Priority Questions

Community Employment Schemes Administration

Willie O'Dea

Question:

30. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the community employment scheme known as Pathways to Employment at Southill, Limerick, has been threatened with closure due to the failure of its insurance company to renew its insurance; her plans to rectify this issue; the implications for CE schemes nationally; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39692/17]

This refers to a matter brought to my attention in my constituency but it may have wider ramifications. That is the reason I am seeking clarification on the matter.

The Deputy is probably aware that since he put down the question, events have moved on a little. Local officers from my Department have been in ongoing communication with the Southill Pathways to Employment scheme. I am pleased to advise that they have resolved the matter and obtained adequate insurance for the scheme.

By way of background, the responsibility for acquiring insurance cover for community employment, CE, schemes rests with the CE sponsoring organisation as the legal employer. The annual budget provided to CE schemes includes an amount to cover consumable services and materials, including insurance, necessary for the effective operation of the project. The Deputy is aware that in last year's budget, the capitation grant was increased. My Department has become aware in recent times of an increase in insurance premiums for CE schemes. A number of representatives from CE schemes whom I have met since my appointment in June have brought this to my attention. The main reason cited for this is an increase in claims frequency over recent years by such schemes. In this context, schemes are asked to be especially mindful of their obligations under the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

It is important to be aware that CE employers are at all times independent contractors for all purposes and, in those circumstances, it is not possible for the Department to become an insurance agent. Adequate insurance is required to cover schemes' legal liabilities. My Department recommends that schemes seek alternative quotes to ensure they get value for money, as has happened in this case. Also, if CE schemes are not filling their contracted number of participants, it is recommended that they align their insurance requirement with actual participant numbers. We are all aware a number of CE schemes around the country have a number of vacancies. In any cases where a scheme is experiencing particular difficulties, as this one was, the sponsor should contact the local Intreo centre or my office, where assistance will be given in as much as is possible.

I thank the Minister for confirming that the matter at Southill has been resolved and my constituents will be delighted with the official confirmation. The Minister stated in her reply that the Department does not propose to become an insurance agent and nor am I suggesting it should. At the same time she states that it provides a sum as part of the capitation grant to cover insurance. How is that calculated and how does it anticipate what the insurance will be from year to year?

There is a broader question. I know the people in Southill, both participants and staff, went through a great deal of anxiety and distress, feeling obligated to contact their public representatives because for several weeks it looked as if the scheme would close because of a lack of insurance. It is a CE scheme but is there a policy to prevent other CE schemes in other parts of the country from having to go through such a process?

The capitation grant is based on the size of the scheme and the number of people working with it, as well as the type of work it does with regard to required equipment.

An intrinsic base and requirement of the community employment scheme is that it provide insurance cover for its own employees, as is the case for any business. The rise some community employment schemes have experienced in recent years has nothing to do with the capitation grant and probably more to do with current societal issues. It is fair to say that because of the 72 actions the former Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan, took in regard to the insurance industry, insurance companies have started to reduce their premiums by approximately 20% to 25%. That was probably the reason it was possible to get better value for the Southill scheme when it shopped around. I am not blind to the fact that others have expressed a difficulty in getting the same premiums they had last year or the year before, but I hope to see the 20% to 25% reduction filter through to all. If there is an issue, as there was with this scheme, the Department is able and willing to help and will not let anybody down.

I thank the Minister for that assurance. There could be a separate debate on insurance and the extent to which premiums are decreasing. I have encountered many people in my clinics and so on and not yet met anybody who has told me his or her insurance premium has gone down, nor has mine decreased. The Minister is saying that if a similar problem arises elsewhere and a particular community employment scheme has a difficulty in getting insurance cover, the Department will be very eager and anxious to assist and will have its doors open to help in any way possible. Is that correct?

