Priority Questions

I welcome the Minister, the Minister of State, Deputies and staff of the Houses for another day's work on behalf of the people of the nation. We will begin with questions to the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty. As Questions Nos. 1 and 2 have been grouped, Deputies Willie O'Dea and John Brady will have 12 minutes. The procedure is that Deputy Willie O'Dea will have 30 seconds in which to introduce the question; the Minister will have four minutes in which to reply; and Deputies Willie O'Dea and John Brady will have opportunities to ask supplementary questions.

JobPath Programme

Willie O'Dea

Question:

1. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the details of the recently announced changes to the JobPath scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19262/18]

John Brady

Question:

2. Deputy John Brady asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the effect the recently announced changes to the JobPath scheme will mean for new and existing JobPath participants who wish to move to other schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19487/18]

As the Minister is aware, I recently published legislation proposing the change she is introducing; naturally, therefore, I welcome it. I tabled the question to allow her the opportunity to flesh out the details of how it will operate in practice.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

As the Deputies may be aware, I recently announced that clients of my Department who were engaged with the JobPath service would from 1 June have the option of applying for community employment scheme and Tús placements while continuing on with their JobPath programme. This will ensure jobseekers can benefit from the job seeking support of the JobPath service, while also availing of a part-time work placement which we so value provided by the Tús and community employment scheme organisations. This will have a number of benefits, both for the vital services provided at a local level by participants in community employment scheme and Tús programmes and directly for the Department’s clients. It will, in particular, enable those people with the JobPath service to not only continue to receive the personalised employment counselling and job search support provided by their JobPath personal advisers but also to avail of a Tús or community employment scheme placement which will provide valuable occupational activity and work experience.

In making this change I was particularly conscious that case managed employment counselling and support had been shown internationally and here in Ireland, based on evidence, to be the most effective means of supporting people back into sustained employment. I did not wish people to cease participation in this type of service in order to take up a place on a part-time State employment programme. The decision I have made enables people to benefit from both supports available from the State. In taking the decision I was also conscious that the resource constraints that had informed the Department’s policy had thankfully abated somewhat. In the past the Department operated a one-person-one-place policy in order to ration the available places among jobseekers. We are all aware that we had far too many of them at one point. Given the welcome improvement in the labour market, with the unemployment rate now down to under 6% this week, which is great, this policy can be relaxed slightly.

The JobPath service will be adapted to cater for those who opt to take up a Tús or community employment scheme placement. All meetings and activities will be scheduled to take account of scheme commitments. For example, if a person is committed to participating in the community employment scheme five mornings a week, any JobPath meeting and other intervention they may have will be scheduled for the afternoon, obviously with his or her agreement. The JobPath companies will continue to provide all of the supports they provide for the people with the JobPath service. Community employment scheme and Tús providers will not have to make changes to their operations. They will continue to advertise their jobs for which people with the JobPath service can now apply. The administrative procedures to enable this change to be implemented are being finalised in my Department. That was why I could not announce it with immediate effect and needed a couple of weeks to change the IT systems. It will go live on 1 June. I hope that clarifies the matter.

I thank the Minister for her response. Did I understand her to say that if somebody was in the JobPath system, a vacancy occurred on a Tús or community employment scheme and he or she took up the place, he or she would have to continue with the JobPath service until the expiration of the 12 month period if he or she had already started? The Minister made reference to rearranging schedules, etc. to ensure a person could do both. Has she had talks with the JobPath companies about this? Is she satisfied that it will be possible to accommodate meeting people's JobPath and community employment scheme commitments simultaneously?

On the basis of the statement made by the Minister when announcing this change a number of weeks ago, it seemed to be a positive story, so much so that Fianna Fáil was very quick to jump in and claim credit for it.

We had published a Bill.

