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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Jul 2021

Vol. 1009 No. 6

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Employment Schemes

Claire Kerrane


102. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the reason she is proposing a move away from the not-for-profit model which currently exists for contracted employment services, local employment services and job clubs to a payment-by-results model as per the recent tender launched by her Department; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35200/21]

Why has the Minister decided to move away from the not-for-profit model of local employment services and job clubs to a payment-by-results model in the recently launched tender? Was that based on the conclusions of the external report carried out on job activation and contracted services within the Department of Social Protection?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. As she will be aware, most of the contracts for local employment services have been in place since the 1990s and have simply been rolled over on an annual basis. Good governance and public procurement rules require that my Department does not continue the existing process of simply rolling over contracts for employment services. As a first step in moving to a procurement approach that complies with all of the necessary standards, the Department recently issued a request for tender expanding employment services into seven counties across the north-west and midlands where a local employment service, LES, does not currently exist. It is wrong to look at this tender as a move away from a not-for-profit model to a payment-by-results model. It is absolutely client-focused, with a strong focus on local services, community linkages and client service levels and outcomes. As I have said, it is expanding service provision into seven counties that currently do not have a local employment service. Approximately 90% of the fees to be paid under the contract are based on client service rather than outcomes. The outcome fee is an additional payment.

The request for tender published on 26 May is the product of an extensive process involving lengthy consultation with the sector and the engagement of external consultants. I am satisfied that the approach being taken balances the need for high standards of procurement with our shared concern to ensure the service delivers for our clients. I believe the Department's current providers, such as the LESs and job clubs, are well positioned to respond to the tender. Tenders will be evaluated on the basis of quality and the ability of an organisation to access a wide range of supports and services to best meet the specific needs of their clients. There is a limited cost element in the request for tender but it is within defined parameters. The vast majority of the awarding criteria will be determined by the quality of service design, as well as links to the relevant local partners and stakeholders.

I understand the expansion is into areas where there are no local employment services and, of course, it is welcome but only if it is to remain in its current model. The Minister can say it as many times as she wants, but it is a fact that the current model is not for profit. Money is not a factor when a person comes through the door of the services for referral, but it is moving to a payment-by-results model. That is a fact.

As regards consultation, I acknowledge it took place but I very much doubt that job clubs or LESs sought a model change or a change to payment by results during any of the consultation periods. Of course, this will be particularly difficult in rural counties where the jobs just are not there to place a person in straight away. How much money is required by the likes of an LES or a job club even coming together to go into this tender? Although quality might be important, they cannot enter the process without money. How much will it cost them?

I assure the Deputy that there is no privatisation happening and it is wrong to say there is. The vast majority of marks in the request for tender, that is, more than 75% of them, are based on the quality of the service and the experience and track record of the tenderers in providing supports to those furthest from the labour market. I have spoken to several local providers that have seen the request for tender and think it is fair. What is more, they are confident in their ability to put together good bids for these contracts. Those providing a good service should be confident.

As regards consultation, my Department has engaged with all the relevant stakeholders, including the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, and has briefed them on our procurement plans. All concerned have known for some time that this was coming. My predecessor as Minister, Senator Regina Doherty, met the ILDN at its annual meeting in 2018 and told it the contracts were in breach of procurement rules and would have to go to tender. I have no choice but to put this out to tender.

I am not arguing that point. How much money will an LES or job club need in order to bid for the tender? What I am hearing is that it is a significant tender and the organisations will need some kind of tendering consultant to try to match it and put in an application in the first place. I am really concerned about this. It is fine to say they are well positioned to apply for it but it will be very interesting to see how many do so because what the Minister has outlined is not what I am hearing on the ground. I have met many LES staff and job clubs throughout the country in recent weeks and they believe they are not in a position to tender. To me, that is very serious.

I am concerned about the end of walk-ins. All present should be concerned about that. As regards the payment-by-results model, I ask the Minister to consider JobPath, with more than €93 million of taxpayers' money paid to Turas Nua and Seetec in referral fees just for getting a person to sign on. They received individual payments of €311, totalling €93 million. That is a significant amount of money. Today, 24,000 people out of nearly 300,000 people referred have maintained a job for more than a year. It has not worked.

There has been extensive consultation with every provider across the country. We are now expanding this service. This is the first phase of that. We went through it with the providers before the request for tender went out. There has been a lot of explanation and I do not understand why the providers will have to employ a person to put in the requests for tender because they should have a good idea as to what they need to do at this stage. They should be confident in terms of the service delivery they provide. We are considering the quality of the local service. A significant amount of work has gone into this. As the Deputy is aware, I do not have a choice and I have to put this out for tender. We have put a strong focus on local service and the providers' connections with the local community. There is no reason providers cannot be successful in the tender.

