Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions

Community Employment Schemes Review

Thomas Byrne

Ceist:

49. Deputy Thomas Byrne asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of future community employment schemes. [8085/19]

This question has been aired already by my colleague, Deputy O'Dea, but it gives the Minister another opportunity to set out her plans. The question is slightly wrongly worded but she knows its meaning. Perhaps she will set out her plans for the CE scheme so we can address some of our concerns.

I will not give the reply I have given already as it is on the record of the House. I do not believe the governing rules for the two separate strands of CE are viable. They are not fair to the people who are in the socially inclusive places. I could not get them changed as matters stand, and I had to employ the assistance of my colleagues in different Departments, who perhaps have more clout than I do. I expect that we will reach a satisfactory conclusion between now and the end of May. All the Departments that are involved in any way with CE schemes and all the CE host companies have been invited to make submissions to me on how they believe things should be done in the future. However, I have not yet asked for the Deputies' opinions. If there are Deputies who have a grá for supporting the socially inclusive places and activation training places in their communities, I would be grateful if they would make submissions with suggestions on what we could do to support those people and make them even better than they are today.

I should make Members aware that we will not be talking about this for months. The meetings will take place over the next couple of weeks and I expect to go to the Cabinet before the end of May with our recommendations.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Like me, she knows many of the CE supervisors, staff and workers on the schemes in our constituency. Deputy O'Dea met some from Dunboyne and Athboy last week and I am grateful to him for doing that. They have a good vision of what is required and I am sure they will be delighted to give submissions to the Minister. They also have a good vision of what their communities require. The CE schemes certainly do fantastic work. Unquestionably, there are people among the public for whom the CE scheme is an answer, beyond the cohort who require it for job activation. The big concern Fianna Fáil has, and Deputy O'Dea has expressed it, is that it may go outside the Department. We cannot get to the bottom of why that may be required. The Department set up the review for the reason the Minister outlined and we welcome the review in that context, but I see no necessity to move it outside the Department. The Minister's Department is the traditional caring Department. It has a huge budget and looks after people. That is what this scheme does as well. It looks after people and their communities and I will strongly urge that it should remain in the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection.

I would value it if the Deputy made that submission to the interdepartmental group to allow it to do that. There are three or four items on the list. I am not sure the Department is the natural home of the RSS. It did not start in our Department but was brought from the Department with responsibility for rural affairs when a particular Minister came to this Department because that Minister had started it. It might be more suitable for the Department of Rural and Community Development. That might or might not emerge from the interdepartmental review. In addition, some of our drugs rehabilitative schemes might be better managed by the people in the HSE, although they might not agree with me. However, we will have a proper conversation about the childcare, elder care, drug rehabilitation, training and social inclusion and sheltered employment strands and where they naturally should be. I will be happy to keep them. Indeed, one of the nicest parts of this job is travelling around the country and meeting incredibly decent and hard-working people who find a real grá in providing activation - the assistant supervisors, supervisors and the people who are working and providing the services in our communities.

In addition, we do not wish to see any element of the private sector coming into this area. The Minister strongly defended Seetec in the House today but it is an organisation that is absolutely hated across the board. People cannot understand why a private company is brought in to do a job that was traditionally seen as the role of the State in trying to help people. We do not want to see that happen with the CE schemes. It has to be said that Seetec draws the ire of people across the board, even people who have nothing to do with it. When people hear about the system they just do not like it. They do not like the private sector being involved in those matters. I want CE schemes to remain on the ground. The supervisors and the people involved in them know what is required and they look after people.

First, the reason we needed to employ private contractors is that there were more than 450,000 people unemployed in 2008, in case the Deputy has forgotten. Seetec, Turas Nua and JobPath have nothing to do with CE and will not have anything to do with it in the future.

Illness Benefit Payments

Thomas Pringle

Ceist:

50. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the position regarding illness benefit payment delays; if consideration is being given to a compensation scheme for those who were financially negatively affected; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8094/19]

A somewhat similar question was answered earlier but I am seeking a little more detail, particularly on whether the people who were caught up in the problem with illness benefit last year will be compensated for the money they have lost.

As the Deputy is aware, payment issues had arisen in the scheme last year when my Department transferred administration of the illness benefit scheme from an old legacy IT payments system to its core business IT platform.

