Other Questions

Employment Support Services

Clare Daly

Question:

6. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will cease the Gateway programme, on the grounds that it will force unemployed persons to work 19.5 hours in return for an extra €20 per week, which will not even cover the cost of getting to work, and will mean increased economic hardship and an erosion of jobs. [10438/14]

This question relates to the Gateway programme. People are now expected to work for nothing. They are being frog-marched to collect litter or cut the grass for local authorities. If they refuse to do so, their dole payments will be cut and if they take on the work, they will end up poorer because it will not even pay them to go to work. I ask the Minister to abandon the scheme as it is undermining local authority jobs and simply massaging the dole figures.

That is the Deputy's view. Deputies on all sides of the House have asked me to increase the number of work opportunities for people who have been locked out of employment by the difficulties in the economy and desperately want to get back to work. If that is not immediately possible, they want to participate and contribute to their community through community employment and Tús schemes. The Gateway programme is part of a suite of initiatives offered by the Department of Social Protection which are designed to bridge the gap between unemployment and re-entry into the workforce. A budget of €19 million has been earmarked for the initiative in 2014.

Deputies on all sides of the House, including Deputy Clare Daly perhaps, have praised and are fully aware of the positive benefits of schemes such as the community employment scheme, Tús and the rural social scheme for both participants and the services they deliver to communities around the country. Participation promotes a sense of well-being.

I am constantly asked by people if they can extend their participation in schemes because they really enjoy contributing to their local community. In particular, I highlight the personal benefits to the jobseeker of being able to engage in worthwhile work in the community. Gateway is modelled on these successful schemes, with the same level of pay and similar conditions at up to 19.5 hours per week. The ambition of the Government is that Gateway will build on these positive initiatives using the quality working environment, resources and opportunities available to county and city councils.

Recently there was an increase of 61,000 in people at work and we want more of the jobs becoming available to go to people who are long-term unemployed. They must find bridges and gateways back to work.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

However, over 180,000 remain unemployed for more than 12 months. Some 92,000 former construction workers are on the live register. In this context, Gateway is one of a range of measures available to break the cycle of unemployment. Responsibility for delivery of this initiative rests with the individual county or city council and there is an overall target to provide for 3,000 placements by year end. Participants are currently being selected by a random process conducted by the Department for recruitment by county and city councils. All participants have standardised conditions on the programme and participants will have the added benefit of working with a reputable employer and will have the opportunity to gain additional skills and access further opportunities.

Overall, Gateway can and will make a valuable contribution to improving the employability and work readiness of participants and it ultimately will help many long-term unemployed people to take the first step to re-enter the work force.

This question specifically concerns Gateway rather than the other initiatives which we can deal with at another time. The idea that people who are unemployed do not currently contribute to their community is an insult and this does not provide an opportunity for people locked out of work. What personal benefit could there be for somebody to be decked out in a high-visibility jacket in order to pick up litter when that person ends up poorer than when he or she got up for work that morning? People want a job and by implementing this, the Government is undermining local authority jobs. There were 3,000 retirements from local authorities in the past year and the Government, in essence, is replacing those people with this programme. As a result, young people leaving school are being denied an opportunity to get what was once a permanent and pensionable job in the local authority.

There is an example in the Minister's area of Fingal County Council, where the staff have been reduced by 20% over a number of years. As a result of this hollowing out of authorities because of the public sector recruitment embargo, from 1,300 staff there are now 21 people employed under age 30. That is consequent lunacy of a public sector recruitment embargo and the Government is patching the problem with this scheme, which is an insult to jobseekers and jobs.

I beg to disagree with the Deputy and I am not sure she fully understands the scheme. I know people from the Deputy's side of the House have heavily praised community employment and Tús while seeking more places. The terms and conditions are exactly the same.

I do not understand why somebody like the Deputy would not correctly praise community employment for the opportunity it gives for people to participate in the community and for the services it helps to provide for the community. We should be clear that Gateway aims to improve the employability and work-readiness of participants. This can be done by providing good quality work opportunities with good employers in structured environments. That is the type of scenario available in county councils around the country.