That is nothing new. It has been the case under every former Minister in my Department which facilitates and supports community employment schemes which are an extremely valuable service. The Deputy is aware that there are several issues with community employment, Tús and rural social schemes. In the coming months there will be a review of participation in the schemes. However, they are a hugely valuable source of social inclusion and social services and it is the job of the Department to ensure they are supported. If there is an issue, the local Intreo office is the first port of call and if a person does not find satisfaction there, he or she can certainly come to me.

JobPath Programme

John Brady

Question:

31. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the numerous ongoing issues facing persons seeking employment who have engaged with JobPath; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39597/17]

The privatisation of the job activation programme through JobPath has been a nightmare for job seekers across the State. I have raised this issue on numerous occasions with the Minister and her predecessor. Is she aware of the serious difficulties within the JobPath programme and that JobPath is going above and beyond what it was set up to do?

I can only look at the facts. All the evidence available to me indicates the experience of customers who have engaged with JobPath has been exceptionally positive. That is not drawn from anecdotal evidence. We did a customer satisfaction survey over the past couple of months which indicated that up to 81% of customers were satisfied with the service provided by JobPath and that it had improved their chances of securing employment. Only 5% to 8% expressed dissatisfaction. In real terms, of the 120,000 people who have been assisted under the scheme in the past 18 months, 368 have made a complaint, which is a tiny proportion. It is not a huge issue. People are not jumping up and down saying they have an issue. It shows thousands of people are saying the experience they have had with JobPath has been entirely positive. Results are what count from our perspective. JobPath was targeted at a results-based approach and the results have been exceeded. A target we gave was 8% and it is currently at an activation level of 4%. My Department and I are very happy with the over-achievement and the treatment provided by and the interaction with JobPath. What speaks volumes is that the vast majority of the 120,000 who have interacted with the offices in the past 12 to 18 months have indicated an 81% satisfaction rate. Some people have had interactions that they have not appreciated. The Deputy and I discussed one case a number of months ago. I have discovered the root of that problem and it will not happen again. Of the 120,000 who have interacted with JobPath, most have an entirely positive outlook and only a tiny number do not. I can only go on results.

JobPath was set up initially to assist the long-term unemployed. The Minister made reference to a figure of 120,000 people, only a small number of whom have made complaints. The reality is that people are afraid to complain because of the powers JobPath has to stop or curtail payments or withold a portion of a payment. It is not working and there are serious problems in relation to what it was intially set up to do - to get long-term unemployed persons back into work - but it is not doing that. One concern is that Intreo offices are now referring people who are weeks and, in some cases, days unemployed and certainly by no stretch of the imagination long-term unemployed to Turas Nua and Seetec. Another is that people engaged in part-time work such as looking after children or other family members and so on, or other work that suits their needs and means and who only sign on for a couple of days a week are now being referred to JobPath and hounded by Turas Nua and Seetec. When did JobPath cease to be a programme to try to target long-term unemployed persons and become a tool to deal with anybody who signs on to receive jobseeker's allowance?

JobPath only looks after the long-term unemployed. The situation described by the Deputy does not occur. If he has actual evidence as opposed to anecdotal statements, I suggest he bring that evidence to me. If it did happen, JobPath would be operating outside the terms of its contract. I have had several discussions with the Deputy on this issue and I am always surprised by his view of an organisation that was contracted to activate persons on a long-term unemployment register and help them to find work and which is actually working, as indicated by the fact that jobs have been found for 14% of those who have attended JobPath programmes, significantly ahead of the 8% target. It is paid only if it achieves a positive result. If it does not find a person a job, it is not paid. It is only paid when it finds a job for a person who has been long-term unemployed. If the Deputy can find statistics which show me that it is working outside its remit, I will deal with the matter. However, he cannot escape the fact that this activation programme was established and sub-contracted to two companies who employ 1,000 Irish people to work with other Irish people who are long-term unempoyed in order to find them jobs. That is being done and the programme is working. Up to 81% of the 120,000 who have been through the doors of Turas Nua and Seetec in the past year have a positive attitude towards the service.

