and community programmes formerly provided by FÁS, the community welfare services formerly provided by the HSE and the income support services provided by the Department. The Department recognises the advantage of contracting with external service providers. This provides access to additional expertise and knowledge and complements the Department's own services by bringing in extra resources to meet increasing demands.

As part of the Department's employment service provision, it contracts with external providers for the delivery of the local employment service, LES, and job clubs' employment services, including career planning and job search assistance, to clients who are activated through these services. The Department funds this service provision to the tune of some €25 million per annum. The Department also has contracts, worth approximately €18 million, for the delivery of income support and related services across a network of more than 60 branch offices that complements the Department's office network.

In addition, the Department engaged the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion to provide expert advice and assistance with the design and delivery of a commercial model for the contracted provision of employment services. A report was recently provided to the Department and is being evaluated. Any decision regarding the question of engaging commercial private contractors to deliver employment services will be a matter for the Government and any subsequent process of engagement with private providers will be undertaken in accordance with normal public procurement procedures.

We are aware of the current situation whereby contracting out occurs. The Minister will recall how, when the Pathways to Work scheme was announced, a specific commitment was made to consider the possibility of using private contractors.

The Minister said the matter had been passed to a committee to evaluate the possibility and that it will report in due course. Does she have any idea when she will be in a position to make a definite call on the issue?

I have a document which is currently being prepared by the local employment service, LES, co-ordinators for the Government. Having set out some of the shortcomings in the system which would hinder or cause difficulties to the introduction in full of the Pathways to Work scheme, the document states:

Initially there was a belief that these shortfalls could be met through “contracting with the private areas such as case management...employer engagement, job activation of long-term unemployed and job-matching/placement.” However, the High Level Issues analysis by the DSP [Department of Social Protection] has since accepted that [it quotes directly from the Department] “this process will take time and considerable resources to develop and the scale of the task that confronts the Department should not be underestimated.”

Could the Minister comment on the fact that her Department has found that private contractors are more or less shying away from the possibility of involvement because they have taken the view that it would not be financially worth their while to get involved because the last tranche of payment on the scheme proposed is only made when someone has been placed in a job? The private contractors consider that is too difficult in the current climate. Jobs are so scarce that it is impossible to place people.

Intreo and the Pathways to Work scheme have now been rolled out completely in 12 offices and partially in a further four offices around the country. I invite Members, including committee members, to visit some of the new Intreo offices because they are such a change in how people experience a social welfare office. We are also taking people’s photographs when they sign on as jobseekers for the new public services card and electronic signing has commenced. Following that, jobseekers are involved in a case structure system involving group interviews and then personalised interviews to see how we can help them.

The local employment service, LES, joined the Department consequent upon the FÁS employment services joining the Department. I consider it a valuable resource, as does the senior management of the Department, given that it is experienced in helping people back on what is sometimes a long road of education in some cases, going on to employment or developing their own business and self employment.

I am most anxious to continue to develop the models. I am not aware of the Deputy’s comments on the profitability of private sector providers in the UK. We are examining the methods in various European countries. I have spoken to people in Sweden, for example, about their public employment services and I am also interested in the French model. I have read also about the UK model. We also have a tradition in this country of using privately contracted-out local social welfare offices. There is a long history of contracting out in this country. It is one that has worked successfully and has assisted and provided services for many communities.

Jobs Initiative Inquiry

Martin Ferris


8. Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Social Protection the reason a person (details supplied) in Dublin 12 has not been allowed rejoin the jobs initiative, as others have done; and if she will instruct FÁS to reinstate her to the position she held prior to June 2012. [25731/13]

The person concerned was originally a participant on the job initiative, JI, scheme, which was then operated by FÁS. Her engagement on this scheme ceased in 2004. Recruitment of new participants or re-engagement of former participants to the JI scheme has been closed since November 2002 and, accordingly, it is not possible to reinstate her as a JI participant. In 2004 she was working in the context of services provided by FÁS. From 2004 she was directly employed by the organisations which acted as the sponsor to the JI scheme. Her role was to provide administrative support. This support was normally provided by JI supervisors, but where there was a need for additional administration sponsors could be allowed to pay for this function by employing a person directly or contracting the administration to an external source. The funding for the post of the person concerned came from the JI scheme administration and materials grant. This was reviewed in February 2012 and the Department advised the sponsors that the grant aid for the scheme's administration and training grant would continue until the completion of the then contract on 1 June 2012 and that it would cease thereafter.