Existing work skills can be put into practice and during placements we want to see new skills being developed to enable progression. The aim of this is to help people get back to work. In Ireland and across the world, if a person goes to an interview having been out of work for one, two, three or four years, the chances of a person being successful are much diminished relative to cases where a person has been involved in the likes of education and training. We provide tens of thousands of places in this regard, including those in new courses such as Momentum and Springboard. Gateway is a small scheme and over a period there will be approximately 3,000 people getting an opportunity to progress back to work through employment with a local authority for 19 hours per week on the same terms and conditions as community employment. The people in the Opposition are always seeking more of that.

The Minister is again refusing to deal with the question. People need a job if they are to get back to work. It is not that there is something wrong with people or there is a defect which means they must be retrained through picking up litter for a county council. These people need jobs. Some of these people may be in a later life after 25 or 30 years working, so at 50 they may find themselves unemployed for two years for example, despite being a highly skilled craftsperson, and end up doing this work with a local authority. It is ludicrous to think this will make them more fit for work. The Government is hollowing out jobs in the local authorities by outsourcing jobs for craftspersons and librarians. They are being replaced with a cheap labour scam, which is scandalous. Fine Gael would do such a thing but for the Minister to stand over this action is quite shocking.

All I can say is that I meet many people who have unfortunately lost a job or business during the recession. My aim is very clear in helping people get back to work, self-employment and the rebuilding of business. The Deputy has extensive work experience and knows that when people go to an interview after being out of work for a long time - as is the case for some unfortunate people, including those who worked during the building boom and made good money - the chances of being successful in an interview are very small unless a person has retrained, had further education, upskilled or been a participant in a programme which bridges the gap. That is the difference between somebody being long-term unemployed and getting back to work. I emphasise that this is a small scheme spread around local authorities in the country. There is a great deal of positive interest, particularly from people who, unfortunately, are long-term unemployed.

Social Insurance

Willie O'Dea

Question:

7. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the progress made to date to broaden the social insurance system to include the self-employed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10445/14]

This issue arises from the fact that a report submitted to the Government in May 2013 recommended certain changes to make more benefits available to the self-employed under the social insurance scheme. Has any progress been made on that?

Self-employed persons are liable for PRSI at the class S rate of 4%. This entitles them to access valuable long-term benefits such as the contributory State pension and contributory widow's, widower's or surviving civil partner's pension. In September 2013, I published the report of the advisory group on tax and social welfare on extending social insurance coverage for the self-employed. The group was asked to examine and report on issues involved in extending social insurance coverage in order to establish whether such cover is technically feasible and financially sustainable, with the requirement that any proposals for change must be cost-neutral.

The group found that the current system of means-tested jobseeker’s allowance payments adequately provides cover to self-employed people for the risks associated with unemployment. In this context, the group noted that almost nine from every ten self-employed people who claimed the means tested jobseeker’s allowance during the three-year period from 2009 to 2011 received payment. Consequently, the group was not convinced there was a need for the extension of social insurance for the self-employed to provide cover for jobseeker’s benefit. The group also found that extending social insurance for the self-employed was warranted in cases related to long-term sickness or injuries. To this end, the group recommended that class S benefits should be extended to provide cover for people who are permanently incapable of work because of a long-term illness or incapacity through the invalidity pension and the partial capacity benefit schemes. The group further recommended that the extension of social insurance in this regard should be on a compulsory basis and that the rate of contribution for class S should be increased by at least 1.5 percentage points.

This recommendation will require further consideration in conjunction with the findings of the most recent actuarial review of the Social Insurance Fund, which indicated that the self-employed achieve better value for money compared to the employed when the comparison includes both employer and employee contributions. The self-employed pay 4% but employer employee contributions for somebody in employment amount to 14.75%. My colleagues in the Government and I will reflect on the findings of the advisory group and we are considering the recommendations, taking into account the economic position.

The report was submitted to the Government in May of last year. It is now approaching its first birthday and the Government is still reflecting. The recommendation was specific, that change be made to provide that at least those who take the risk to go into business for themselves and who become incapacitated as a result of developing a long-term illness should be brought into the social insurance scheme.

Is the Government giving any consideration to a voluntary system? The final recommendation of the report was that that should be done on a compulsory basis. Of course, an alternative would be a voluntary system.

