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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Feb 2022

Vol. 1017 No. 4

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Employment Support Services

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to concerns from trade unions representing employment service staff in relation to their engagement with a company which was awarded a contract as part of tender phase 1 and with regard also to the recent Workplace Relations Commission recommendation on this issue; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5727/22]

The Minister will be well aware of the situation in Laois-Offaly with the local employment job services and job clubs following the first tender process. She will also be aware that staff protesting there suspended their industrial action just before Christmas to engage with the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC. The Minister’s Department has refused to engage in that process, which was proposed by the WRC. I ask the Minister to comment on that and on the situation in Laois-Offaly regarding the trade union.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Last May, my Department, under phase 1 of an expansion of employment services and in accordance with its legal obligations sought tenders for the provision of a new local area employment service in Laois-Offaly. I understand that existing job clubs providers in Laois-Offaly did not submit a tender for those counties, which removed any chance of them continuing to provide employment services in the area after the end of 2021. The outcome of this open and transparent procurement process was not contested by any party. I understand that all former job clubs' staff in Laois-Offaly were offered employment under existing terms and conditions by the new provider. I also understand that early last month the staff commenced training with the successful new provider. Accordingly, no one has lost employment or has seen any reduction in terms and conditions.

I am not aware of any Workplace Relations Commission recommendation on this matter. However, on 15 December 2021, the Workplace Relations Commission wrote to my Department regarding ongoing work stoppages in job clubs in Offaly and Laois. I understand that those stoppages related to protests concerning the procurement process generally and that no formal dispute has been registered with the new service provider. My Department is not the employer of any of its service partners' staff, nor is it a party to an industrial dispute with any of its service partners or their employees. It would therefore be inappropriate for the Department to engage in discussions at the WRC, which is a forum to resolve disputes between an employer and its employees. The Department has, however, advised the WRC that it is available to provide any information or clarification directly to the WRC, if required.

Regarding the talks proposed by the WRC, I am sure it understands and is aware of the situation and the relationship the Department has with the job clubs and local employment services, LES. It is not a case of the Department being the direct employer, and especially not now when we know a private company has stepped into that role. The WRC has invited representatives of the Department to what are exploratory talks, and I am sure the WRC has the knowledge and wherewithal to know the relationship between the Department and the job clubs in Laois and Offaly. The private company which has won the contract and taken over the services in that area has refused to recognise SIPTU for collective bargaining processes. In this day and age, that is inappropriate. SIPTU has represented workers in job clubs in Laois-Offaly for 25 years. In 2022, it is hard to believe that any company would deny or refuse to recognise a trade union such as SIPTU.

I understand that the new employer, Turas Nua, has had multiple meetings with representatives of SIPTU who said there was a collective bargaining agreement in place. This matter needs to be addressed with the employer, as the Deputy knows. A collective agreement is not compulsory under law, as I understand it.

The WRC is a forum for resolving employment issues which arise between an employer and its staff. The Department of Social Protection is not an employer of the staff concerned and it is not a party to any employment dispute. It would therefore be inappropriate for it to be directly engaged with the talks at the WRC. The Department has advised the WRC that it is available to support and assist it through clarifying, to the extent that it can, any questions that may be raised.

I know the Department is not the employer of the staff. I am sure the WRC knows that as well, but it has still invited representatives of the Department to attend the exploratory talks. It is disappointing that Turas Nua, which has won this contract, is failing to grant recognition. It may have had meetings and discussions but it is not willing to recognise SIPTU for collective bargaining agreements and purposes.

The Minister said the existing job clubs in Laois and Offaly had not applied. The Minister will be aware, however, that no job club survived the first tender process. She will also know, as she said it herself, that lessons were learned from the first tender process. Clearly, in many cases in that first tender process the local employment services and job clubs could not tender. That must be acknowledged, and the Minister will know it from speaking to people from the local employment services and job clubs on the ground. They were not in a position to tender in the first phase. While the next tender has had some improvements made to it, it means those involved in the first phase are now gone from the process. They are wiped out and that is also disappointing.

I ask the Minister to look at this issue, particularly regarding SIPTU’s collective bargaining involvement and the Department’s role in the context of being invited to talks by the WRC.