Since then, my Department has been working hard to resolve these issues and to ensure that claims are processed and paid promptly.  We have made good progress in this regard, with payment levels maintained at the expected norm for the past couple of months. Thankfully, there is consistency in the payments. Telephone helpline and call handling performance has also been addressed and is now back to normal levels, although customers may still sometimes experience delays due to call volumes in particular weeks.

There has been an increase in claims for illness benefit in January. That reflects the annual increase at this time of year due to seasonal illnesses.  While over 9,000 transactions per day are processed, people who are due a payment and whose medical certificates and claims are in order, receive their payment entitlement promptly.  In stating this, there are always cases, and there were always cases, where people's payments are legitimately stopped, paused, or delayed for a variety of reasons, including the late submission of medical certificates or error on the part of people in the Department, the GPs or the applicants.

People who experienced an urgent financial need while awaiting an illness benefit payment were encouraged to apply to my Department's community welfare service to receive interim payments. They did that and we were able to look after most people relatively quickly. That avenue remains open to anyone who is adversely affected and the Department will respond sensitively to any case.  I am specifically referring to something the Deputy has brought to the attention of the House on a number of occasions. Some people incurred bank charges because of missed, delayed or no payments over a number of weeks or months. I encourage those people to apply to the local community welfare office to get those bank charges. Some people might say it is only a small amount of money but when people are living on illness benefit of €198 per week, bank charges of €15 or €30, which were imposed on them for something that had nothing to do with them in the first place, are not sustainable. People should make applications to the community welfare officer, CWO, and we will look after each case sensitively.

It is welcome that the Minister says compensation is now available to the people concerned because it is very important. It is interesting that if the Department makes a mistake and overpays someone, it is that person's responsibility and fault straightaway and he or she must repay the Department, yet it has been slow to accept that it has caused financial difficulty for people who have been depending on this system to survive and it has caused significant difficulties. There must be a system that will allow for documented repayments to be made. There must also be a recognition within the Minister's Department of the turmoil caused which should be acknowledged. It is the least the people concerned should expect and vitally important that it happen.

I hope what I am saying to the Deputy is not new because we have had people come to us about this issue, particularly the bank charges imposed on them, and we have looked after them. A community welfare officer, CWO, is available in various places in every county. If there are people who have been put out financially because of charges imposed on them through no fault of their own, I ask the Deputy to tell them to make applications to us. There is other legislation at which I was looking dealing with longer term financial compensation, but it does not quite cut the mustard because one must be waiting for payment for longer than 12 months. It is called the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005, SI 142, and concerns consolidation claims and payment controls. It allows people to be compensated, but it does not really apply in any of these cases because one must be without a payment for in excess of 12 months, having been entitled to receive it. The CWO is always willing for anyone to come forward. All one has to do is show a bank statement with the bank charges included in it. We deal with each case sensitively.

That is useful to hear, but when I raised this question probably four or five weeks ago, that was not the response I received. The Minister will see many people avail of this system. I hope it will accommodate them and ensure they are paid in a timely manner and that they will not have to fight for it, as has been the case.

I would hate to think anyone would have to fight for anything in the Department, given that the only reason we are there is to help people who need income support. I do not know all of the case officers in CWO offices, but they are incredibly nice and there to help people at the times they need it. As that is their job, the Deputy should just tell people to go to them.

Public Services Card

Mick Wallace

Ceist:

51. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if the final report on the Data Protection Commissioner's investigation into the public services card will be published; if a full or summary report will be published; the reason a full report would not be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8093/19]

There are many regulators in Ireland, most of which, including, for example, GSOC, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, provide clear pathways to track enforcements on imports. The Data Protection Commission appears to have looked at a wide range of issues in one form or another, yet there is no clear record of reports or enforcement actions that is easily accessible. If the commission will not publish the full and final report on the investigation into the public services card, will the Minister commit to doing so, irrespective of the outcome of the investigation?

I am going to tell the Deputy how to suck eggs-----

Go on; the clock is ticking.