Has any consideration been given to extending benefits to incorporate jobseeker's benefit, also on a voluntary basis? The appendix to the report is interesting in that it sets out the various countries in the EU 28 and shows which countries provide for loss of employment or long-term illness. Countries that provide for these eventualities include Greece, Romania, Lithuania, Estonia, but in Ireland there is no cover for the self-employed who lose their employment or who become ill on a long-term basis.

The net point here is to do with cost and economic sustainability. The actuarial study of the Social Insurance Fund showed what people know, which is that a self-employed person paying 4%, who is covered for areas such as maternity benefit and widow's and survivor's pensions and for the retirement pension, gets an extremely good deal compared to the person in employment for whom the contribution is a total of 14.75%.

As to whether we extend this cover, personally, I strongly agree with the recommendations of the advisory group. It makes sense. If a self-employed person becomes ill, he or she has no access, for instance, to an invalidity pension and may have no private insurance. However, as Deputy O'Dea will probably be aware, quite a number of organisations representing the self-employed were critical of the idea at this point in time of any increased contributions to cover the cost, but perhaps they should give more consideration to that position.

On the second point,-----

I asked whether it could be done on a voluntary basis.

-----the recommendation in the report states clearly that it would have to be mandatory, that a voluntary scheme in this type of situation would simply not work and one would not get a sufficient financial contribution to cover the numbers who over a period of time would be likely to benefit. By the way, this would be introduced on a staggered basis over a number of years.

I do not agree with the notion that a voluntary system would not work. Voluntary systems have been put in place in other countries and they are demonstrably working.

I refer the Minister to the section of the report where the group discusses the attitude of some social welfare officials to the self-employed when they claim jobseeker's allowance. Among certain sections of the Department of Social Protection, there seems to be an assumption that the self-employed are automatically not entitled to jobseeker's allowance.

As Deputy O'Dea read the report, he will be aware that the group carried out a specific examination. After I became Minister, I changed the method of assessment which is carried out by social welfare assistants on the self-employed accessing jobseeker's allowance. For instance, if there is a catastrophic fall or collapse in a person's business, under the previous Government of which Deputy O'Dea was a member the assessment was based on earlier years' income statements when the business might have been fine. For both those involved in farming and fishing and in self-employment, the way the assessment is done now is that if there has been a catastrophic fall, the person can put his or her current financial position on the table to be examined by the Department. As the report shows, in fact, 75% of those so assessed accessed jobseeker's allowance. Of course, the reasons for not accessing jobseeker's allowance, because it is means tested, would include that the person's spouse or partner might well be working while the applicant has lost employment.

Social Welfare Appeals Waiting Times

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

8. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Social Protection if she is satisfied with the current appeals process operated by the Social Welfare Appeals Office; if she will reform the process in order to promote efficiency in having appeals decided and reduce appeal waiting times; and if she would consider putting the office on a statutory basis. [10338/14]

In January, the Minister supplied me with detailed figures on the appeals process. I noted that it is a quasi-judicial process and that she had increased the staff to 41 to address the 38,000 appeals last year. Is there not still grave dissatisfaction with the appeals process? As her predecessor as social welfare spokesperson, I urged that the system be put on a statutory basis and given independence. That is still not the case. The bottom line is that we are still waiting on average six and eight months, respectively, for appeals to be decided, summarily or after an oral hearing. Although improvements have been made since 2011, it is still not acceptable.

I thank Deputy Broughan for acknowledging the improvements. Significant improvements have been achieved but I agree that there is still more to be done.

The workload of the appeals office has increased dramatically in recent years. It is the cause of the problem. The number of appeals received annually has increased, from an average of 15,000 up to 2009. Close to 32,800 appeals were received in 2013, down from 35,500 in 2012. The sheer volume of appeals because of the number of those looking to the social welfare system, some of which is as a consequence of the economic collapse, merely means that there are significant extra pressures on the system-----

They are the Minister's policies.

-----which we sought to change.

Some of the others.

Significant effort and resources have been devoted to reforming the appeals process to manage this increased workload while, at the same time, recognising the need to ensure that quality and fairness are not compromised. An additional 15 appeals officers have been assigned to the office over the past three years, bringing the number up to 41. In addition, a new operating model has been introduced.