On reading the details and having listened to the Minister, it is clear that the problems experienced by people locked into JobPath will continue. We know that underemployed persons are being actively targeted to join the JobPath programme. We are being told that people locked into JobPath can participate in Tús and community employment schemes, but they will be treated in the same way as someone in a part-time job. It does not deal with the mandatory nature of JobPath, which is the crux of the problem. We have people participating in Tús and community employment schemes, which is welcome, but they will have to engage in two separate schemes.

I have another question. Obviously someone participating in a community employment scheme can avail of education to upskill. People are being actively targeted by JobPath to enter full-time employment as per the terms of reference; that is what they are supposed to be doing. What happens to a person who is engaged in an education course under a community employment scheme for a major award? There will be pressure from JobPath on that individual to leave the community employment scheme and enter full-time employment.

What provisions are being made in that regard?

I do not like to interrupt, but the Deputy will have another minute in which to ask a question.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. I have not seen Deputy Willie O'Dea's Bill, but I know the gist of what he wants to achieve. I thank him for bringing it forward. It is not that I am giving him all of the credit, but, as I have stated here a number of times, I am not the only person who can come up with a good idea and I am very happy to listen to anybody who comes up with good ideas and give credit for them. This was something that needed to be done and the timing was just right. I acknowledge the work the Deputy has done in that regard.

While there are always anecdotes that will give the lie to something, the current JobPath programme is mindful of a person's circumstances. For example, if a person had caring duties in the morning, his or her JobPath appointment would have been made for the afternoon and this should be no different. If I thought people were being forced to come in at 9 a.m. when it did not suit them, as opposed to coming in at 10.30 a.m., I would have a big concern, but that is not the reality. The reality is that we work with people who come voluntarily to claim as jobseekers and make a commitment to work and engage with the State's services to either undergo training or work. I expect JobPath to continue to be as flexible as it is with other clients and make arrangements for the scheduling of appointments and activities outside people's community employment scheme arrangements.

I thank the Minister for her comments. I am not claiming all of the credit but merely adverting to the fact that we published a Bill. The terms of our Bill did not envisage people being forced to participate in two schemes at the same time, although I can see arguments for and against. What worries me slightly in the Minister's response is her aspiration that there will be flexibility and so on. That needs to be firmly tied down before 1 June because I can envisage situations, particularly in the education area, as mentioned by Deputy John Brady, where there could be conflict.

I would like to get an answer to my original question. With no disrespect, the Minister is a little removed from the reality of the so-called flexibility she says JobPath advisers are giving to people, particularly the underemployed, as she likes to describe them. There are many examples such as teachers engaged in part-time work who the Minister's predecessor said needed to give up the hope of finding their ideal job and take up any job. There are people living in rural areas who are being told that if they do not come in on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, their payment will be stopped. Correspondence sent in by participants has been ignored, including correspondence stating the person will willingly engage with JobPath but that he or she has no access to public transport and, therefore, no way of getting to the meeting. Correspondence has been ignored and penalties imposed. The reality is that there is no flexibility whatsoever. Will the top-up payments under the community employment scheme and Tús apply in these instances?

The Minister needs to deal more comprehensively with the issue of flexibility. There is simply no flexibility and this is not the solution. It is not Deputy Willie O'Dea's Bill-----

The reality is that over 1,500 places on community employment schemes have not been filled because of the creation of JobPath.

Does the Deputy have any respect for the Chair? Will he, please, conclude?

We that know that the number of rreferrals to the local employment service has been down consistently across the State since the formation of JobPath. That is the reality and the Minister is trying to mask the figures.

I have been more than flexible. The Deputy has taken up three and a half minutes. In fairness, there are guidelines set down which have to be adhered to. If I do not follow them, some of the Deputy's colleagues will not get to ask their questions. I am being very strict on time. It is not that I want to giving out to the Deputy, but will he, please, stick to the time guidelines?