-----when I tell him that the purpose of the SAFE 2 registration process is to verify someone's identity to a substantial level of assurance. This is a necessary step when we are responsibly providing access to the billions of euro, of which the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection is in charge and which it is giving to people through all of its schemes. The public services card is only issued after someone goes through the SAFE 2 registration process. In addition to acting as a token that an individual's identity has been verified to SAFE 2 standard, possession of a public services card enables individuals to gain access to a great many other public services, for example, free travel, more efficiently and with a minimum of duplication of effort, while at the same time preserving their privacy to the maximum extend possible.

Preliminary results of a recent customer survey carried out on the public services card have been quite positive, with very high levels of satisfaction recorded in the process of applying, the resulting public services card, people's level of understanding of the purpose of the SAFE 2 and PSC process and the information provided for applicants. These are all being very well received. People also expressed strong support for the sharing of information between public bodies because it makes life easier, which is exactly what we were trying to achieve in the first instance. I hope to have the full results of the survey next week and that all Deputies will join me in welcoming these positive results.

To respond to the question the Deputy asked me, the Data Protection Commissioner initiated an investigation to assess the legal basis for the processing of data in connection with the public services card and other related matters in 2017. The Data Protection Commissioner provided a draft report on the public services card for my Department in late August 2018. The draft report requested further information and clarification from us in a broad range of areas, but - it is a big but - the commissioner specifically instructed us not to discuss or disclose the draft report to any other party. We will respect that request. Therefore, I cannot give the Deputy an indication that I will publish the report, but I genuinely have no doubt but that when the commissioner replies to us, they will publish the report. If they do not, the only thing I can suggest is I seek permission at that stage, if appropriate, to do so. However, I am not in a position to give the Deputy an assurance that the draft report will be issued because my Department has been instructed specifically that we are not to discuss or disclose it. I must do what I am told.

In the interests of transparency, we hope that when the report is eventually made available, the Minister will publish it. Transparency certainly helps. It is amazing that the Department's response to the Data Protection Commissioner's inquiry, at this late stage in the history of the public services card's roll-out, requires such a protracted, extended defence. This is the largest data-sharing project in the history of the State and I think it has cost approximately €60 million so far. The Minister has not halted the roll-out of the public services card, pending the outcome of the investigation, and her Department has had to write the equivalent of a PhD thesis to defend itself after the horse has well and truly bolted. However, listening to what she is saying, it looks like the public will not get a good look at the terms of the commissioner's investigation. The Minister argues about the merits of the public services card. We are not arguing against them, but we are arguing on the issue of consent. If people consent, that is grand. Yes, the public services card involves efficiency, but one cannot force people to consent to using it. That is our argument.

To answer the Deputy's two questions, we received the report from the Data Protection Commissioner in August. We provided a comprehensive response for the office on 30 November and have been awaiting its response since. As I said to the Deputy, publication of the report is now entirely a matter for the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner, given that it has given us clear instructions that we are not to discuss or disclose the draft report. I would have the legs cut off me were I not to do what I have been asked to do by it, particularly in the light of the investigation and the sensitivity attached to it.

I refer the Deputy to what he has just said. We do not make anyone get a public services card. If people do not want to get it and do not want to go through the SAFE 2 process, they do not have to do so. However, 3.2 million people have gone through it and the results of the satisfaction survey have given us incredibly positive responses. As the Deputy rightly says, perhaps the Data Protection Commissioner will come back with a different response. Whatever it is, either the Deputy or I will have to accept the outcome, depending on whatever point of view we share or do not share with the Data Protection Commissioner at the time.

The Minister is saying the card is optional. Have payments been withheld from anyone who does not have it?

Absolutely not.

From our point of view, one of the main problems with the public services card is that the aim of it and the SAFE 2 registration process is not limited to verification. As I said, it is also to coerce consent to data-sharing. Perhaps the Minister is now denying it, but section 262(6) of the Social Welfare Consolidation Act states:

(a) Where a specified body has a transaction with a person, the Minister may share the person's public service identity with the specified body to the extent necessary for authentication by the specified body of the person's public service identity.

(b) A specified body may use a person's public service identity in performing its public functions.

The word "may" is significant. Yes, it permits data-sharing, but it does not require or demand it. Data-sharing is not an inevitable consequence of the verification of a person's identity. Section 247C(1) also makes it clear that the purpose of the verification process is "to satisfy the Minister as to his or her identity". Once the person's identity has been verified and once the Minister is satisfied as to the person's identity, there should not be any legal basis for further processing of the person's data, unless his or her consent has been obtained. Is our interpretation wrong?

