Priority Questions

JobPath Implementation

Willie O'Dea

Question:

1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection the assurances that can be provided that jobseekers who have been selected for the JobPath activation scheme will not be forced into unsuitable and inappropriate jobs given that participation on JobPath is mandatory; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18818/16]

In tabling the question I wish to emphasise that we do not oppose the provision of programmes to help people to get back into work, but we are very concerned about any question or element of coercion into inappropriate or unsuitable employment, in particular now that the service has been privatised and there is a profit motive at the end of it. There are a number of problems with JobPath which I wish to bring to the attention of the Minister.

JobPath is an activation service that supports long-term unemployed people and those most at risk of becoming long-term unemployed to secure and sustain paid, suitable employment. Two companies, Turas Nua and Seetec, have been contracted to deliver JobPath services. The suitability of employment is a key factor in ensuring jobs are sustainable. If people are not placed in suitable jobs, they are less likely to remain in employment and the companies will get fewer fees. The fees are payable only in respect of sustained full-time employment.

All jobseekers are required to engage with the Department’s activation service, and this obligation applies irrespective of whether the service is provided by the Department’s own case officers or those employed by the local employment service or by JobPath.

The JobPath providers work closely with employers to provide them with the best possible candidates for available jobs. It is not in the interests of the JobPath providers to place unsuitable candidates into inappropriate jobs as that would have adverse effects on the provider’s ability to secure jobs for its other clients.

The JobPath providers are subject to regular on-site checks and inspections to ensure JobPath is delivered in accordance with contractual obligations. My Department is also commissioning a customer satisfaction survey to assess independently if customers are satisfied with the level and quality of service delivered by the contractors. Failure by the contractors to satisfy my Department’s inspectors or to achieve a satisfactory score in the independent survey will result in payment penalties being applied to them.

Out of all the queries, e-mails and personal visits I received on JobPath, I wish to read the Minister an excerpt from one e-mail which comes from someone in the Minister's constituency. I will be careful not to identify the person. The person said they will be 60 in a few weeks' time and they have been in full-time employment from 1976 until 2007 in a very responsible position.

Currently I am enrolled in the Seetec JobPath programme and I am finding the experience humiliating, extremely stressful and demoralising, as I am made to feel inferior and of little worth and even though I am engaging in every procedure that is required I am constantly being made to feel that I am going to be coerced into something, regardless of my experience. I look at the faces of people I meet in their 50s and 60s who have been told they have to learn how to use a computer, that are being intimidated into doing so, and they mirror exactly my feelings of stress and anxiety.

I could go on. The e-mail finishes in saying: "Please keep my identity secret because if Seetec [the contracting company] find out it was me who contacted you, I could not face any further hassle from them."

I call on the Minister to make his final reply.

That is pretty serious. Could I just make one very quick point? In my area in Limerick I have heard constant complaints from people who have been asked the most demeaning and inappropriate questions-----

The Deputy should allow the Minister to reply.

-----in the presence of other people. There is no privacy. People are sitting cheek by jowl with other people from the same city who are being asked the same questions and they can all hear the replies.

To date, there have been either 28,000 or 50,000 referrals - I cannot remember the exact figure - to JobPath, which has been running for approximately a year. I am sure with any service there will be people with complaints or who have had a bad experience and I do not think they should be allowed to characterise the entire service, but I would encourage individuals who do have complaints about the way they were treated to make complaints to my Department.

It is important to point out that JobPath is not a work scheme. There is a misapprehension about that. Some people think it is a work scheme like JobBridge, Tús, Gateway, community employment, CE, or the rural social scheme, RSS. It is not. It is a recruitment service that tries to match jobseekers to real jobs. The initial results from it are very good but they are not ready to be published yet. It is important to point out that a jobseeker's allowance is conditional on a person seeking employment and being willing to take up employment. It is not the case that one can draw down the allowance every week and not take up employment. It is a requirement that one seeks a job and takes it up if one is offered one.