I will answer Deputy John Brady first as I missed his questions the last time. I am constantly intrigued by his choice of words - "actively being targeted", "claimed" or "picked on". When somebody loses his or her job and comes to us to sign up as a jobseeker and receive a payment of €198 every week, he or she signs a claim form, as well as a commitment form to work with the arms of the State to either retrain or gain work experience to get back into the workplace in order that he or she will only be on the jobseeker's payment for the shortest time possible. No one is forced to do anything. When people claim a jobseeker's payment, they come to the State and say, "I have not got a job and will take all and any help I can be given to help me to get a job." The language Deputy John Brady uses makes it sound like that we are the Gestapo, pulling people out of their houses on a Tuesday and forcing them to work when they do not want to do so. If somebody does not want to work, he or she does not have to claim a jobseeker's payment. There are tens of thousands of qualified adults who are not claiming jobseeker's payments because they are not looking for work.

The problem is that the focus is solely on getting people into work. It is not flexible enough.

The people who claim and commit to working with the arms of the State are looking for work and want help.

To answer Deputy Willie O'Dea, the programme is entirely flexible. It is not something that is to be newly introduced because it is already in place. To satisfy the Deputy's curiosity and my own, I will ensure both providers will continue to be flexible with people who take up community employment scheme and Tús places. Of course, anyone who takes up such a placement will receive the top-up payment. They are the rules.

Even though we had 13 minutes available to deal with those questions, we have gone way over time. To be fair to all Members, I cannot allow that to continue.

Food Poverty

Willie O'Dea

Question:

3. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her views on the fact that one in three calls to an organisation (details supplied) are about food poverty; her plans to address poverty and social exclusion; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19263/18]

There is a lot of evidence, both anecdotal and official, that food poverty is still widespread in the community. I want to ascertain whether the Government has given any thought to targeting this problem in the forthcoming budgetary measures.

I express my admiration for the work of the wonderful organisation that is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in assisting vulnerable persons the length and breadth of the country. My Department works very closely with it in addressing many issues that affect vulnerable persons, including food poverty.

The Deputy may not be aware that my Department administers the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived, FEAD, which has been rolled out to all EU countries and provides food and basic consumer products for people most at risk. My Department’s FEAD budget for this year is €8 million, of which €4.5 million has been allocated to ongoing food distribution, with the remainder allocated to the distribution of material assistance in the areas of homelessness, school kits for children who need them and new migrants who may have little more than the clothes on their backs when they arrive.

In 2017, though a network of charitable partnership organisations, the Department distributed almost 1,000 tonnes of food to over 80,000 people in communities throughout the country, either in the form of food parcels or as meals prepared by charitable organisations. In 2017 FEAD assisted 26 Society of St. Vincent de Paul conferences or regions through the provision of food from the three FoodCloud Hubs depots in Tallaght, Cork and Galway. I had the privilege recently of visiting the FoodCloud Hubs. It is an initiative which was started by two wonderful women and which is going a bomb. I wish them well with it. The total value of food collected and distributed by the FoodCloud Hubs was in excess of €650,000, on top of the €8 million we spend, and consisted of 205 tonnes across 23 food product ranges that are available through the FEAD programme.

In addition, the school meals programme provides funding to provide a breakfast for all children and lunch for up to 90% of children attending DEIS schools for the entire school year from September to June. For the first time in many years, breakfasts are also available to some schools outside DEIS allocations. Funding towards the cost of poviding school meals is being provided for over 1,580 schools and other organisations, supporting over 248,000 children, at a cost of some €54 million in 2018.

It is fair to say we are very well aware that people are in situations where they are being deprived of basic food standards. We have taken this issue seriously and significantly resourced measures to ensure we will address their needs.

I am, of course, aware of the FEAD programme. Let us be realistic, however, and acknowledge that it is a drop in the ocean. I am also, of course, aware of the school meals programme. Nevertheless, in a recent analysis the Society of St. Vincent de Paul indicated that the number of calls it was receiving had risen since last year and that one in three was related to food poverty.

For people who depend on social welfare or who are in low-income jobs, there is no flexibility in the cost of utilities, housing, education. They have no control over those costs and must meet them. That means the only discretion they have is on how much they spend on food. There is widespread evidence that people are cutting back on food. The problem is still widespread, despite the recent economic growth. Has the Government considered more comprehensive targeting of food poverty, particularly among children?