I do not know. What I do know is that we do not make anybody undergo the SAFE 2 authentification process. With the exception of one lady, for whom the issue was resolved soon after I came into the Department, we have never withheld a payment due to somebody not having gone through the SAFE 2 authentification process. That is not the purpose of it. It is not a control measure in the way the Deputy describes and it is certainly not coercive. There are 3.2 million people in the country who have public services cards as a result of having undergone the SAFE 2 process, yet none of them has broken legs. We did not coerce anybody and nobody is being made to do anything.

We have responded to the concerns that were raised with us by the Data Protection Commission last August. We replied in November and we await its response. I cannot tell the Deputy what the outcome will be because I will not know until the commission reverts to me.

JobPath Programme

Mattie McGrath

Ceist:

52. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection the status of her response to the recent decision by Dáil Éireann to approve a Private Members' motion calling for the abolition of the JobPath programme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7974/19]

In the light of the supposedly new politics of the House and the minority status of the Government, will the Minister respond to the Government's defeat in a vote on a motion tabled by Sinn Féin? The motion called for the abolition of the JobPath programme, which is administered through Turas Nua and Seetec. Will the Minister update the House on how she intends to recognise the will of the people, which was expressly delivered by a vote in the Chamber, or is she ignoring it?

The Government's position on the recent motion debated in the House on the JobPath service was clearly set out in my contribution at the time. While I noted the views of the House on the matter, the position of the Government remains unchanged.

I reiterate that the JobPath service shows a performance well above target levels.  Customer feedback shows high levels of satisfaction of more than 6,000 customers who were independently surveyed and there is a low number of complaints. All this evidence has been published by the Department.  In addition, preliminary evidence from a forthcoming econometric study, which will be published in a number of weeks, indicates that JobPath participants have better job and earning outcomes than non-participants. These data contrast with the anecdotes presented by critics of the service and with the small-scale research study which has been quoted - a study so small that it is mostly unreliable. 

The Department also operates a robust inspection and compliance regime. A detailed report by the Comptroller and Auditor General found no flaws in the inspection regime. It made no recommendations in regard to how the service should be governed and instead indicated it was satisfied with it. Where any issue is brought to my attention and there is sufficient detail to pursue the matter, we do so and action is taken as necessary.  Since the debate on the Private Members' motion, Deputies have brought just two cases to my attention, both of which have been reviewed.

My Department is examining options for contracted activation services to be delivered from 2020. No final decisions have been made in this area, but lessons will be learned from recent reports on local employment services, job clubs, the EmployAbility service and the econometric review of JobPath, which is being finalised. The policy considerations will also include how we can provide activation services to those most distant from the labour market and make persons who have not availed of activation services aware of the latter's existence and allow them to interact with us.

The JobPath service has proven to be effective, it rates highly with the vast majority of participants who use the service and the Government will continue to offer the service in line with our obligations to jobseekers and our commitments to the service providers.

That says it all. The House does not matter anymore. A motion was put forward by a political party and debated for two hours but, although the Minister made a contribution of which we are all aware, ní raibh sí ag éisteacht. She was not listening. We are the Teachtaí Dála, the messenger-boys of the people. I have received countless complaints about the awful experiences of participants in the programme. I describe Turas Nua as "Turas Uafásach". An dtuigeann an tAire sin? It means "an awful journey". If the Minister has not heard complaints in her constituency, she must not be doing any clinics, or else she must not be listening to the people. Níl sí ag éisteacht. Tá a cluasa dúnta.

There are awful problems, such as people who have poor communication or literary skills being forced and coerced into visiting the programme's offices to be humiliated and degraded. The Minister stated that of the 6,000 customers surveyed, there have been few complaints, but that is not true. I cannot be receiving all the complaints, and nor can the Sinn Féin Party members who brought forward the motion.

I am alarmed that although the Minister noted she was voted down, having made her contribution, she has indicated that votes in the House do not count anymore. In that case, what counts? Is Fine Gael now so arrogant that it will not listen to the wishes and democratic decisions of the House?