I hear what the Minister is saying, but the evidence I have which I will present to her indicates that the companies are working totally outside the contracts in place. For example, substitute teachers are being forced to attend Seetec and Turas Nua. People straight out of college are being referred to JobPath which is going above and beyond its remit. The Government has privatised an essential service and created a monster which now, because of the nature of the contract in place, needs to be fed. I recognise that unemployment levels are down, but it now appears that, in order to keep feeding the privatised model that has been put in place, others are being looked at such as the short-term unemployed, including teachers and those directly out of college. I have evidence which I will present to the Minister. Substitute teachers who do not know the days they are going to be working and do not have contracts are being hounded by JobPath, Turas Nua and Seetec. The survey the Minister referenced is meaningless. She should engage with the people who are being hounded and fearful that their payments will be stopped. I ask her to carry out a full reboot of the service.

I ask the Deputy to allow the Minister to respond. I have been lenient. Deputies must respect the allotted time.

The service has not been privatised, it has been sub-contracted in the same manner a large number of services in social protection offices across the country have been sub-contracted. Talk of privatisation is ill-informed.

The purpose of this scheme was to help people who were long-term unemployed get meaningful jobs and it is working. A total of 14% of the people who have gone to these people in the past 18 months now have work, whereas we targeted only 8%. There is nobody in terms of the long-term unemployed being hounded.

The survey was anonymous therefore there was nobody unwilling to put down something on a piece of paper with their name for fear, as the Deputy has incorrectly suggested, that they would be hounded. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is there to support people - we are concerned here with jobseekers - when they do not have work to get back into work. It is not to hound people but to help them, to activate them and to put them on the right path through training and support to make sure they are ready to go to work. It is working, 14% of the 120,000 people who have gone through the doors have got work and 81% have a satisfaction rating of very high.

Public Services Card

Willie O'Dea

Question:

32. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to extend the scope of the public services card; the measures currently in place to ensure data protection and confidentiality; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39693/17]

I am aware that there are 2.7 million public services cards in circulation but as the Minister is aware, concerns have been expressed recently about plans to extend the scope of the public service card and about how confidentiality of the information contained on the card can be maintained.

The purpose of the public services card, PSC, is to enable individuals to gain access to public services more efficiently and with a minimal duplication of effort, while at the same time preserving their privacy to the maximum extent possible. The purpose of SAFE 2 registration, underpinned by legislation, is to verify a person's identity to a substantial level of assurance. Once identity is verified, a public services card can be issued. My Department makes it clear to our customers that they need to complete a SAFE 2 registration to access, or continue to access, payments and entitlements. This is not an unreasonable condition given the value of payments made to customers and the overwhelming majority of customers have no difficulty in completing the process. I have no plans at this time to introduce any changes to the PSC other than those which are contained in the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Bill 2017 which is coming before the House in an hour's time.

As part of the Department's commitment to ensuring data protection and confidentiality, all customer data is stored in its secure data centres which are subjected to regular security tests. Access to the data is restricted to those who have a business need.

All such accesses are logged and audited. All staff must, on an annual basis, sign undertakings that they will act in accordance with data protection policies and guidelines. Substantiated allegations of breaches of these policies could result in disciplinary action, including possible dismissal, legal action and possible claims for compensation by a customer.

The PSC is produced in a secure facility in Ireland and the data to produce it is immediately destroyed on card production, in accordance with the advice of the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner. The systems used in the card production are subjected to audit by external experts.

The Minister is saying there are no plans to extend the range of services which will require production of the public services card from now.

By my Department.

By her Department, for now.

Yes, my Department - that is key.

Does the Minister accept that concerns have been raised and that they are legitimate? They have been raised by ordinary citizens, by the Data Protection Commissioner and her predecessor, by distinguished information technology lawyers who say that clear information is needed on what data has been collected, the purpose of the data and who exactly will have access to it. Is the Minister aware of the statement by the Data Protection Commissioner on 30 August last that there must be clarity regarding the mandatory use of the PSC in accessing certain public services? What will the Minister do to bring that about? If the Data Protection Commissioner made this complaint on 30 August it is clear that she is not satisfied with the situation in place.

