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Employment Support Services

Dáil Éireann Debate, Thursday - 25 November 2021

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Questions (5)

Catherine Connolly

Question:

5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Social Protection the analysis her Department has carried out into the lessons learned from the first phase of procurement for the new regional employment service model; her plans to publish this analysis; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [57995/21]

View answer

Oral answers (8 contributions) (Question to Social)

What analysis has been carried out by the Department of Social Protection and what has been learned from the roll-out of the first phase of the procurement for the new regional employment service and equally important, will that analysis be published?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is now at an advanced stage in its first phase of a two-phase procurement of new employment services. This procurement process follows extensive engagement by my Department with existing service partners over the last number of years. The new regional employment service model will extend high quality employment services across the State, deliver enhanced governance arrangements, ensure contracts are on a sound legal footing and provide successful tenderers with greater flexibility to innovate and deliver services for their clients.

The Department is currently reflecting on feedback from phase 1 and amending the request for tender for phase 2, as appropriate. Specifically, based on feedback received, officials are examining the minimum referral numbers but also are looking at how payment scheduling can assist cash flow for potential tenderers. In addition, on 9 November my Department hosted a webinar for more than 150 people with an interest in tendering for the procurement of employment services where questions were taken and written feedback sought in advance of the phase 2 procurement. That feedback is also proving valuable in finalising the phase 2 request for tenders. The analysis resulting in identified lessons will be reflected in the phase 2 request for tenders, which will be published before the end of the year.

The request for tenders for phase 2 will issue before the end of this year and will incorporate the key learnings from phase 1. The Department is continuing to consult with interested providers, including existing service partners. I strongly encourage existing service partners to work together to provide joint bids under the phase 2 procurement process. Contracts under phase 2 for the regional employment service will be awarded primarily on the basis of quality, the provider's community linkages, the ability of tenderers to access a wide range of services to meet their client's needs and importantly, to deliver social value. This approach focuses on delivering quality outcomes and assisting individuals to access tailored support for longer, focusing on achieving their key personal progression milestones.

I thank the Minister and I acknowledge her efforts in terms of changing some aspects of this. However, I cannot escape the conclusion that this is the privatisation of the service even though the Minister has stated, very often, that it is not. I wish to refer to the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Social Protection, Community and Rural Development and the Islands, which was published in November. There are nine recommendations in that report, all of which are pretty serious. There are 14 cross-party members on that committee and they say many things. They ask that the legal advice upon which this decision by the Department is based be published. They ask for the local employment service to be maintained in its current form and for the process to be paused for the moment. They also ask for the publication of the Institute for Employment Studies report. There are nine recommendations and serious issues are highlighted in the committee's report. Members are asking for the process to be paused and for certain documents to be published so that we can have a truly open and accountable system in relation to this. Deputy Kerrane has raised this on many occasions as have other Deputies, including me. It really is time to make language mean something here. There are serious issues raised by the committee.

I appreciate the joint committee's strong interest in employment services and its engagement with me and my officials as it considered its findings. However, I note that there are some inaccuracies in the committee's report, in that evidence from witnesses to the committee that is not factually accurate is repeated. One example is the claim that my Department had not engaged with SIPTU prior to 17 September 2021 but my Department first met SIPTU on this issue in 2019 and had other meetings with the union in advance of 17 September.

I look forward to responding to the joint committee's recommendations in detail. It is clear that we are all seeking to provide the best route to employment for those people who face serious and continuing challenges in returning to the labour market. Nonetheless, given the need to expand employment service provision across the State, to strengthen governance in the delivery of employment service provision and to ensure that such provision is placed on a sound legal footing, thereby meeting the State's legal obligations, my Department must continue with its plans to procure employment services in an open and competitive manner.

In a previous reply to Deputy Kerrane, the Minister said that we are all here to serve the people, that we are servants and I totally agree. In that context, 14 people who have been elected as Senators or Deputies, across party, have asked for this process to be stalled. Surely that says something. The Minister has said that there is a need to expand but it seems that the Department is on a roller coaster towards expansion. Surely, on the basis of the precautionary principle, the first part should be looked on as a pilot project at the very least. To push ahead with the second phase before the end of this year is not acceptable in the context of all of the issues raised.

In addition, we must learn from the pandemic. The local employment services and jobs clubs are community based. They are on the ground. The Minister knows more about it than I do. That is what we should be focusing on and strengthening. The model that is coming in is on a cost-bid basis as opposed to a cost-needs basis and it is weighted in favour of the bigger, for-profit companies.

It is. The Minister should look at her first tender to see who won the bid. Who was successful as opposed to who was unsuccessful? We must look at this again. If the Minister has any influence, now is the time to use it in view of the committee report. I thank the Minister. I am over time.

I understand the Deputy's concerns. I reassure her that I have done everything I can to ensure the importance of social value and community linkages are reflected in the procurement process. We have engaged extensively with the Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, yet we hear that some of its members seem not to have received the information that we have given.

The one issue we must remember is that the jobseeker is at the heart of the process. It is the person who is long-term unemployed. Such people are number one and it is crucial that they get the supports they need.

The intention is to extend the local employment services across the State. Currently, there are 14 counties with no local employment service and a further three counties that only have services in big urban areas, namely, Cork, Galway and Bray, County Wicklow. What we want to do is to improve the outcome for the customer and at the same time to work with local providers. I have done everything I can to ensure the importance of social value. There were lessons from the first round across a number of areas and we have taken them on board. I am doing everything I can to make sure that the user gets the best possible service.

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