The scheme is being operated by two companies. One of them is Turas Nua, which is a consortium of a recruitment company in Roscrea and a company called Working Links from the United Kingdom. Is the Minister aware that very serious allegations have been made about Working Links? For example, in an investigation by a parliamentary committee recently in connection with another company, A4e, a former senior financial manager of the company was interviewed who had previously worked for Working Links and he said he found there was "a prevailing culture of fraud" in Working Links, and when he made recommendations to tighten controls, he was effectively silenced and forced out. Is the Minister aware there have also been other allegations?

Yes, I am aware of allegations from reading newspaper reports from the UK. One will have allegations against the Department as well, never mind contractors. It is important to point out that there is a huge fundamental difference between what is being done in this country and what was done in the United Kingdom. None of the outsourced providers, whether they are local employment services or either of those companies, have the power to reduce or stop anyone's benefits, and that is a big difference in terms of what happened in the United Kingdom. The scheme is designed to match people with jobs and to support them to get a job and to stay in the job. The companies only get paid a fee if the person gets a job and stays in the job. It is a payment based on results. They cannot stop anyone's benefits or reduce anyone's benefits. Only the Department's Civil Service staff have that authority.

Back to School Clothing and Footwear Allowance Scheme

John Brady

Question:

2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will increase the back to school clothing and footwear allowance in view of the findings of a recent survey carried out by an organisation, details supplied, showing the cost of sending one child to secondary school at almost €800 and, therefore, acknowledge that this payment is not sufficient in meeting these costs. [18817/16]

The Minister might be aware that last year, as in most years, Barnardos carried out its annual back to school costs survey, which found that the cost of sending one child to primary school had risen to €390 and the cost of sending one child to secondary school had risen to €785.

The current rates of payment under the back to school clothing and footwear allowance do not cover the actual cost of sending children back to school. Is the Minister aware of the survey carried out by Barnardos every year? Will he acknowledge that the payment is grossly insufficient to meet demands? Will he consider increasing the back to school clothing and footwear allowance?

The back to school clothing and footwear allowance scheme provides a one-off payment to eligible families to assist with the costs of clothing and footwear when children start or return to school each autumn. It is not intended to cover the entire cost of going back to school, but, rather, to give parents a helping hand. It is not intended to cover items other than clothing and footwear. Up to €38.8 million has been made available for the scheme this year, which is designed to assist people to meet the costs of going back to school.

The majority of payments, approximately 109,000 families for 193,000 children, will be paid in the week ending 15 July 2016 with no application form required. Customers who have not been notified of an automated payment should make a written application to the Department of Social Protection. The payment rates are €100 in respect of eligible children aged four to 11 and €200 for children aged 12 to 22.

The survey referred to by the Deputy was undertaken by Barnardos in 2015 and indicated that on average, parents pay approximately €100 to €115 for a primary school pupil’s uniform and €195 for a secondary school. I met Barnardos yesterday and this was one of the items we discussed. The survey also showed the average cost of school shoes are approximately €50 to €55 for primary and €60 for secondary school students. The results showed a reduction in uniform costs from 2014 to 2015 for all pupils. The survey also found a reduction in foot wear costs for primary school children, with these costs static for secondary school children.

The figure quoted by the Deputy of almost €800 for secondary school pupils included the cost of school books, for which the Department of Education and Skills has a scheme, classroom resources and voluntary contributions. The cost of clothing and footwear amounted to just one third of this overall cost.

Any changes to the scheme to increase the payment amounts would have to be considered in the context of the budget.

It is important to point out that the Government actually cut the back to school clothing and footwear allowance in two consecutive budgets. In 2011, it was cut from €200 to €150 and then subsequently to its current level of €100. For older children, parents receive €200, when in 2011 they received €305 which was cut to €250 and then to the current rate. There is no consideration given to all the additional costs in sending children back to school, which the Minister outlined in his response.

Another major concern facing many people and precluding them from applying for this grant is the thresholds set for it. With the rate of inflation growing annually, many families find themselves locked out of the grant, even if they are marginally over the rates set. Will he review the income thresholds with a view to changing them?

Yes, the Deputy is correct. The payment was cut twice by the Fine Gael-Labour Government, of which I was a member. Yes, I will be considering the rules around the scheme and the amounts paid in the context of the budget. However, I cannot make any commitments on the budget now.