All contracts for schemes are appraised on an annual basis and any contract and the terms contained therein only have a maximum duration of one year, which is subject to the availability of appropriate funding. Furthermore, in 2012, following a review of all employment projects, projects saw a reduction in the level of grant aid allocated in 2012 as funding was allocated according to the needs of the participants and the project circumstances. The need for funding any additional administration duties has diminished for the most part, due to the decrease in participants on individual JI schemes.

Following the review, the current scheme contract commencing on 1 June 2012 was given approval for 49 workers, supported by funding for two full-time supervisors. These ratios are in keeping with the recommended ratio of supervisors to workers, which also includes the provision of administration.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Therefore, it is not possible to provide funding for additional administrative support which was the role carried out by the person concerned. Any matters relating to contracts of employment for those employed by organisations grant aided by the Department, should be addressed to the registered employer.

This is a peculiar case because the person in question has, in effect, been done out of a position by FÁS because there was an amalgamation of the workers from the KWCD partnership, which collapsed overnight, and the Dublin 12 Congress Centre took on some of the workers. The woman in question facilitated FÁS by allowing her to be categorised as additional administrative support rather than the mainstream position she was initially employed to do. She has confirmation in writing from one of the then directors of FÁS that she would have her terms and conditions guaranteed. She has asked via the centre that the Department would engage with the Labour Court on the matter but it has refused. In addition, she asked if she could be re-engaged on the JI scheme. The information she has is that people were re-engaged after the change to which the Minister referred. Could the Minister assure me that nobody who was previously on JI has been re-engaged on JI since 2002?

I will inquire of the officials. As the Deputy appreciates, the case has a long history, going back to 2001 and 2004 when the Department of Social Protection was not involved in the area. As the Deputy said, the person concerned was originally a participant on a JI scheme. The scheme ceased in 2004 and the company closed. As the Deputy indicated, responsibility for the JI scheme transferred to another company. It also transferred the employment arrangement of the person concerned. Funding for the post of the person concerned came from the JI scheme administration and materials grant and I presume the problem arose because the scheme closed and the grant is diminishing. An agreement was reached on 49 people and two supervisors, which is the appropriate relationship. I will ask the officials in the Department about the issue. As the Deputy is aware, the matter came to the Department in the context of the changes in FÁS.

While I do not have a direct answer to the Deputy's question, I will request that information of the departmental officials.

I welcome that and ask that the case in general be considered, given it is a complicated case because it involves the partnership collapse and everything around that. However, commitments were given to all workers who were transferred from the partnership to the Dublin 12 Congress Centre that their conditions of employment and the source of their funding would be protected and that this would be re-examined.

I certainly will look further into the matter to ascertain whether there is any further information that may be of assistance to the Deputy and will raise it with the officials.

Employment Support Services

Charlie McConalogue


9. Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Social Protection the progress that has been made in the implementation of the Pathways to Work strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25819/13]

Michael Moynihan


14. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Social Protection the number of staff within her Department committed to employer engagement as part of the Pathways to Work strategy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [25831/13]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 and 14 together.

The Pathways to Work strategy represents the single biggest ever change to how the State engages with and provides services to people who are unemployed. It is delivering on the programme for Government commitment to set up a co-ordinated employment and entitlements service and involves a multi-annual programme of complex legislative, organisation, process, people and work changes running to the end of 2014. There are five strands to the pathways approach, namely, engagement with people who are unemployed, the provision of activation places and opportunities, incentivising the take-up of opportunities, working with employers and reforming institutions. A key component of the strategy is to increase engagement with employers and to incentivise them to provide more jobs for people who are unemployed and are on the live register. A dedicated employer engagement unit was established in 2012 to co-ordinate the Department’s engagement with employers.