We have been down this road a few times regarding the local area employment services. The legal advice from the Attorney General is clear - these services have to be put out to tender. Community organisations won out in two of the three areas where they submitted bids under phase 1. That shows clearly that the community can win these contracts. As the Deputy is aware, the requests for tender for phase 2 were published in December. Following feedback, several changes were made in the request for tender, RFT, including increasing the marks awarded for quality to 80% and reducing costs to 20%. There is also a minimum cost component. We diluted the cost component and increased the referral numbers. The Deputy raised the matter of the requirement for reference contracts and minimum turnover, and they have also been reduced. We have, therefore, made a good number of changes to the process. We said we would take the lessons learned from the first phase and apply them to the second phase.

Community Welfare Services

Seán Sherlock

Question:

2. Deputy Sean Sherlock asked the Minister for Social Protection the changes that are foreseen in the delivery of community welfare office services; if it is intended to centralise those services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5712/22]

I raise this issue because I am extremely concerned that the Department is now pulling back community welfare services where they are delivered in face-to-face settings in the most local of centres, particularly in rural areas. Based on what I have heard so far, my fear is that the Minister is not renewing any leases that her Department may have had with the HSE for the delivery of these services in what were called traditional dispensaries or health centres. What is the Minister’s position on this matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The community welfare service of my Department delivers the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is the safety net within the overall social welfare system. The scheme provides assistance to eligible people in the State whose means are insufficient to meet their needs and those of their dependants. The Deputy can be assured that I am focused on the delivery of crucial community welfare services to meet the challenges and needs of customers throughout the country. This remains a priority for me and for my Department.

I am fully committed to developing and enhancing access to the community welfare service nationwide and to ensuring the service is responsive to customer needs, particularly in a time of crisis or emergency. There are no plans in place to centralise the community welfare service, and the continued availability of locally-based community welfare officers, CWOs, will remain a key feature of the service. It is important that the community welfare service remains a flexible service to meet the varying needs of vulnerable customers. For this reason, consultations can be arranged by telephone, at our Intreo centres and social welfare branch offices, which are open five days a week or by a direct home visit is possible, depending on the customer's needs and public health restrictions.

Furthermore, customers no longer have to meet in person with a community welfare officer to make a claim.

Access to community welfare services is not limited to a face-to-face meeting with a community welfare officer.

To help our customers and support our community welfare officer, where possible, the preparatory work on customer applications, for example the gathering of supporting documentation that is necessary to assess and finalise a claim, will be carried out by a back office team. However, the assessment and decision on claims and any further customer interactions or engagements with other agencies is then carried out by locally based community welfare officers as has always been the case.

I am trying to listen carefully to the language of the Minister's reply. I am not reassured by it. The premise on which I base my question is the right of the citizen to interact face to face with an officer. I am asking the Minister for clarification because I am hearing that her Department is not renewing leases in respect of certain traditional centres such as health centres where they delivered in-community and in the most rural areas. Is that the case?

All Deputies represent the poorest and the most vulnerable. We accept the fact that the supplementary welfare allowance system is an excellent system because it delivers to the poorest. We know that the Minister's Department gave nearly €43 million in exceptional and urgent needs payments in 2021. My fear now is that for the citizen who does not have access to the nearest town, who traditionally might have had access in the local village where there was a visiting community welfare officer in the local health centre, that system will stop. If that stops it just takes the citizen that bit further away from the service.

The increased back office support in place across the greater Dublin area and in counties Kildare and Wicklow has been found to have improved the service to customers, especially at times of particular pressure such as during periods of staff absence due to the Covid pandemic. It ensures that a swift response is available to customers, resulting in significant decreases in the time waiting for a claim to be paid regardless of the prevailing circumstances in place. It is vital that the community welfare service is easily accessible and responsive to customer needs, and developing and enhancing access to the service remains my priority. If people want to see a community welfare officer in person they can do it but there are quicker ways to access the support if they need it. The system is very straightforward. They can meet the community welfare officer in person, do it by phone, or house visits can be arranged by appointment. I am very supportive of this. It is a vital service. It something that I want to see in place.

Again I ask the Minister if it is her Department's intention not to renew leases with the HSE. It is one Department renewing with a Government agency like the HSE, State to State. Is it factually the case that the Minister is not renewing those leases with the HSE in respect of the delivery of services in certain centres around the country?

Intreo offices are also providing these services. The Deputy is asking specifically about contracts with the HSE. I cannot give him that answer because I do not have it. I am happy that my officials can write to him on it. We have all changed the way we do business since Covid. People have been working remotely. The officials in my Department and particularly community welfare officers have found that some people find it more easy to pick up the phone and make that call. They do not have to make a trip. They can make the phone call and if they are in need the payment should be with them very quickly. For others a home visit is necessary or face-to-face contact. We will continue to provide the service in all of those different ways.