The primary role of the Department, through social welfare income supports, is to sustain an adequate standard of living for the people we serve and to prevent poverty, including food poverty. The Irish social welfare system is regarded as quite successful in that role. In 2016, the most recent year for which we have data, the social transfers to reduce the at risk of poverty rate from 33.6% to 16.5%. That represents a poverty reduction of over 51% of the population affected.

I know what the Deputy is saying but we can only strive through programmes such as the social inclusion programme and the national anti-poverty strategy to ensure that if there are areas and particular measures that need to be implemented or areas that we are missing, they are identified and addressed. While I appreciate the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's survey results which were released some weeks ago, and while I do not doubt them for a second, it did not qualify the amount of support that it receives from the State. The Society of St. Vincent de Paul tells me that it is exceptionally grateful for the support it receives. Regardless of who was in my position, if we had more money to give it, we would do so because of the value of the services and support it offers.

Through the national inclusion strategy and the national anti-poverty strategy, which are ongoing, I will look at and review the funding mechanisms we provide. What we are doing is working and we need to continue it.

The school meals programme is an example of targeting in this area. Will the Government consider its extension? It deals with lack of food and ensures that the food provided to children is nutritious and healthy.

Is the Minister aware of the recent study undertaken by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice which focused on the higher cost of having a teenager? The Minister will probably be aware of this personally. There is plenty of anecdotal and official evidence that this is an area which would benefit from special consideration. I take it from the Minister's response that she will examine the total social welfare allocation to see if there can be some specific targeting on this area.

I will speak about the school meals programme in a moment, as we will make an announcement on it in coming weeks. I hope to see it extended and expanded, but I do not get to choose the list of schools. It is provided by the Department of Education and Skills. We just deliver on it and provide the funds. I hope and expect that it will be expanded.

I have a couple of those teenagers at home in my own house and I know exactly what the Deputy speaks of. I did see the report by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice. I was aware of the matter from last year's budget. I would ask the Deputy not to be smart. When we increased the qualified child increase, QCI, I would have loved to have been able to say that it would be X amount for those under 12 years and Y amount for those over 12 years, but there was not a huge amount to give away. I would like to see if we can address that this year as no one can argue that it costs more to feed, clothe and house a teenager than a smaller person. We do need to address that this year, and with the Deputy's help and that of the House, I hope we will be able to do it.

Child Benefit Eligibility

Michael Lowry

Question:

4. Deputy Michael Lowry asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if child benefit payments will be extended to include all children in full-time education up to 22 years of age in line with the increase for qualified children paid on social welfare payments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19265/18]

Will the Minister make a decision to extend child benefit payments to include all children in full-time education? This would be in line with the increase for qualified children paid on social welfare entitlements.

Child benefit is a monthly payment made to families with children in respect of all qualified children up to the age of 16 years. The payment continues to be paid in respect of children up to their 18th birthday who are in full-time second level education or who have a disability. Child benefit is paid to 627,790 families in respect of more than 1.2 million children, with an estimated expenditure of more than €2 billion in 2018. Given the universality of child benefit, it is not a payment which lends itself to a targeted approach, and the considerable costs associated with any adjustment to the payment can result in benefits being spread very thinly rather than making a difference where there is most need. The Deputy’s proposal, to extend entitlement to parents to include all children in full-time education up to 22 years of age in line with the increase for qualified children paid on social welfare payments, would not be a targeted approach.

Families on low incomes can avail of a number of social welfare schemes that support children in full-time education until 22 years, including the increase for a qualified child, IQCs, with primary social welfare payments, the working family payment, WFP, for low-paid employees with children, and the back to school clothing and footwear allowance for low income families, paid at the full-time second level education rate. These schemes provide targeted assistance that is directly linked to household income and thereby support low-income families with older children participating in full-time education.