Experience shows employers are often reluctant to take on people who have a gap on their curricula vitae and this reluctance must be overcome if a pathway back to employment for unemployed people is to be offered. It is for this reason that I am particularly concerned to involve employers and to get their input into the pathways programme. I personally have hosted nine employer roadshow events at locations all over the country, which were attended by more than 2,000 people. In addition, the Department has hosted three job fairs and five breakfast briefings, as well as numerous briefings to industry representative groups and a significant number of meetings with individual employers. Moreover, this engagement is paying dividends, both in respect of the success of the JobBridge scheme to which reference was made earlier and in the use of the Department’s services by many small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, and by large firms such as PayPal, Meteor and Eishtec, based in Waterford, as well as by public sector bodies such as the Passport Office to recruit people from the live register into direct employment. This is because as vacancies arise, it is absolutely critical that those who are on the live register must be put in a position in which they can go for such vacancies. If one considers those who are on the live register as having been parked to one side and if employers do not look on them as being a key resource of this country, which this country has trained and educated, one will not get people who currently are unemployed back to work.

Thus far, with the new system we had 68,600 people in group engagements last year, while more than 40,000 people have benefited from such engagements this year. The Department conducted 158,000 one-to-one guidance interviews with jobseekers last year. The target is to complete 185,000 initial interviews in 2013. Significantly, under the Intreo model being rolled out, the process of engagement starts immediately. This is because I want the motto to be that the first day one signs on to be a jobseeker also is the first day on which the Department helps the person who has become a jobseeker to get back into work.

I call Deputy O'Dea. We will have time for just one supplementary question.

I thank the Minister for her invitation to the new Intreo offices. While I was hoping to pay my initial visit to the office in Limerick, I do not see any sign of that happening just yet.

Has the Deputy received his personal services card and photograph yet?

No. I have a few specific questions on this issue. Is the Minister still confident she will be able to roll out the scheme fully within two years of the initial announcement? Second, what percentage of people who present actually are profiled? Is it true, as I read recently in a newspaper report, that only a very small percentage of people who present have been profiled? Is it true that profiling is confined to new entrants? How much retraining and reskilling has taken place? Finally, both the Taoiseach and the Minister have stated the Government objective was that this scheme would take 75,000 people out of the ranks of the long-term unemployed by the end of next year. How realistic is that objective?

As I stated, 12 Intreo offices are now completely live and at least another four are pretty much converted. I personally have visited most of them. Another 63 offices are to be rolled out by the end of 2014. I must confess to Deputy O'Dea that I must rely on the good offices of the Office of Public Works, because it is acting as the Department's agent in this conversion and at times, there are problems with IT lines, way-leaves and so on. Consequently, it is a highly exhaustive process.

In respect of the roll-out of the cards, I certainly invite the Deputy to get his personal services card and, yes, the Department started with new jobseekers because new people coming in have their photographs taken to a biometric standard. I understand the current figure has exceeded the 150,000 mark. Later this year, the Department hopes to bring the roll-out to, for instance, retired people and those in receipt of pensions. We intend to co-operate with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with regard to passports, although many pensioners seek to have fresh photographs used for their personal services cards. It also will contain data regarding free travel, as the personal services card is capable of holding a lot of data.

As for the targets in respect of activating people, I will provide the Deputy with a small example. The Passport Office was recruiting temporary employees some time ago and all 52 of the temporary vacancies were recruited from the live register. Eishtec in Waterford is expanding quite rapidly and our offices have been of enormous assistance to that firm in assisting people who have been unemployed in that region to apply for jobs. I am happy to note that quite a number of people have been successful. Similarly, companies such as PayPal have been involved. As the Deputy is aware, it is establishing more than 1,000 welcome jobs in Dundalk and again, the Department has been offering the company all its facilities and resources to assist in considering both the people coming out of college and those who already are working in the IT sector and the people on the live register who would make great employees. I hope this level of co-operation with companies will expand and develop, as it is the best way to get back to work as many people as possible who currently are unemployed.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.