Speaking of Governments, the Deputy’s party has been a member of the Government in Northern Ireland for quite some time. In case the Deputy does not know, the school uniform allowance in Northern Ireland comes to £35.75, or €44, for primary school children. For secondary school children it is between £73 and £78, or €88 and €95. The back to school allowance in Northern Ireland, where the Deputy’s party has been in government for a long time, is less than half what it is here. If there is a Border poll in the North, one of the strongest arguments for people to vote for Irish unity is so they can have a Fine Gael Government, in which case they will do much better than they do under Sinn Féin.

The Minister should not forget the Independents.

Fine Gael would have to start acting like an all-Ireland party, which clearly it is not. Maybe it should start having people contesting elections in the Six Counties. Then we can see how popular, or unpopular, Fine Gael is there.

I recently received a telephone call from a concerned parent in my constituency whose children’s school has brought in iPads. While it is welcome in many regards, it means significant expense for families. The costs of iPads, insurance costs, etc., can bring an additional €700 expense for families. None of this is taken into consideration.

I welcome the fact the Minister will review some of the measures around this. However, the Government cut the payments. He will have to acknowledge they are far too low. They need to be brought back up to appropriate levels. Will the Minister also seek to have the income threshold reviewed?

No one doubts the enormous cost of sending a kid to school every year. In the context of the budget and as part of the package for children in families, we will be looking at measures to make it more affordable, whether it is increases in the back to school clothing and footwear allowance or more assistance with school meals and school books schemes, which arguably could be more targeted. As an all-island party, Sinn Féin could make bringing welfare rates in Northern Ireland up to the level they are here a priority.

The cost of living is different for a start, so it is not a case of comparing like with like.

The Minister without interruption.

I know the Deputy does not want to hear this but the cost of living is not half what it is here. It may be lower but it is not half. One action Sinn Féin can take to prove it is an all-Ireland party is to commit itself and its Democratic Unionist Party coalition partners to increase welfare rates to what they are in the Republic of Ireland, rather than prioritising the reduction of corporation tax to what it is here.

It might be better if the Minister took responsibility for his portfolio here and started addressing the huge anomalies in this State.

The Deputy’s question is finished.

Anti-Poverty Strategy

Willie O'Dea

Question:

3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Social Protection his plans to tackle poverty in view of the anti-poverty targets that have been missed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18819/16]

This question was prompted by a recent report from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul that it is getting in excess of 2,300 calls per week from families in need. What are the current levels of consistent poverty and otherwise? Where does the Minister intend to focus in his budget to start making inroads into those?

Tackling poverty continues to be a priority for the Government. The updated national action plan for social inclusion identifies a wide range of targeted actions and interventions to achieve the overall objective of reducing poverty. The goals include a focus on early childhood development, youth exclusion, access to the labour market, migrant integration, social housing and affordable energy. The national social target, set in 2010, is to reduce consistent poverty to 4% by 2016 and to 2% or less by 2020. The target is to lift over 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. Ireland’s contribution to the Europe 2020 poverty target is to lift a minimum of 200,000 people out of combined poverty, namely, at-risk-of-poverty and-or basic deprivation, by 2020.

These targets are now more challenging than when they were set because poverty rates rose substantially during the recession from 2009 to 2013. However, the CSO survey on income and living conditions, SILC, shows that for the first time since the crisis, poverty levels stabilised in 2014. Consistent poverty decreased marginally to 8% while consistent poverty among children was 11.2%. We expect those positive trends will have continued in 2015.

The full impact of the recovery is not yet reflected in these 2014 figures. Ireland has returned to strong economic and employment growth. The unemployment rate in May 2016 was 7.8%, down from a peak of 15% in 2012. As unemployment is strongly linked to poverty, we can expect further decreases in poverty as the figures for 2015 and 2016 become available. It is envisaged that 2015 data will be released in November next.

Social transfers play a crucial role in alleviating poverty and inequality. In 2014, social transfers, excluding pensions, reduced the at-risk-of-poverty rate from 37.2% to 15.6%, thereby lifting over a fifth of the population out of income poverty.