The Deputy is right, several eminent people, none less so than the Data Protection Commissioner, legal experts and normal citizens have expressed concerns arising from statements made over the summer. The Data Protection Commissioner has asked for several things to be clarified. Staff from my office met with her and we are in the process of clarifying those issues. I do take on board that if there is ambiguity about why the card is issued, where the legislation came from, what public services it will entitle someone to access, what other Departments the legislation allows my Department share that information with, we are very willing to run the publicity campaign we ran some years ago again. I certainly did not help the situation during the summer with my description of the card as a requirement to access public services but it is a requirement to access public services in the Department Employment Affairs and Social Protection. It has become a requirement for other Departments. I will certainly address the 49 questions the Data Protection Commissioner sent to our office. That process started with a meeting between the Secretary General and the commissioner and we will respond in writing and publish the statement then.

When does the Minister envisage that this information will be published? The Department has got the questions from the Data Protection Commissioner and I presume it envisages issuing answers to those questions. What is the approximate timescale within which that will be done?

Very soon. I do not wish to mislead the Deputy. We have been working on it for the past two weeks.

Low Pay Commission Remit

Willie Penrose

Question:

33. Deputy Willie Penrose asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to amend the remit of the Low Pay Commission to provide for the achievement of a living wage; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39691/17]

As the Minister knows the living wage technical group said in July last that the wage required for a minimum acceptable standard of living in Ireland is €11.70 an hour. Can the Minister set out a pathway to close the gap between the minimum wage and the living wage, taking account of the fact that it cannot be done instantaneously but over a period of time as suggested by the Labour Party?

I suggest to the Deputy that is not the question that he asked me. The question he did ask was about the remit of the Low Pay Commission.

The Low Pay Commission was established through the National Minimum Wage (Low Pay Commission) Act 2015. Its principal function is, once each year, to examine the national minimum hourly rate of pay and to make a recommendation to the Minister regarding the rate, ensuring that any recommendations are evidence based, fair and sustainable, and do not create significant adverse consequences for employment or competitiveness. The 2015 Act also allows the Minister to request the commission to examine and report its views and recommendations on matters related generally to the functions of the commission under the Act.

It is important that Ireland's statutory national minimum wage and the living wage concept are not conflated. The living wage is a voluntary societal initiative centred on the social, business and economic case to ensure that, wherever it can be afforded, employers will pay a rate of pay that provides an income that is sufficient to meet an individual's basic needs, such as housing, food, clothing, transport and health care.

In doing this, the living wage concept does not distinguish between types of earners, for example, between primary breadwinners and second earners such as students in part-time jobs.

I currently have no plans to amend the remit of the Low Pay Commission. On the basis that there was a significant difference between what it returned last year and this year I have made discreet inquiries as to how the deliberations take place, the exact listings for considerations put in place and how they differ from those of the body that deliberates on, considers and arrives at a living wage. I am happy that members of the Low Pay Commission are working very effectively and strongly together. Although I was in Estonia the week it was announced I welcome the 30 cent increase in the minimum wage this year.

I was not confused. The living wage was based on the concept that we should provide an adequate income to enable individuals to afford a socially acceptable standard of living. The Low Pay Commission recommended a 30 cent increase in the minimum wage to come into effect in January which will bring it up to €9.55 an hour. Last year there was a derisory 10 cent.

It is almost 18 months since the Government was formed and it has yet to provide any guidance to the Low Pay Commission to even allow it work towards its target of €10.50 an hour which is in the programme for Government, let alone a real living wage of €11.70 an hour.

The Labour Party proposed that the mandate of the Low Pay Commission should be changed to target the minimum wage to 60% of the median wage by 2021 to deliver a living wage for all. I ask the Minister if she will change the remit of the Low Pay Commission to at least deal with her own target of €10.50 per hour. A snail would get from Mullingar to Dublin quicker than the Minister will do this, and that is some 90 km. That is all I am asking. There is a pathological opposition within the Government to ensure this happens. It may not reside with the Minister but I recall that a number of her colleagues were not very happy when I fought to ensure that the reduction of the minimum wage was reversed in 2011.