Employment Schemes

Seán Sherlock


103. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of proposed public tendering of local employment schemes; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35630/21]

On the same theme, I merely wish to ask the Minister the exact status of the proposed public tendering of local employment schemes.

I thank the Deputy. Up to now, all contracts for local employment services were issued for a single 12-month period and rolled over on an annual basis.

Many of these contracts have been in place with very little change since the early 1990s. Good governance and national and EU procurement rules require that my Department does not continue this practice of simply rolling over contracts for employment services. For this reason, in order to ensure service continuity and enhance the provision of employment services, my Department is undertaking a two-phase procurement of employment services on a multi-annual basis.

As a first step, a tender has already been issued to procure services across seven counties in the north west and midlands that are currently without a local employment scheme. This request for tender was published on 26 May 2021 with a deadline of 7 July. Rather than replacing existing contracts, the tender will see the services expand into new areas and therefore provides a good basis on which to apply the new procurement approach. The tender is specifically designed to attract providers with strong local and community links to deliver high-quality employment advice services to people who are long-term unemployed.

As part of this approach, we intend to move away from single annual contracts that involve the financial micromanagement of the local employment service providers. Up to now, local employment services were paid a fixed annual fee, regardless of the number of clients they saw or the outcomes they achieved, and were subject to audit against expenses incurred. This was inefficient and did not place the client, the unemployed jobseeker, at the centre of the contractual relationship. Under the new model, the Department will guarantee a minimum number of clients and make payments based primarily on the number of clients referred, with additional payments for outcomes achieved.

Does the Minister acknowledge that there are still concerns, particularly on the part of the people who have been working in the system? One person I know has been working in the system for over 25 years. I share the concerns raised. It has been expressed to me that if a person who is a client of the service does not reach a certain metric or if there is not a certain output in that person's case, perhaps the attainment of a full-time or part-time job or whatever that output might be, a punitive economic measure or sanction could be levied against the person or client. That is a concern that people have. They are concerned that the net effect of the creation of a new service will be that a set of metrics will be put in place which specifies that the client has to reach certain milestones and if they do not reach those milestones, payments or other services will be cut off from the client.

I want to allay those concerns. The focus here is on the client, the unemployed person. That is the number one priority. When a person is referred to the local employment service, it is done through the Intreo services. They will decide the best pathway. It is all about client-focused services and delivering the best outcome for the client. Under this contract, the local employment service will receive 45% of the payment up-front upon the referral of a person to the service. That has been put in place because I knew there could be some problems around cash flow, etc. When the client signs up to a plan, the local employment service receives another 45%. As such, the service receives 90% of the cost. We have also included a minimum cost in the tender, so applicants cannot bid below a certain price. This has all been done to ensure the client is the number one person in all of this. The final 10% is paid when a job is secured.

We are yet to be convinced. I say that respectfully.

The Minister has acknowledged that her predecessor attended the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, conference in 2018. I request that the Minister consider meeting the ILDN and trade union representatives following the outcome of the first request for tender process and before the second request for tender process begins. I am making that request because I believe there will be learnings from the first request for tender process. The Minister stated previously to Deputy Kerrane that her officials had met various representative groups. If the Minister would consider personally meeting trade union representatives and the ILDN, that would be welcome. The employers and unions are on the same page, in this instance.

The first request for tender is a means of expanding the services. We are not reducing any services. However, there will be learnings from the first request for tender process. If tweaks or changes are needed for the second request for tender, I will be happy to make those. I am also happy to engage with the Deputies on the matter.

At the end of the day, I want to ensure we provide the best possible service for people who are long-term unemployed. Many people have been out of work since the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, was first introduced in March 2020. I am sure they are feeling a certain trepidation about returning to the workforce. Their jobs may no longer be there for them. They need support and encouragement. I want to ensure they get all the supports they can to help them back into the workplace. I will be happy to talk to the stakeholders once we have completed the request for tender process. I assure the Deputies that the officials in my Department have genuinely engaged with every single provider to which the contract has been issued.

Community Employment Schemes

Claire Kerrane


104. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to issues communities and organisations are facing in filling community employment places; if so, if she will consider removing limitations on the length of time those aged over 55 years can spend on a community employment scheme, especially in cases in which there is no one there to replace them as a solution to the issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35201/21]

My question is on people aged over 55 who are on community employment, CE, schemes. Is the Minister of State aware of the difficulties that arise when these people have to leave the community employment schemes because their time is up? Services and organisations are under pressure to replace the people leaving the schemes and in some cases, services can be lost. Will the Minister of State consider allowing people aged over 55 to remain on community employment schemes up to the age of 62, when they are no longer obliged to participate in activation services.