Rural Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Question:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if her attention has been drawn to the concerns of those involved in the rural social scheme with regard to the six-year rule; if she will consider extending recent changes to the community employment scheme to rural social scheme participants; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5728/22]

This is to ask the Minister about the six-year rule. It is an issue I have raised previously in respect of the rural social scheme, RSS. A number of welcome changes to community employment were announced before Christmas. They have been extended to the scheme, which is welcome as well. None of them addresses the issue that has been brought up by so many of those on the ground in respect of the six-year rule. That is the specific part of the question I would like answered.

The RSS is an income support scheme providing part-time employment opportunities for farmers and fishers who are in receipt of specified social welfare payments and who are underemployed in their primary occupation. The scheme offers participants the opportunity to gain valuable work experience and provides valuable services to local rural communities.

To qualify for RSS, a person must be actively farming or fishing and must satisfy the means test assessment required to qualify for the farm assist payment. During 2017 and 2018, the number of places funded under the scheme was increased by 750, bringing the total number of places available to 3,350. A six-year time limit was also introduced for new RSS participants with effect from February 2017. The limit was introduced to ensure that places would be available for newer cohorts of eligible persons and aligns the scheme with other employment support programmes, including community employment, CE. The six-year limit only applies to new entrants to RSS from February 2017.

Prior to the introduction of the six-year time limit, an RSS participant could remain on the scheme for a significant part of their working life. This had the effect of limiting turnover of places on RSS thereby reducing the opportunities for potential new entrants. The first group of participants is scheduled to leave RSS on the basis of the six-year rule in February 2023.

On 21 December last, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys and myself were pleased to announce a number of changes to RSS and the CE scheme. These changes included the expansion of the service support stream on CE with the qualifying age being reduced from 62 to 60. This rule change was also extended to RSS so that all participants who reach 60 years of age can also remain on the scheme until they reach State pension age. This rule change means that the six-year rule no longer applies to RSS participants over the age of 60. This change will immediately benefit 390 RSS participants who may spend additional time on the scheme after 2023 and will continue to provide services to local communities.

I met with a number of RSS and Tús supervisors and co-ordinators from seven counties on Monday. The first thing I was struck by is that they really do not feel listened to, particularly the Tús staff. I appreciate that this is not in the question this morning but I wanted to convey that message back to the Minister of State. They really feel like the poor relation and very last in everything that is done. They have a number of concerns around referrals. Tús is a one-year scheme and they would really like to see that go to two years. There is a major issue in respect of referrals. Tús has 390 places. In 2021, they were given 173 referrals and of those, 53 were employed by the rural development company at the end. They are sanctioned when they do not fill their places but they do not get the referrals. Each of the representatives from the seven counties raised that with me as a concern. There is an issue with referrals. I want to raise that as well.

To briefly touch on Tús, there was quite a bit of leeway given during Covid in terms of referrals and the consequences of not filling places. That is easing now. I refer to the operational forum that we are running in respect of CE and Tús where issues can be fed in. It is something that we have heard previously.

I want to give the RSS a little time. It is an extremely important scheme. Its impact is not just the increased income for participants; there is the contribution that they make to the community as well. Last October, I was in Feenagh, County Leitrim, at an event organised by RSS participants. There were 30 men at it who came from a radius of 20 or 30 miles. It was clear from speaking to them that the value of it for them individually was enormous because it was one of their few social outlets outside of the pub, which was not an option during Covid. From that point of view, I am very aware of the value of the scheme and I am interested in protecting and growing it.

Referrals are an issue. I appreciate what was announced just before Christmas was that the Department would look at a significant ramping up of referrals. That is really important. Even if it was relaxed during Covid, it makes no sense to sanction where the participants are just not getting the referrals. They want the referrals. As the Minister of State said, the work done in the communities will not be done otherwise.

There is no doubt about that. The six-year rule has implications. Many schemes are finding that they will lose people next year and the year after. They already cannot fill their places, so I am unsure as to how they will fill them when they lose people. I see no need for the six-year rule. There is no issue of places being blocked for other people, given that the current number of places cannot even be filled. It is not good enough to say that we have to have a six-year rule because we need to ensure schemes are open to other people. There were just 170 referrals for 390 places.

We will be reviewing the rural social scheme, RSS, this year and the six-year rule will be in the mix.

Regarding Tús, my understanding is that the majority of places have been filled and it has been going well. Compared with community employment, CE, schemes, the rate at which places are being filled has been quicker.