Ireland is the best performing EU member state in reducing poverty through social transfers. Continued economic recovery, together with Government action to sustain and develop the social welfare system, will support further reductions in poverty over the coming years.

The latest figures available to us indicate that consistent poverty among the population at large is still 8%, among children it is 11.2%, which is more than one in ten, and among lone parents it is 22.1%, which is more than one in five. With regard to levels of deprivation, on the other hand, whereby people do not have all they need to live a decent, humane lifestyle, as measured internationally, the deprivation rate among the general population is 29% and among lone parents it is a staggering 59%, which means almost six out of every ten lone parents are experiencing deprivation. What does the Minister intend to focus on in the budget to begin making inroads into those figures, which I am sure he will agree are outrageous in a developed country?

It is an absolute priority to improve those figures and to improve the lives of people in the coming years. As the Deputy said, consistent poverty stood at 8% in 2014. It is worth noting that in 2005, during the boom, it was 7%, so it is only 1% higher now than it was at a particular point in boom.

This is not just about cash transfers. I attended a very good conference on child poverty last week, organised by the Children's Rights Alliance. All of the NGOs and groups there were of the same opinion, namely, when it comes to cash transfers such as child benefit and benefit payments, Ireland actually has among the highest payments in the EU. Where we fall down badly is on services, such as child care, and because people on low incomes have to pay to see their doctor, when they do not have to do so in other countries. I will, of course, be looking for measures in the budget that increase income supports targeted at those who need them the most, but the real focus has to be on improving services and also on getting people into work. No welfare payment can compete with a well-paid job. We need more people in work and we need to focus particularly on services. An extra €5 a month in child benefit costs €60 million but €60 million invested in speech and language or early intervention in child care goes so much further when it comes to the alleviation of poverty.

I do not disagree with that. The Minister stated in his reply that the Government target is to reduce consistent poverty to 2% by 2020. Back in 2014 the Government set a target for reducing consistent poverty, which was then at 8%, to 4% by 2016. However, it is still at 8%, so the figure has not moved at all. In addition, a target was set in 2014 to take 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. I am now reliably informed that the number of children who will have to be taken out of consistent poverty by 2020 to enable the Government to meet that target is 97,000 because, again, the figure has not moved at all. Is the Minister confident he will realise his ambition to take 97,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020 and that he will get the rate of consistent poverty down from 8% to 2% by 2020, in view of the fact it has not moved at all since the target was originally set in 2014?

The figure was 8% for 2014 and, as we will not have the figure for 2016 until the end of 2017, we will not know how much lower it is than 8% until then. These will be difficult targets to meet and understanding them is a science in itself. Interestingly, the reason the number of children we have to take out of poverty has gone up from 70,000 to 97,000 is not because living conditions for children have fallen in that period but because of the rise in median incomes. For example, if the pension for pensioners is increased but nothing is done for children, child poverty increases because of the relativities involved. If, for example, we restored pay for young teachers, nurses and gardaí, most of whom do not have children in poverty, that actually increases the child poverty figure. What we do not want to do is meet the targets by suppressing people's incomes; we want to reach them by improving people's living conditions. That is why the focus has to be on services.

Social Welfare Payments Administration

Michael Healy-Rae

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Social Protection if he will cease issuing letters to persons in receipt of social protection payments urging them to receive payments through the bank instead of the post office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18978/16]

First, I want to declare that I am postmaster of a small post office in County Kerry. I want to ask the Minister the same question I asked his predecessor, Deputy Joan Burton, during her term in office. Will the Minister strictly direct the people working in his Department to stop sending out letters to social welfare recipients, asking them to give details of a bank account so they can be paid directly into the bank and not through the post office network?

The programme for Government clearly states the Government's commitment to actively encouraging payments at post offices. While responsibility for An Post and the post office network rests with my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, I want to highlight the size of my Department’s business with An Post, which was over 38 million transactions across the network in 2015, at a cost of €54 million to the taxpayer.