I thank the Deputy for her question. I appreciate that the challenges caused by the Covid-19 public health restrictions have impacted on CE schemes. They have impacted on referrals to CE schemes and the services they provide. I met representatives of a number of CE and Tús schemes on 11 June last. We had a constructive exchange of views on the very real challenges facing the unemployment support schemes and how the Department can support schemes over the coming months as they resume more normal levels of service.

I expect that as the economy reopens, we will be able to restore normal participant levels. In fact, we are making provision for an extra 3,000 participant places on CE and Tús schemes over the coming 12 months. In the meantime, the Minister for Social Protection and I recently announced that the existing CE participant contract extension date will be further extended until 20 October 2021 and that the conclusion of these places will be undertaken on a co-ordinated and phased basis.

Over 11,000 CE and Tús participants are benefiting from the latest contract extension up to the end of October. This approach will give participants time to complete training and work experience, while also supporting the delivery of important community services. While the extension of placements helps to alleviate immediate pressures, it is important to note that CE placements are intended to be temporary and subject to time limits. That is to ensure the continued availability of places on CE schemes for other candidates.

As the economy reopens, we hope that we can return to a normal level of throughput in order that places will be available to new candidates, including the significant numbers displaced from employment due to Covid-19. I will continue to support and improve the programme for the benefit of the CE participants and the valuable contribution being made to local communities through the provision of services, while ensuring that places are available for those who are long-term unemployed.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome the engagement he has had with CE schemes. I imagine that the matters raised in that engagement included the issues concerning the over 55s, specifically people leaving schemes and services not receiving the referrals they need to fill places. It is probably a good few months since I last checked but as of now, there are 2,406 vacancies on CE schemes advertised on the website. That is a huge number of vacancies.

I met a disability group in County Roscommon a couple of weeks ago. It has 26 CE posts and can fill only 18. It said the reason is that it is not getting the referrals. The service is a crucial disability service for County Roscommon and it serves people beyond that county. There were 34,000 CE participants in 2015 and there are 21,492 in 2021. There is a problem here.

We would be very unwise to change the conditions right now when we are in an atypical situation. I hope we are coming to the end of a period and it is looking good for coming out of Covid. There has been very little movement in the labour market during the pandemic. That is a large part of the reason places are currently empty. There were no places for people to go until recent months. It is temporary and circumstances are about to change.

We are considering a much larger cohort who will potentially be eligible for CE. The Deputy mentioned that there are 2,000 vacancies. I have a figure of 1,705 for June 2021. There is work to be done, however, and we are going to have to fill a large number of vacancies as participants exit over the six months. The activation services have geared up significantly, with over 800 additional staff in recent months.

I appreciate that Covid has played a role. The jobs website indicates the number of CE vacancies today is 2,406. It is a great shame that we have disability services with 26 posts they cannot fill. They can fill only 18. They tell me it is because they are not getting the referrals. Alarm bells should be ringing when this is happening. They should be ringing over the fact that we have over 2,000 vacancies. It is important that we acknowledge referrals to CE were reducing long before Covid. They were reducing all the time. JobPath was ramping up and CE was not getting a look in.

I appreciate the scheme has been extended for current participants but, after Covid, we should consider the position of the over-55s. It is such a shame that when they finish their time, a service could be lost. They are doing a really good job, particularly in rural areas, where they cannot be replaced. I ask the Minister of State to consider the issue of the over-55s in time.

We will be paying particular attention to CE schemes that are providing essential services. The operational forum recommenced on 11 June. We will be having other meetings in September and some months after that to determine how we can get through these challenges over time. It came up during the proceedings of the forum that many schemes were not aware of the service support stream. I want to share information on this because it is useful. CE employment participants over the age of 62 can participate on CE continuously until they reach the State pension age via the CE service support stream. Participation is subject to availability of places, satisfactory performance on the CE scheme and annual approval by the Department. The number of places available for service support scheme participants within each CE scheme is subject to limitation criteria. In seven of the eight divisions, there are free places on the service support scheme. That is worth noting and spreading the word about.

Disability Services

Gary Gannon


105. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection the cost of disability for persons and families, on which there is a commitment in the programme for Government. [35631/21]

My question is to ask the Minister for an update on meeting the cost of disability for persons and families, as committed to in the programme for Government.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to using the research into the cost of disability to individuals and families to properly inform the direction of future policy. My Department commissioned Indecon International Economic Consultants to carry out research into the cost of disability in Ireland. The report has now been received by my Department and it is considering it in detail. This matter is significantly wider than the income support system and it is clear that it will not be addressed through income support alone. This is why a whole-of-government perspective is being taken.