For parents who have children in third level education, the student grant scheme SUSI is the main financial support for students. There is also detailed information on the range of grants and funds for students in further and higher education on the website www.studentfinance.ie, including the student assistance fund.

If we were to introduce further supports for families and students at second level, it would be directly aimed at those who most needed it. Given all of the above, I have no plans to extend entitlement to child benefit to parents to include all children in full-time education up to 22 years.

While I understand the logic and rationale behind the Minister's response and the limitations on resources available to her Department, she should bear in mind that there was a change to child benefit in January 2010 where it was no longer automatically paid to children between 16 and 18 years. Child benefit is payable to parents or guardians of children between 16 and 18 years only if the child is in full-time education or has a disability. Child benefit is discontinued on the child's 18th birthday even where they are still in full-time education. Many children now start primary school at five years and they also undertake transition year at second level. The shift in the starting age means that in the future, secondary school pupils will increasingly be 19 or 20 years when they complete their leaving certificate. Leaving certificate year is an expensive year for parents with leaving certificate exam fees, the CAO application fees and deposits for college accommodation which can cost between €300 and €600. This should be looked at.

The Deputy is correct that in 2009 the budget reduced the age for eligibility for child benefit from 19 years to less than 18 years for those who remain in secondary school, and that children are starting school a little older and, unlike when we were children, they are doing transition year and so are doing their leaving certificate when they are 18 years and over. Given the universality of child benefit, extending the payment to include children of 18 years and over at secondary school would not be a targeted approach. The adoption of such a proposal would have significant cost implications and would not change the poverty indicators of which we spoke earlier. Families on low incomes are the people who we are genuinely trying to assist to bring them to a level where they have a certain quality and standard of life. There are a number of provisions in social welfare schemes, to which I have referred, that support children in full-time education, even when they pass 18 years, and in many cases up to 22 years. There is the increase in the qualified child with the primary social welfare payment, the working family payment for low-paid employees with children, and the back to school clothing allowances. I am satisfied that they are the direct measures that provide assistance to the people who need them rather than increasing or extending universal payments.

I acknowledge those initiatives but extending child benefit would provide vital financial assistance for parents of children still in full-time education. SUSI provides financial assistance to those entering third level education. This assistance is based on a family's gross income. Even in the case of those in receipt of SUSI grants, parents must still provide considerable financial assistance to children attending college. For anyone who is not in receipt of a SUSI grant, it will cost the families between €10,000 and €12,000 per year to put a child through college. All I am saying is that if child benefit was payable for dependent children in full-time education, it would greatly assist families in coping with the cost of putting their children through college. I appreciate the other initiatives outlined by the Minister and I acknowledge that they assist and support families in those circumstances.

Better Outcomes Brighter Futures is a framework and a national policy being developed by my colleague in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is a collaborative report among different Departments, including my Department and the Department of Education and Skills. We might be able to do some analysis of the exact specifics the Deputy is looking at within the confines of that interaction. In an attempt to be honest not just to the Deputy but the House, if I have extra money in this area, my priority is to bring the 130,000 or so children who live in consistent poverty out of consistent poverty as opposed to helping middle class families, and I do not mean to be mean about that. When we are looking at our social transfers, we must look at the most vulnerable people to make sure we actually give them a much larger lift in their living standards as opposed to just slightly improving other people's living standards. However, I will ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to have a look at the actual number of people and the amount of money it would cost. We might come back to the Deputy and have a further discussion.

Departmental Records

Catherine Murphy

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the way in which a process to migrate up to 4 million biographic and face biometric records from the legacy system database to a new solution will be carried out as per a request for tenders of 20 April 2018 for the supply of facial image matching software by her Department, if her Department collects facial recognition data and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19484/18]

This question relates to the tender process for biometric facial imaging systems. The tenders were requested up to 20 April so the Minister will have received them. What I am trying to find out, and I received replies earlier in the week which were disappointing and did not address that issue, is why the Department would seek tenders for that. I am confused about whether the Department is using facial imaging. The Minister might tell me about the current situation and what this tender is intended to do.

