Thursday, 3 December 2020

Questions (1)

Claire Kerrane

Question:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the way in which her Department is monitoring the requirement for persons who qualify for the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, to be genuinely seeking work; the way in which persons are expected to meet this requirement; if there are plans for PUP recipients to engage with job activation measures; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40412/20]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Social)

How is the Department monitoring the new requirement that those in receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment and those applying for it must be genuinely seeking work? How are people expected to meet this requirement? Are there plans for recipients to engage with job activation now or in the new year?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. In common with other jobseeker payments, such as jobseeker's benefit and allowance, the fundamental condition for receipt of the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, is that the person is available to work but cannot do so because suitable work is not available to them. Persons claiming the PUP will have been in employment immediately before claiming the benefit. This is seen as initial evidence satisfying the genuinely seeking work requirement. Once people are in payment, we operate on the basis that the PUP is a payment to support them until they return to work in their pervious occupation or sector. We do not, at this time, require people to look for alternative employment.

For example, it is reasonable that workers who remain temporarily laid off in sectors that have not reopened or have only partially reopened, such as hospitality, arts and entertainment, due to Covid-19 restrictions are afforded the time and opportunity for their workplace to reopen. Having said that, it is also reasonable to expect workers in receipt of the PUP to take up the offer of returning to their work when their workplace reopens. Where workers do not, without reasonable cause, take up the opportunity to return to their work it is appropriate to ask whether they are genuinely unemployed and seeking work and, if not, to review their payment. It is for this reason the genuinely seeking work condition is incorporated into the statutory basis for the scheme. I can advise that no claims have been disallowed to date on the genuinely seeking work condition.

It is likely that even as the economy reopens, some sectors will not return to the levels of employment seen before the pandemic. We know that the longer a person is unemployed the harder it becomes for them to find new employment. Accordingly, it is important that the State provides all the supports and assistance it can to help people who may find that the job they held before the pandemic is not returning. To this end, in the new year the Department plans to commence engaging with PUP recipients to offer them access to a case worker and to provide them with information on the range of education, training, and employment supports that can help them to find new employment.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

As the Deputy is aware, we have already modified the conditions for accessing employment and education schemes to grant access to PUP recipients. Depending on the numbers who may remain on the PUP in the new year, the process of engagement will be implemented on a phased basis. All engagement with PUP recipients will be on a voluntary basis. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I appreciate the jobseeker requirement but there is a big difference between being available to work and genuinely actively seeking work. While the Minister has said the rule is there, and a number of us sought to remove it through an amendment in August and July when the legislation was going through, at present the Department does not require PUP recipients to be genuinely seeking work. What is the purpose of putting in the rule in the first place? It is a rule but it is not being enforced so I do not really see why the rule is there in the first place.

We have to remember these are workers who have lost their jobs. They are not unemployed for no reason. In fact, some of them are not unemployed at all as they are just waiting for their workplaces to reopen. As the Minister said, some will do so and, unfortunately, some will not. With regard to offering access, will the Minister give a bit more detail on what she means with regard to offering access to job activation schemes? Will people begin to be referred in the new year? When exactly does the Minister plan to begin this and how does she see it working?

I thank the Deputy. It is important to say we are offering to people who want to take up the offer training and measures to help them get back to work or retrain to go to a new job and they can take it up on a voluntary basis. Some people may want to look at new careers and it is important that we give them all the support we can to help them to get back to work in due course. It is fair to say that not a single claim has been stopped for the reason that a person is not genuinely seeking work. The reason the clause is there is that if people are offered their jobs back, but choose to remain on the pandemic unemployment payment, it would be reasonable for the Department to ask whether they are genuinely seeking work. If the jobs are available and they choose not to take them up it is a fair question. For those sectors that are not open, it is fully understandable and they are not expected to go back.

Among the rules to qualify for the PUP is that people are genuinely seeking work but that is only being enforced if people are offered their jobs back and they do not take them up, which I could not imagine anybody doing anyway. These are workers and some of them have never been on social welfare in their lives. The rule on genuinely seeking work as part of the initial criteria will only be enforced if people are offered their jobs back and do not take them. I do not think this has been made clear and I do not see the purpose in the first instance of having it as a requirement to get the payment in the first place. It is there as a rule.

Offering people training and courses in the new year is welcome but there are people who cannot get on courses or training now. I have given the Minister the example of somebody trying to get on the vocational training opportunities scheme. The person has 147 out of the 156 qualifying period days so is missing only a very small number but cannot get it. Somebody else on the pandemic unemployment payment cannot get a course with the ETB because the person does not have the required qualifying period. We are making it difficult for people to take up courses when it should be very flexible.

I thank the Deputy. What we are doing is helping people to get back to work and we are giving them all the supports. In the July stimulus package, there was considerable investment in back to education and back to training, apprenticeships and measures to help people to get back to work.

If there are specific issues, I am happy to look at them. The purpose is to allow people to reskill and upskill. We are working with people all of the time and we are going to write out to people in January. This is all being done on a voluntary basis. We are going to explain to them that a range of supports are available and it is up to people to engage. If they do not want to engage, they can stay on the pandemic unemployment payment until such time as it ceases.