The level of engagement with individuals living with disabilities through the survey undertaken and the level of the response from those people provided vital inputs to the research. To Indecon's knowledge, this survey was by far the largest such survey of individuals living with disabilities in Ireland. While this may have delayed the finalisation of the report, the quality of the report is going to be enhanced by the scale of the survey and the subsequent analysis.

Due consideration will have to be given to the findings of the report by the relevant Departments, namely, the Departments of Health, Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth and Public Expenditure and Reform, all of which have a role to play in the delivery of disability services. As a first step, we will be sharing the report with and seeking the views of these Departments. Once this process is complete, I intend to submit the report to the Government. I then intend to host a forum of interested stakeholders to discuss the report and receive inputs on how we might best address issues raised in it. I plan for this to take place in the autumn.

Separately, the supports and services for people with a disability are continually reviewed by my Department. In budget 2021, I introduced several improvements, including an increase of €20 in the earnings disregard for recipients of disability allowance, a €1,000 training grant to help people with disabilities who are seeking employment, and an increase of €150 to the carer's support grant.

I am aware that Indecon was commissioned by the Department to carry out this much-needed research. There was a much higher response rate than expected, and that has delayed the project. I accept that; it is understandable. There were 4,700 responses from people with disabilities received whereas the target was 1,000. I saw the survey and acknowledge the time that went into each submission, and I agree that the substantial information and insight gained will be invaluable. As the Minister stated, the survey was one of the most detailed ever undertaken in Ireland of individuals with disabilities. However, it is precisely because of how valuable the information in the report is that we need to publish it as soon as possible. I did not glean from the Minister's answer that the report would be ready in time to inform budget 2022. If that is the case, it is quite disappointing. Could the Minister confirm whether the report will be finished and inform the outcomes of budget 2022 across Departments?

I thank the Deputy. As he said, this is a major piece of work. Indecon believes it is the largest survey of people living with disabilities ever undertaken in Ireland. I will be engaging with the disability representative groups as part of my Department's pre-budget forum on 14 July. As I outlined in my initial reply, we took several positive steps in last year's budget. Of course we want to do more but, before taking the next step, I have to get feedback from the other Departments. I want to take the report the Government. It has implications for other Departments so I need to have their input. I want them to consider the report. It has taken a good deal of time to put it together. There have been unprecedented levels of consultation. Once the report is approved by the Government, I want there to be full, open and frank engagement with the disability sector on its findings. I look forward to engaging with the Deputy on it.

I do not believe we are disagreeing in any way, shape or form here but the original report was expected at the end of 2020. While I fully appreciate that the delays understandable, can the Minister, if possible, provide assurances that the report will be available before the budget to inform it? Furthermore, if the report is not completed, could the Government commit, as an interim measure on foot of what is committed to in the programme for Government, to an increase of €20 per week in the disability allowance in the budget? I accept that it is not all about income but people with disabilities are living in poverty, which does come down to income. In the absence of an approved report, and taking from the Minister's contribution that the report may not be approved in time to inform budget 2022, could we at least commit to an increase to the disability allowance of €20?

As the Deputy knows, when it comes to the budget there are many competing priorities. It is a bit early to have a discussion on it. We want to do more this year but we will consider everything. We have the benefit of the report. We will be talking to the other Departments and bring the report to the Government. I will be consulting on 14 July. I am holding a pre-budget forum and I will be consulting the various organisations, including the disability representative groups, which I have already met this year. I will continue to engage closely with the sector and my Government colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for disability, Deputy Rabbitte, with whom I work extremely well. She is doing wonderful work in this area.

This is not just my Department alone but a number of Departments are involved here and we will certainly be taking on board the recommendations of this report.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Joan Collins


106. Deputy Joan Collins asked the Minister for Social Protection if the pandemic unemployment payment will be reviewed as workers return to work; if the payment will remain open beyond 1 July 2021; and if workers who return to work on fewer hours or on a reduced hourly rate of pay will retain their payment level based on their weekly pay pre-March 2020. [35754/21]

Can the Minister for Social Protection tell me if the pandemic unemployment payment will be reviewed as workers return to work and if application for the payment will remain open beyond 1 July 2021? I am aware that the Minister has extended this until 7 July but it should be pushed out further. Will workers, who return to work on fewer hours on a reduced hourly rate of pay retain their payment level based on their weekly pay pre-March 2020?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Approximately 227,980 people received a pandemic unemployment payment this week, representing a drop of 254,000, or almost 53%, since February when approximately 482,000 people were in receipt of the payment. We expect many more people to close their PUP over the coming period. The Government has throughout the pandemic done its best to support workers affected by job losses and will continue to do so. That is why, in order to allow as much time as possible for employment to recover, it has been decided to phase the return to normal jobseeker arrangements over an extended period. Accordingly, the PUP rates of payment will remain unchanged until September when they will commence a gradual, phased reduction over six months back to standard jobseeker terms.