I recently had a constructive meeting with the Irish Postmasters' Union and will be meeting Bobby Kerr next week. A few weeks ago my Department wrote to a cohort of jobseeker customers, who are classified as casual jobseekers, offering the option of payment into a bank account. These customers are in work and claim a jobseeker's payment for two to three days per week, or work week on, week off. They were paid by cheque each week due to the changing nature of their work and claiming patterns and the short turnaround time to issue and collect payments. This group of customers was not paid by post offices under the Department’s existing cash payments contract with An Post, although I expect many of them cashed their cheques in the post office. The majority have responded and opted for payment to a bank account.

I can confirm to the Deputy that no further letters are being issued to this group. My Department has developed its payment capacity in respect of changing work and claiming patterns, and is offering payments direct to accounts in financial institutions for casual jobseeker customers. This is in line with departmental policy where the focus is on ensuring that in-work customers are paid by the most convenient method possible.

I want to assure the Deputy that my Department will no longer take any measures which seek to actively influence customer choice in the manner of payment away from cash payments at the post office, rather, customer choice will be facilitated. In light of the programme for Government commitment, staff in my Department will be formally advised by circular next month that, when dealing with payment options, customers can choose between payment at the post office or by electronic funds transfer, EFT, where possible, and will not be encouraged to move to a bank.

I appreciate the Minister's response. He is new in the Department and I do not blame him personally. However, now that he is in the position, it is very important he is proactive in the way he has said he will be. I greatly appreciate that.

Although people might not realise it, at present a review is carried out every three months on the remuneration received by post offices, and they get paid based on the number of transactions. Every post office that is coming up for review is having its income dramatically reduced. I have consistently said over recent years - this is not scaremongering but a fact - that 700 post offices will close down in the next three years. It is not the big, bad Government that is going to close them - the postmasters will close them themselves because their income will not be enough to keep their doors open. I know this because I am in the business myself and know the income is very small and it costs a lot of money to keep the doors open. If we lose the post offices from our villages and towns, that will be the last thing to go, given we have lost the small shops and pubs. It is within the gift of the Government, if it is proactive in the way the Minister says it will be-----

We will allow the Minister to reply. The Deputy can come in again.

Both the Deputy and the Irish Postmasters Union have given me copies of correspondence with customers which, in my view, did encourage them to move to the bank without giving them an equal option of using the post office. That is why those letters have stopped. A circular will go to staff in the next week or two advising them to make sure that, in any correspondence, they give people the option of using both the post office and a bank account.

We need to bear in mind that ultimately it is down to the choice of the person and that 70% of those reaching pension age now want to have the money paid into their bank. When I was a kid, I used to go to the post office in Blanchardstown with my mum to pick up what was then the children's allowance. These days the majority of women are in work and want to have the money paid into their bank accounts. They do not want to have to go to the post office. Thankfully, the number of job seekers is falling and this downward trend in the real modern world will continue. We will certainly not actively encourage people to opt for EFT over the post office, but it will not stop the downward trend.

May I take it that if the Department will be writing out and stating the options, the first option will be An Post? Is it okay to assume this? That is very important. I appreciate that we must all allow for free choice, but people do not realise post offices use modern technology to keep up to date with what is required. We really must fight for survival. I know of people who were reviewed in recent days and have seen their income decreased by €5,000 for €6,000 per annum. This will make their post offices unviable. That is why it was so upsetting to see the letters. I met senior departmental officials recently and they told me there might have been what was described as an overzealous idea to get people to accept payment through the banks. If the Minister is now directing them to stop this, I really appreciate and respect it. That is the type of proactive measure I would expect from him.

I will have to come back to the Deputy on the order on the form because I am not sure we can change all forms. In principle, I have no difficulty with the post office being the first option and the bank or electronic transfer being the second, as long as the customer chooses. Ultimately, it is his or her choice. I will be very firm on this point and I am sure the Deputy will keep in touch with me on it. It is useful for me to see what is sent to customers. If these things do not happen, or if things do not change in the way to which I have committed, I will rely on the Deputy and the Irish Postmasters Union to let me know.

JobPath Implementation

Róisín Shortall

Question:

5. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Social Protection his views on the role of JobPath, with particular reference to the need to ensure a strong focus on upskilling the long-term unemployed. [19049/16]

The question relates to the mismatch between the needs of the economy and jobseekers, on the one hand, and the central purpose of the JobPath scheme, on the other. It is a very pressing issue. It is not a JobPath but a job cul-de-sac in many ways and the Minister needs to address it urgently.