On Monday, I met RSS participants in Meath - perhaps it was some of the same people - who spoke highly of the scheme. One lady in particular who used to be an RSS participant is now managing the Slane community and tourism hub and spoke highly of the scheme. The RSS co-ordinator in the area spoke about its importance. Meath does not have the most participants. As the Deputy knows, that falls to the west, but those I met made points about the RSS and were aware of the review. I encouraged them to feed into the process. If the Deputy could encourage other RSS participants and supervisors whom she is in touch with to do likewise, I would appreciate it.

Social Welfare Payments

Gary Gannon

Question:

4. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Minister for Social Protection the rationale for recipient's of jobseekers payments having to visit post offices to receive their payment; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5713/22]

What is the rationale behind recipients of jobseeker's payments having to visit post offices to receive those payments and will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. Before the introduction of temporary public health measures in March 2020, the default payment method for jobseekers was cash collection at a post office. Nevertheless, one in four jobseeker payments was still paid into customers' bank accounts. These include those in receipt of a jobseeker's payment upon reaching the age of 62 years and who are given options as regards payment method.

When health restrictions were introduced in 2020, all jobseekers were given the option of being paid into a bank account. This was an exceptional temporary measure to help reduce the spread of the virus and to ensure that people could comply with social distancing guidelines. This was the right approach to take at the time when we were faced with the worst of Covid-19 without having vaccines and with only limited knowledge of the virus.

In line with the general easing of Covid-19 restrictions, I have asked my Department to revert to the normal payment rules for jobseeker's payments. This is the right approach to take in terms of supporting the post office network - a key piece of the financial and social infrastructure of the country - in ensuring that, with the removal of restrictions, we return to the pre-pandemic position. This change will initially apply to new claims. Over the coming months, my Department will work to extend the post office requirement to other jobseeker claims.

Retail has reopened nationally and is operating safely. The post office network has remained open throughout the pandemic and has processed approximately 45 million social welfare payments over the past two years. Post offices have been equipped with fixed sanitiser units so that customers can sanitise their hands. Post offices also have clearly marked signs to assist with social distancing and staff operate behind transparent screens.

I acknowledge that some people who are immunocompromised may want to avoid crowded settings. For someone in that situation, the advice is to contact the nearest Department of Social Protection office. My officials are there to help.

I thank the Minister for her response. My question was motivated by a number of factors. For the life of me, I cannot understand why we are reverting to something that could be an inconvenience. I understand that social welfare payments to recipients were always made via post offices, but there was a break from the norm. During that time, was there evidence of an increase in welfare fraud, for example? I asked for a rationale for the decision and it cannot just be to revert to what was the previous situation, which might not have been beneficial, or be about the post office network. While the network is vital to Ireland's infrastructure, why is it that social welfare recipients have to be the ones to rejuvenate it? There are any number of other factors at play in that regard, including public transport in rural areas. Given that the post office network is the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, I wonder why this matter is under the remit of the Minister for Social Protection.

Social welfare recipients have rights. It will be an inconvenience for some, for example, getting buses and the cost of travel. At a time when people are already living below the poverty line, why do they have to be the ones to rejuvenate the post office network as opposed to having a more practical online payment scheme?

All we announced last week was simply a return to the jobseeker's payment system that had always been in place before the pandemic whereby people collected their payments at post offices. This is about supporting our post office network. Post offices are an integral part of communities across the country. I have met the Irish Postmasters' Union and An Post. They were clear that the loss of footfall relating to these payments was having a severe impact on rural and urban post offices. Deputies on all sides of the House have called for the Government to put more services into our post offices. Here is an example of that happening in practice and is something that we should support. I met Mr. Tony Wall, the postmaster at Usher's Quay, last week. When we made this announcement, he told me how important this decision was for post offices. Post offices, postmasters and postmistresses do great work the length and breadth of this country.

It is without question that our post offices are vital pieces of infrastructure, but what other measures is the Government taking to rejuvenate them? People highlight any number of factors behind the decline of post offices, but there only appears to be one solution, that being, a procession of unemployed people having to travel to their post offices, stand in queues and receive payments that could more practically be made online.

The Minister referred to how immunocompromised people may not want to stand in queues. Is it now the policy that people can make a case to the Department for opting out? That would be beneficial. Will it be based on an official's discretion?

If people are immunocompromised and have genuine concerns, I ask that they contact their local Intreo offices. At the end of the day, we are here to help.