With respect, and the Deputy knows I have respect for him, opposition Deputies have an ability to make sweeping statements about Fine Gael before adding "Oh, well you might be different". Let me be very clear: I am privileged to be the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the Low Pay Commission under my remit. There is no doubt in my mind that during the duration of this programme for Government we will achieve the target of €10.50 set down therein, assuming that the three year supply confidence arrangement with Fianna Fáil in opposition survives.

There is no reason for me to change the remit of the Low Pay Commission. It has not asked for it and the standard formula that it uses is still very current and is reflective of society. I will reiterate for clarity that as long as I am Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the commitment made in the programme for Government to ensure that the minimum wage is increased to €10.50 will stand.

I welcome that commitment in so far as it goes and accept the Minister's bona fides but she should not tell me that there is not pathological opposition towards pay rises among some of her colleagues. I am clear about that and if she wishes me to name names, I will do so, if pushed. In all wage increases there is an opt-out provision for employers who will be unable to pay them because their balance sheets or turnovers will not allow that. I accept that but 10% of people are earning the minimum wage, a percentage that is too high. I appreciate that there would be a 10% elimination, but let us try to get that. I acknowledge that the Minister is committed to getting the rate to €10.50 and her bona fides cannot be questioned on this. We will be there to support her in case of any recalcitrant colleague or two in government who want to stop her.

I cannot put it more strongly. It is in the programme for Government. I am in the lucky position of being responsible for achieving that goal and can genuinely say there is no ideological opposition from this cailín.

Money Advice and Budgeting Service

Willie O'Dea

Question:

34. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the efforts she has made to halt the restructuring of MABS and CIS until such a time as the concerns of the many staff and volunteers have been comprehensively addressed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39439/17]

The Minister will be aware that not only myself but colleagues on all sides of the House have had representations throughout the summer from MABS and the community information centres to the effect that the proposed reorganisation is going full tilt ahead despite the views of this House and the Joint Committee on Social Protection. I made representations to the Minister about this during the summer and she agreed to consider it. Has she concluded her consideration, is she still considering it or do the noises from the Department reflect her having made up her mind to go ahead with the reorganisation?

As the Deputy is aware, the Citizens Information Board, CIB, which has statutory responsibility for the Citizens Information Services, CIS, and the Money Advice & Budgeting Service, MABS, decided on 15 February 2017 to restructure its governance arrangements to a regional model, comprising eight CIS and eight MABS companies.

As a statutory body, the board has the sole right to make decisions on its day-to-day operations as it sees fit. The Deputy made representations to me as did a very small number of others, and arising from that as well as being new to the portfolio, I sought advice from the Attorney General. He advised me that it would not be lawful or appropriate for me, as Minister, to seek to intervene in such a decision taken by the board and so I did not.

I made gentle inquiries and was told that the CIB has not taken this operational decision lightly. It follows years of analysis of options and detailed consultation with all its stakeholders on the need for a more streamlined governance model. The CIS will tell the Deputy that their former governance model did not live up to scrutiny and was compelled to restructure by its accounting officer, which is what it did. What CIS has done and the decision it has made, which was its decision to make alone, was done in what it sees is the best interest of running CIS and MABS into the future.

In May of this year, 300 representatives of staff, management and volunteers, as well as chairpersons and representatives of local CIS and MABS services, attended regional consultations organised by CIB. It was not that they were not engaged with or involved in discussions. Over the summer months, 238 volunteers attended eight focus groups at which service delivery strategy, board structures, linkages and staff roles under the new company model were discussed and agreed. I understand that CIB plans to hold a further discussions with volunteers in October.