I have tabled a question, namely, Question No. 85, which relates to the issue. I echo Deputy Mattie McGrath's contribution that it is shocking that the Minister would ignore the democratic wishes of the majority of the House, not least given that she must make a decision on whether she will renew the contract. Will she indicate whether she intends to renew the JobPath contract for the two companies?

It has emerged that one of the companies, namely, Turas Nua, outsources to another company, namely, Working Links, which has received 50% of the money paid by the State to the entity. The latter company is in trouble, however, and has entered administration in Britain. The British chief inspector of probation ranked the company as "inadequate" and found "professional ethics [were] compromised and immutable lines crossed because of business imperatives". Does the Minister intend to re-administer the contract to the likes of this company? We already know from studies that it has a bad track record in Britain, as does Seetec. The Minister has told us that she intends to ignore the democratic will of the House and reissue the contracts.

In the Minister's contribution to the debate on the motion, she referred to the 41,000 people who have found full-time jobs and the 206,000 people who have been referred to the programme. Of the 41,000 people, however, only 11,334 were sustained in employment for 12 months or more. That is a minuscule number.

The Minister failed to answer my question when I put it to her earlier and, therefore, I reiterate it now. Is she satisfied that the figure represents value for money? Millions of taxpayers' euros have been spent on this failed programme and given to Turas Nua and Seetec, yet only 11,334 jobs have been sustained for 12 months or more. It is a simple question. Is it value for money and can she stand over those ludicrously low figures?

I echo the concerns of my colleagues about JobPath and the number of jobs that have been produced. The Minister will be aware that in the social enterprise sector, which includes bodies that run job clubs and so on, local community projects have an impressive record. The people in charge of many of those projects, however, are worried that they will have to compete for tenders and so on against the JobPath companies and that they will be placed at a disadvantage. Given that there are organisations that are ready to do this work and have done it well in communities throughout the country, would it not be better to give them the responsibility?

It will not come as news to Deputies that Private Members' motions are not legally binding instructions to the Government-----

That is not the issue.

It is not the issue. The motion was a vote of the House.

One voice at a time, please. The Minister will continue without interruption.

Private Members' motions are not legally binding instructions to the Government but the set of contracts in place with Turas Nua and Seetec through JobPath are. If there were to be any changes to the existing contracts, it would cost the State millions of euros. As I previously stated in the House, the termination of the contracts or even a stepping-away from the contracts would significantly expose the State financially. Even if it did not, I am not sure that anybody in the House believes that the 200,000 people who are continually on the employment live register do not need any assistance anymore, because they do. They will continue to need assistance until there is nobody on the live register.

Deputy Bríd Smith referred to recent announcements about the awarding of certain contracts relating to the probation service in the UK and the circumstances of Working Links. I stress that my Department does not have a contract for services with Working Links-----

The Department has a contract with Turas Nua, however.

Our contract for services is with Turas Nua and it will continue to be, exactly as laid out in the contract we signed a number of years ago.

I am aghast at the breathtaking arrogance of the Government. We thought we had got rid of that after the 1973-1977 coalition, with the heavy gang and the former Ministers, Mr. Paddy Donegan and Mr. Patrick Cooney-----

The Deputy should stick to the debate.

(Interruptions).

We did. The Acting Chairman was around too.

Deputy McGrath is out of order.

I am not out of order.

It is not personal abuse. It is fact. It happened.

People are bullying. It is outrageous.

The Deputy should stick to the debate.

The Minister was warned about the context of what happened in England and here, and about privatisation-----

I call Deputy Bríd Smith for a quick question.

Can I finish? The Minister was warned about what happened with the schemes. It is nothing to snigger about.

I am not sniggering at Deputy McGrath.

The Government are just bully boys. People end up in hospital and mental institutions-----

On a point of order-----

-----because they are depressed about the treatment they are given. Respect the people on these schemes. Do not bulldoze and bully them. The Government is back to the heady days of the Blueshirts again.

Every time we have-----

The Minister will have time to reply.

The Minister says that Private Members' motions are not binding. We all recognise that. I tabled three Private Members' motions in the last 12 months which were all passed overwhelmingly by the Dáil. They were not all in the Minister's Department. The Government has not taken a single measure to implement any one of them.

It is called new politics.