Participants in JobPath receive intensive individual support and attention over a period of up to 12 months to help them to tackle barriers to employment and find jobs. If they are successful in securing a job, the JobPath provider will continue to assist the client while in employment for a further period of up to 12 months. As part of JobPath, each person is assigned a personal adviser who assesses his or her skills, qualifications and experience, with a particular focus on identifying potential employment opportunities.

JobPath providers arrange for the delivery of a broad range of education and training courses, with a particular focus on upskilling the long-term unemployed. Some of these are provided inhouse, while others are provided by specialist training providers, including the education and training boards. Inhouse courses include CV preparation; interview skills and confidence coaching. External courses include subjects such as adult literacy, IT and various construction-related skills. In addition, JobPath participants may also apply for the back to education allowance to pursue second and third level courses.

To support JobPath providers in referring people for training and education, the Department will extend the 12 month JobPath referral period by the duration of any externally delivered approved training course. This can be up to an additional 26 weeks. The JobPath companies remain in contact with the clients while they are on such a course.

For any long-term programme of education such as a degree course, the client is withdrawn from JobPath. Clients who complete their long-term course of education and are still unemployed may be referred back to JobPath at that point.

A key concern is that jobseekers who participate in JobPath are, at best, offered courses of between three and six months duration. We know, given the skills shortages in the economy that have been identified, that the type of training required - FETAC level 5 and level 6 - requires training for a minimum of eight months and up to two years in most cases. The Department spends €300 million on the contract for JobPath. There is a central contradiction between the policy of the Department in its approach to JobPath and the recently published national skills strategy 2025. JobPath promotes work first, whereas the skills strategy promotes a learn first strategy. We know that there are significant numbers of people who left school early, who have very poor skills and who end up being long-term unemployed. The level of training available to them under JobPath is completely inadequate.

The figure of €300 million is over a prolonged period of years, certainly not in one year. Of course, payment is by results and providers are only paid when people are in sustained employment for more than 13 weeks. There is a saving to the taxpayer in the reduced benefit payments. The approach is one of jobs first, which is absolutely right. It is evidence based. The view is that the best thing one can do for a long-term unemployed person is to get him or her back in touch with the labour market and into some form of employment. Just like many in employment, one can upskill, train and study while in employment. We want to avoid what was so common in the past and is still a feature - people on a carousel of training schemes and courses and then more training schemes and more courses without ever actually finding a job. Getting into a job first can often be the right approach. I am sure many Members in the House took courses and studied while they were working.

It is a contradiction in terms, as I am sure the Minister will agree, to talk about having a sustainable job for three months. A key issue is skills shortages in the economy. Another is the lack of skills among the long-term unemployed. These are the two issues which should be served by the Department, but they are not. Does the Minister accept that potentially there is a significant value for money issue if the Department is tied into a JobPath contract which it cannot change when it is not actually upskilling the long-term unemployed to meet the skills shortages in the economy? Does he accept that there is a need to review the approach to JobPath and ensure, if possible under the contract, the emphasis is switched from getting people into a job at any cost towards identifying the skills shortages of individual long-term unemployed persons and ensuring they are equipped with the skills they need to enable them to find good quality jobs which will be sustainable?

It is early days; JobPath has only been in place for one year. Of course, we will have a full analysis which is under way to assess what the success rates are in getting people into employment-----

Quality employment.

I suspect it will turn out to be very cost effective and good value for money because if it proves to be more effective than other schemes in getting people into employment, the savings for the taxpayer will be enormous because welfare payments will reduce and tax and PRSI income will increase. This will all be studied and produced when we have enough data to make this determination. I do not accept the Deputy's dichotomy that it is a choice between training and upskilling, on the one hand, and working, on the other. In the modern workplace training, upskilling and working go hand in hand all the time. People have a full-time or a part-time job and are at the same time in training, improving their skills or taking a course. I do not accept that it is a case of either-or. In the modern workplace the two go together all of the time.

Generally, it does not happen in low-paid low-skilled jobs.