What we are doing with this is putting things back the way they were prior to Covid. As the Minister for Rural and Community Development, I want to support post offices and our rural towns and villages. We want to look at ways of putting new services in place. The Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, has responsibility for post offices but we all have a responsibility to try to support them. I am working with her to see what other services can be put in place.

We have to be mindful that we are living in a digital age. I know that. We have to be realistic, but we can put our heads together and try to support our post offices in every way we can.

Departmental Reports

Claire Kerrane

Question:

5. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the progress in relation to the child maintenance review group report in view of the fact the report was due to be published by the end of 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5729/22]

What progress has been made on the report that was due at the end of the year from the child maintenance review group? It is an important piece of work. We know the issues that lone parents experience in accessing and receiving maintenance. The establishment of the group was welcome. Will the Minister please update the House on how the report stands?

I thank the Deputy for raising this important question. The programme for Government commits the Government to acting to reform our child maintenance system and addressing key issues such as calculation, facilitation and enforcement, guided by international best practice and in light of the findings of the child maintenance review group's report.

In line with this commitment, the Government established a child maintenance review group to examine certain issues in respect of child maintenance. The group is chaired by former Circuit Court Judge Catherine Murphy and includes legal, policy and academic professionals as well as officials from my Department and the Department of Justice. The group's terms of reference are to consider and make recommendations on the current treatment of child maintenance payments in my Department; the current provisions regarding liable relatives managed by my Department; and the establishment of a child maintenance agency.

The work of the group is well under way. To date, it has held 14 meetings. Further meetings are planned on a regular basis until the report's completion.

A consultation process to facilitate feedback from stakeholder groups and members of the public to inform the group's work was undertaken last year. I have been advised by the chair that the group's report is expected to be submitted to me before Easter. Given the importance and complexity of the issues, I am satisfied with the amended timeline set out by the chair. I trust this clarifies the position.

I hope the report, because it is long-awaited, will be published as soon as possible after the Minister receives it. As she knows, there are considerable difficulties. I have never believed the court was the right place for child maintenance to be agreed. We know that where a court order is made for maintenance, it does not necessarily mean payments are made. It falls on the lone parent again to go back to court. The court is not the right setting for sorting out child maintenance. It does not work. Once the maintenance is agreed, it is not necessarily paid. It is automatically regarded as means when it comes to other social protection payments. That is an issue.

We brought forward proposals in 2017 and 2019 reflective of the model in place in the north of Ireland. It takes the matter out of the lone parent's hands and sorts out the maintenance for him or her for the benefit of the child. That is what we need to examine. We need the review group to recommend a statutory child maintenance service. I hope that is something the Minister will seek to progress.

We are absolutely on the one page on this; I agree with the Deputy. There is nothing worse than what she has described. I saw the problem myself when I worked in the credit union and, indeed, the bank. Whenever a lone parent, who was usually a woman, got a court order, it was a case of a payment being made one week and missed for the next couple, followed by another payment. It was terribly frustrating.

The work of the review group is important. It did ask for a bit of extra time. The matter is complex. A lot of work has been put into it. I look forward to receiving the report at Easter. I do not want to pre-empt what will be in the report but I want to work with the House to move this forward. There are different models in different countries, and it is a question of finding the best one that works well for us here. I am committed to doing that. I acknowledge the Deputy has a great interest in this also, as do many of the other female Members of the Oireachtas. In this regard, I got a copy of a long submission that one of the Senators made to the child maintenance review group. The matter is complex but I want to work on it.

Let me outline one step the Minister could take regarding child maintenance; I ask her to consider it. In the small number of cases where child maintenance is fully paid, we should really consider removing it from the means test. It should not be seen as household means. Child maintenance, when paid, is for the benefit of the child; it is not household means. One thing the Minister could do, with or without the report, is investigate this. Child maintenance should not be calculated as household means; it is for assisting and rearing the child. We know how it is becoming increasingly expensive to rear a child. Child maintenance payments should not be included as household means. The Minister could consider this. I ask her to do so.

At the minute, the income from maintenance payments is assessed as means. In most cases, 50% of the person's weekly maintenance payment is assessed. That is half of it. There is a further disregard of €95.23 per week, with the balance of any maintenance being assessed at 50%. I take the Deputy's point but the matter will be considered in the review. It is best to await the report because I am aware that the issues I have asked the group to consider are quite detailed and complex. I am waiting to see what the report says.

That completes Priority Questions. I am tempted to thank the Members for co-operating regarding time and to say the co-operation is because of the gender representation. Anyway, we stayed within time for Priority Questions.

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