We will of course keep this timeline under review as we have always done in the light of the evolving nature of the pandemic. That is why I have announced that the PUP scheme will close to new entrants from 8 July 2021, which is a week later than was previously agreed. This will allow people who may have returned to work this week in preparation for a re-opening next week to access the PUP if they need it.

Where an employee closes their pandemic unemployment payment to return to work but has been temporarily placed on a shorter working week they may be entitled to a jobseeker’s payment or short-time work support.

Short-time work support is a social insurance income support payment provided under jobseeker's benefit. An individual’s eligibility for short-time work support is dependent on the extent to which their working days are reduced. They must be temporarily working a standard reduced weekly work pattern, working three days or less per week, having previously worked full time. The payment is made in respect of the days of work that have been lost and is not taxable.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Where a person is working part-time, up to three days per week, and does not have a standard work pattern he or she may be eligible for jobseeker’s benefit or jobseeker’s allowance for the days he or she is unemployed and is not being paid.

In addition a self-employed person may undertake limited self-employment and retain eligibility for the PUP. Self-employed persons can earn up to €960 over an eight-week rolling period, while retaining their full entitlement to the PUP.

I would advise any person to engage with their Intreo centre to discuss his or her entitlement according to his or her particular circumstances. Separately, under the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, an employer can receive State support to fund the wages of their staff including in situations of reduced hours of work.

The particular reason I tabled this question on Monday on the extension for new entrants was because I was hearing in the background about clouds on the horizon with regard to the Delta variant etc. Many workers probably have gone back to begin the reopening and may have to go back on the PUP again. We do not know what is happening with regard to the Delta variant of the virus. We are told we will have to wait two and a half weeks or so to see what is happening in Scotland, in the UK, how it is impacting on hospitalisations and that type of thing. It is the responsibility of the Government to extend the application period beyond 8 July until at least the end of the month, mid-August or the end of that month. We do not know what will happen and the situation is more precarious than we had anticipated. It is now the Minister's responsibility to extend that period beyond what has been announced to give workers that peace of mind.

It is important to say that we keep everything under review. Throughout the pandemic we have had to adapt our approach in line with the public health advice. We have kept the PUP open for applications for an extra week until 8 July. That means that any staff who may have gone back to work in the expectation of indoor hospitality reopening next week will have the opportunity to reapply for the PUP if they need to do that. The Irish Congress of Trade Unions, ICTU, and others have welcomed that we have extended it. As I said at the outset we keep everything under review but the decision, which is a fair one, is to leave this application period open until 8 July.

I urge the Minister to review this again. I am aware, from having spoken to people in the trade union movement, that they want workers to go back to work to a safe environment. That is the key issue for them but they also want people to get back to work.

On the second part of my question on which I will speak briefly, I have been hearing anecdotal evidence that workers have been brought back to the workplace under different terms and conditions where they may have been previously working for 30 hours and these have now been reduced to 20 hours. In some cases wages have also been reduced. Workers who were on €12 an hour have been reduced down to the minimum wage. There is a concern there.

Alternatively, I have been hearing that workers have been brought back in for 50 hours a week because the employers cannot get staff in some areas. Very significant anecdotal messaging is going on in the workplace. Workers who potentially are going back to work for fewer hours than they were before in March 2020 should be kept on the level of the PUP that they were on to protect them. That is the easier way to do it, rather than the jobseeker's payment or short-time working week option.

I agree with the Deputy. There have been many anecdotal reports in the media about people staying on PUP and not returning to work, which we have all heard. The fact is that the numbers on the PUP fell by a quarter of a million since February. This clearly tells me that people want to get back to work as their sectors reopen and do not want to be sitting at home. I am strongly of this view.

For people who are going back to work and may only have three days per week, they can apply under the short-time work scheme and receive jobseeker's payment in respect of the days that they do not work. If a person, for example, works for less than 24 hours per week he or she can receive support under the part-time job incentive scheme. A number of options are available to people and the best thing I would say to people is to engage with their local Intreo office to see what supports are there and what alternatives can be looked at.