The measures that we have introduced have achieved significant improvements. The number of appeals cases processed in 2013 increased by 18%, to over 38,400, which is the best outcome for many years since the crisis began. The number of cases on hands at the end of the year declined by 28%, to close to 14,800. Therefore, we are dealing with the backlog. At the same time, the average processing time reduced by 12%.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The Deputy asked if I would consider placing the office on a statutory basis. The appeals system was reformed in 1990 when the Social Welfare Appeals Office was established as a separate and independent executive with its own premises and staff. Appeals are now made directly to that office whereas previously they were made to the Minister. The chief appeals officer is legally obliged to submit an annual report to the Minister which is laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas.

Appeals officers are quasi-judicial officers who are required under law to be free and unrestricted in discharging their functions.

The fact remains that we are talking about an average time of more than six months for a summary decision and eight or nine months for a decision after an oral hearing. I acknowledge that it used to take longer than a year.

To take one of the headings under which the Minister answered me in January, domiciliary care allowance, DCA, for 2012 and 2013, I note that just over half were granted on first application and then, following this lengthy appeal process, the proportion of successful applicants rose to 70% of the total. Does it show a fundamental flaw in the application process that such a significant number of the DCA applications were upheld on appeal? Our colleague, Deputy Nulty, found the same in the case of carer's allowance, which also rose to something approaching 70% from 50% at first instance. Does that identify that there is a fundamental flaw in the kind of information for which applicants are asked at the start and more support should be given to applicants at first stage on documentation and what must be provided? In the Northside Community Law Centre, we have for many years kept an anonymised case base of interesting cases and appeals.

The Minister has started something similar in the Department. Is it not time information was generally available? There is a lack of transparency and the Minister should consider putting it on a statutory basis, but her Fine Gael colleagues will not let her.

The Deputy made successful representations to me, on which I congratulate him, to continue departmental funding for the Northside Community Law Centre. I have been in it and met people there on a number of occasions. The work it does on social welfare issues and appeals is very important. We have transformed the way the domiciliary care allowance is handled. After becoming Minister, I brought in the parent organisations to discuss issues in detail and the biggest issue was dealing with children on the autism spectrum. On the advice of parents, we changed the forms and timeframe during which applications and appeals were made. As a consequence, the backlog of new applications has been eliminated. The same is true of carer's allowance. The working system in Longford has been transformed and we also transferred to new IT platforms. This caused an additional delay, but the outcome has been well worthwhile.

I am not sure what could be achieved by putting the system on a statutory basis. The appeals system was reformed in 1990 when the social welfare appeals office was established as a separate and independent executive with its own premises and staff. Appeals are now made directly to the office, where previously they were made to the Minister. The chief appeals officer is legally obliged to submit an annual report and appeals officers are quasi-judicial officers required under law to be free and unrestricted in discharging their functions. Some applications could be much better prepared.

What people fear is that the appeals process is used as a mechanism to deter them from making applications in the first place and that it is in thrall to wider public economic policy. In the case of the Government, the fact that it has a public policy on social welfare expenditure which the Minister's Fine Gael colleagues insisted on having makes it impossible to have true reform while the Government is in office.

The greatest reform will take place when more people are back at work. An extra 61,000 people were at work at the end of 2013. That is the greatest boost to the economy.

More people would be at work if we did not have the national debt.

We are also expanding and spending €280 million on the family income supplement scheme. One of the problems with applications for important and sensitive schemes such as domiciliary care allowance is that the individual applicant does not put forward the best case for a child or carer. People often turn to a public representative who can give good advice on what may be required. The Citizens Information Centre, including the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, also do this and the Department funds them at a cost of almost €47 million. It is very important that, when people make applications for an important and sensitive allowance relating to medical conditions, they are well advised before making the application. In some cases, simple doctor's notes will not result in the application being granted.