Therefore, CIB is seeking to implement its board's decision in a consultative way and is making genuine efforts to allay concerns of staff and boards of local services - which are small in number given the size of the two organisations and the levels of funding involved - and we are trying to make sure that they do this productively.

The Minister refers to the bodies' present unsatisfactory structure. She is as aware as I am that the organisations are not wedded to that particular structure on which they are prepared to compromise. She is aware of that and there is no point in us focusing on the two organisations sticking to present arrangements which is an argument that does not exist.

When she mentions extensive consultations over a five-year period, which she mentioned to me in a letter dated 15 August, the Minister must also be aware that the first people in both organisations heard of alleged problems was when the consultants produced their report. If this extensive consultation took place over a five-year period, why was it that when we forced a debate on the matter in the House, another consultation process was organised, as if there had been no consultation in the first place?

Why, until we raised it in the Dáil, was no cost benefit analysis done? The Minister must be aware that the volunteers, the staff and the people who depend on the service, as well as this Dáil by a two to one majority, along with all members of the Joint Committee on Social Protection, including members of the Minister's own party, are all against this proposal. There is a precedent for this sort of thing. One of the Minister's predecessors, the late Séamus Brennan, when a Fianna Fáil Minister, stopped this in its tracks. Nothing has changed and if Séamus Brennan could do it, the Minister can. I do not care how few representations the Minister received, she must be aware of the number of her own backbenchers who have approached me to say they hope to God that I can get this thing stopped because they have to vote with the Government.

A couple of swallows do not make a summer. I have acknowledged that a few representations have been made to me but that does not mean that there has been a swell of opinion on this. I will reiterate what I said on my appointment as Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection. I followed up the small number of concerns which were raised with me. As I told the Deputy, I asked the advice of the Attorney General on the basis of what had happened, which was not a consultation over five years. The consultation was started internally at board level in February this year and then consulted extensively with members in May. I do not know where the Deputy got his period of five years but it started in May of this year, arising from internal deliberations. I am led to believe that the reasons they are changing the structures is because their old structures did not live up to the good level of governance that we expect from our statutory bodies. I am being told that what we now have is a response to having a new, improved and efficient level of governance as required under the statutory law for these bodies' accounting officers to report at the end of the year.

I can tell the Minister where I got the period of five years from. It was in a letter from herself dated 15 August in which she says that this decision was taken after "five years of analysis, consideration of options and extensive consultations with all stakeholders". Five years of that.

There was no consultation and there is still no meaningful consultation with stakeholders.

The Minister referred to the handful of representations she received. The Dáil voted 2:1 to stop that process. The all-party committee, which, as far as I know, contains a majority from the Government side, voted unanimously, and expressed the view unanimously and publicly that it should be stopped. What we seem to have here is a small group of bureaucrats overriding the will of the Dáil, the will of the all-party committee, the opinion of the volunteers, the opinion of the people at the coalface of the service and, most importantly, the will of the people using the service, who know well that what will happen will leave them with something quite useless and ineffective.

The consultation process that started in May of this year resulted in 238 people attending eight focus groups over the summer, where service delivery, strategy, board structures, linkages and staff roles under the new company model were discussed and agreed. I do not know whether the Deputy likes that or not, but it is a fact that is what happened. The Deputy is also very well aware the body is governed by statute, and no motion of the House or any committee can overturn the responsibilities given to a body under statute. The only way to do this is to change the law.

Does the Minister have any regard or respect for the will of the House?

I am sorry, but it is a statutory body authorised under law to provide the services. If the Deputy does not like what it is doing the only way it can be changed is to change the law. Having a motion here does not instruct it what to do. It tells the body the Deputy is not happy about it-----

Seamus Brennan stopped it. A previous Minister stopped it.

I am sorry, but I am not a previous Minister. I am taking the advice of the Attorney General, who tells me I do not have the scope, and it certainly would not be appropriate for me, to interfere in the operations and day to day running of MABS, no more than if I went into my local MABS office and told it to rearrange the furniture. I would be told to hump off.