The use of facial matching technology has been employed by my Department for a number of years. What is proposed in this competitive tender process is a continuation and upgrade of this existing technology and related processes. It is important to note that the Department does not ask for or collect biometric data from its customers such as fingerprints, retinal scans or any other items that could be listed as biometric data. Neither does it use advanced facial mapping cameras when taking the photo as part of the SAFE 2 registration process. The digital photograph taken during the SAFE registration process is simply matched and stored. The software compares photographs by converting the image into an arithmetic template based on facial characteristics. My understanding is that the distance between someone's nose and eyes or the freckle on their left cheek are made into an algorithm and a template based on their facial characteristics.

The database mentioned in the tender refers to a dedicated facial matching server, which is hosted in a secure site within the Department. Facial templates are loaded to a dedicated facial matcher server. Any migration undertaken will be done within this framework and will apply the relevant conventions related to data security.

As with all technology, and this answers the question about why we are making a change now, this software type has been upgraded considerably since the original procurement years ago with the latest versions having improved capability, accuracy and speed. The upgraded new software will simply replace the existing software, including the existing arithmetic templates. While 3.25 million Irish people have been issued with public services cards, an indicative figure of up to 4 million records was used in the request for tender to allow any prospective tenderer to plan for this exercise should the need for the required cards increase over time. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

The Department is moving to biometric data in terms of facial imaging. Will the Minister outline whether the Department will be seeking permission for the approximately 100,000 people whose photographs it has? Will they be used to test the new system? Is the Department migrating those into the new system? Does that have implications in terms of data protection legislation? In August 2017, the Minister tweeted that the Department does not collect facial recognition data. It collects photographs. Is it intended to migrate those photographs to this new system? What is this tender really about in the longer term? If I was going to tender for this, I would specifically try to tick off the things for which the Minister is looking. What is she looking for? If I was going to tender for this, what would I be tendering for and what will the Department use it for? The Minister said it will be held in a secure site. Will it be shared with any other Department? Can we have confidence that this would be the case into the future?

I suppose it is a case of be careful what you tweet because it comes back to haunt you. The tweet still stands. We do not collect biometric data. We collect and store photographs. If someone has a public services card, they come in and get their photograph taken, we store that photograph and it gets put on the person's card. It is as benign as that. The facial recognition technology we currently employ and have been using for years has been enhanced considerably, as technology has been enhanced during the six years since we bought it. Most versions in existence today have much improved matching capability, accuracy and speed compared to the software we currently use. We are not changing the process we use or the legislation governing that process. All we are doing is upgrading the software we use in the SAFE 2 registration process. The main objective of this procurement is to upgrade the algorithm we employ and to ensure that when a public services card needs to be renewed or replaced, it can be undertaken securely to prevent any error in the allocation. A further and important by-product of its ability is to detect any instances of potential identity or suspected social welfare fraud. Literally, that is all this tender is. It is just about upgrading the software we currently use, which is six years old.

Could the Minister define SAFE 2? When the Department buys this new software, in ten years' time and if all 4 million records are kept, what format will they be kept in?

It will be exactly the same as it is today. When someone got their photograph taken a number of years ago, that photograph was stored on a secure data server. If someone gets their photograph taken next Tuesday, we will keep the photograph in the same secure server in the same format we have always used. What we are tendering for is the software that drives the algorithm, which is the facial mapping recognition programme we use. We are all probably aware that we are not considering a photograph as biometric data. It is just a photograph. The software for which we are tendering is an upgrade of the software we currently use, which produces an algorithm of a person's face that we then use to see if we can match that person's photograph with the photographs we store for all of the other 3.2 million people who have applied for a public services card to see if we can find a match. That is the only thing for which we are tendering. The SAFE 2 registration process that is governed by legislation since 2012 has not changed and will not change. The only thing we are proposing to do is tender for a new and more accurate and up-to-date version of the software we currently use.