Public Services Card Authentication

Seán Kyne

Question:

9. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will report on the progress of introducing the public services card; the numbers of persons who have been issued with the card; the locations at which the cards are being processed and issued; if she envisages any expanded role for the card; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10436/14]

David Stanton

Question:

17. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Social Protection with regard to the standard authentication framework environment, SAFE, for the new public services card, if she considered using biometric identifiers as a means of identity authentication; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10465/14]

David Stanton

Question:

30. Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Social Protection the progress that has been made to date in the roll-out of the new public services card; the criteria used by her Department to invite persons to apply for the card; if it is her intention to roll out the card to all persons in the State; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [10464/14]

Tá mé ag iarraidh a fháil amach ón Aire cén dul chun cinn atá déanta ó thaobh na gcártaí seirbhísí poiblí, an méid daoine atá á n-úsáid agus na háiteanna ina bhfuil siad ar fáil. Iarraim ar an Aire ráiteas a dhéanamh.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 17 and 30 together.

Considerable progress has been made in the roll-out of the new public service card, PSC. Approximately 580,000 cards have now been produced. The purpose of the PSC is to enable people to gain access to public services more efficiently and with a minimum of duplication of effort, while preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible. In this regard, the Department has developed, in conjunction with a number of other Departments, a rules based standard for establishing and authenticating an individual’s identity for the purposes of access to public services. The PSC is designed to replace other cards in the public sector such as the free travel pass. Many pensioners have the PSC card with the FT designation indicating free travel. It proves very popular with pensioners to whom it is being rolled out. It will make it easy for providers of public services to verify the identity of customers.

The PSC is issued following a registration process. The legislation provides that an individual’s photograph and signature and the verification of identity data already held by the Department are captured by the card. Existing legislation provides for the collection and storage of photographs or images in this context. The Department has recently deployed facial image matching software to help to detect and deter duplicate SAFE applications. For example, if someone goes in and has a photograph taken, it is matched with the stock of 580,000 photographs on the system. Facial recognition techniques are used to a high level. If someone applies for a PSC in Galway and is already on the departmental system, it will show that the person has a card in Athlone. We receive reports on a weekly basis.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Provision has not been made for further biometrics and there are no plans to alter the position.

Deputies may wish to note that the introduction of the card can, in addition to providing a more efficient service for customers, also help to deter and prevent irregularities. For example, the new card has led to the identification of 18 cases of facial matches. Some prosecutions are pending as a result and it is estimated that, at a minimum, the level of fraud detected and stopped to date amounts to in excess of €1 million.

Face-to-face registration is taking place countrywide in 55 offices of the Department for individual applicants for a personal public service, PPS, number and people applying for or in receipt of social protection payments or benefits, including jobseeker payments, free travel entitlements, child benefit payments, State pensions and one parent family payments. A table of the relevant locations has been provided for the Deputies.

Selected low-risk customers have also been invited to avail of a "postal" registration process which involves utilisation, with consent, of information already provided for other Government agencies, for example, a photograph supplied in connection with an application for a passport. In addition, selected pensioners over 66 years who collect their payments at a post office will be invited, commencing early next month, to register by post, including providing a passport standard photograph.

The PSC project has been earmarked as a key initiative in the new public service reform plan; the aim is to “expand the use of the PSC to cover a greater range of services”. PSC registration is being expanded to encompass all departmental scheme customers and over time the adult population of Ireland. In this regard, the Department is in discussions with a wide range of other public bodies to extend the client registration service and the use of the PSC. Recently the PSC was included in regulations as an acceptable form of ID for upcoming local and European elections.

This is a wonderful initiative and the verification and facial recognition techniques will go a long way towards preventing fraud. The Minister mentioned the free travel pass. Does she envisage rolling out the card in such a way as to verify journeys that take place rather than the blanket funding given to transport providers in order that the State can save money?

What are the plans to use medical cards or the unique health identifier in conjunction with this card?

I assume many transport providers have technology to verify journeys taken, either on a spot check or a complete basis. People taking the train must go to the ticket office and I presume these verification methods will continue.

In reply to Deputy David Stanton's question about other activities, we are looking at that issue. There are discussions taking place with the Road Safety Authority on the issue of people being registered as part of their driver licence application and with the Passport Office in the case of passports. We have also had approaches from the Garda Síochána in the case of age cards. Some developments are further down the road. If we were to liken the card to a football pitch, only one quarter is used; we have a lot of space and capacity on the card which could be used in conjunction with other Departments and public services.

We currently have an assistant secretary who is identifying those kinds of opportunities and the potential for co-operation. However, it is important that we ensure at all times the privacy and security of individuals.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.