Since this Government came into office, has it ever reflected the will of the Dáil by implementing a Private Members' motion that was tabled by the Opposition? As far as I recall, it has not. What is the point in tabling Private Members' motions if, having been debated and passed by substantial majorities, usually in the Dáil, the Government steadfastly ignores them? In old politics, the Government came in, had a majority and voted down Private Members' motions. In new politics, the Government gets defeated but just ignores Private Members' motions. In addition to Deputy Bríd Smith's question, it is a bit disingenuous to say that the Department has no direct connection or contract with the company in the UK which has gone into administration. It owns 50% of one of the companies that the Minister is dealing with. The Government has to be very careful when dealing with this organisation. This is the culmination of a long line of complaints about suspected fraud on the part of that company in the UK.

When the Minister says that it does not fall on the Government because it does not have a contract with Working Links, the fact is that Working Links is 50% owned by Turas Nua and Turas Nua has, so far, received €75.7 million of taxpayers' money to deal with unemployment, to do what was said by the academics from Waterford, to actively and capriciously patronise, cajole, threaten, manipulate and bully the unemployed. That is exactly the sort of research on the response of the public to JobPath and the companies that run it. The Minister is in real danger of recreating the national children's hospital on a small scale by saying that it does not matter what Working Links does or not, or whether it is in trouble or not. It is 50% owned by Turas Nua, which has received significant money from the State. If the Minister is telling us that she will renew the contract with it, she is putting taxpayers' money in jeopardy, never mind the statement that she cannot significantly expose the State financially by breaking contracts. What are these companies doing by exposing the State at this level?

The Dáil passed a motion on this. This is supposed to be the seat of democracy in this State. Thousands of people are looking on at this debate and looked on two weeks ago when the Dáil voted on JobPath and gave a resounding answer to it. The Minister describes herself as a democrat. She should listen to the will of the people and the Chamber. For her to say that she will not listen and to disregard totally the will of the Dáil is shameful, to say the least. I will try for the fifth time to ask a simple question. The Minister comes in here and says she deals with figures, statistics and reality. Of the 41,000 full-time jobs that she says have been created, only 11,334 have been sustained in employment for 12 months or more. Does the Minister deem that to be value for money? Does she still think that is the most successful job activation scheme in the State?

I did not reply to Deputy Broughan's question in the last round about the impressive record of our Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, partners. I met with them before Christmas. We presented the INDECON report to them after Christmas, which caused some concerns. Another meeting has been arranged where we can discuss the options arising from that but they have no cause for concern and I reassured them of that. There will be tendering processes because the EU directive defines that that is how we have to spend public money. We will make sure that they are prepared and ready to be able to continue to assist the State and for continuous governance in support of the people.

They have very good job records.

They are superb. Apart from their record, the people in ILDN are incredibly committed to this area. They also have a special advantage in that they have access to other funds outside of the activation funds which they can apply to us for to be able to provide extra resources for people who have particular difficulty. They have access to the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. I am completely supportive of what they do. We could not deliver our service without them. I hope my support for them is clear and resounding.

Every time Deputy Mattie McGrath stands up in this Chamber, whether to insult me or to belittle or insult anybody else-----

-----it does the Deputy no favour whatsoever.

Belittling me or making me look funny or silly-----

It is not funny.

I am telling the Deputy that it is not funny. It is tantamount to bullying and I will not accept it or tolerate it from Deputy Mattie McGrath any more. If he has a question to ask, if he asks it respectfully, I will respectfully reply to it.

It is the will of the House.

Deputy O'Dea asked me about Turas Nua and Working Links. I do not say this blindly or unknowingly. Our contract is with Turas Nua. It will do whatever it does in the next couple of weeks but it has been in constant contact with us in the last number of weeks. We are aware of the ongoing issues with Working Links and we will continue to work with Turas Nua to provide the service which it has supplied to us for the last number of years. I am repeating myself. Without JobPath, we would not have 5.3% unemployment, having dropped from 15.7% unemployment. Deputy Brady and I will never agree on that and that is fine. I respect his views, as I respect the views of everybody in this House who shared them with me last week. My job is to honour the contractual obligations that the State has entered into with two companies in order to assist us with the 195,000 people who are unemployed. Whether Deputies have forgotten about them or not, we have not.

Social Welfare Rates

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

53. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection her plans to move Ireland to an index linked social welfare rates system; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8003/19]

Willie O'Dea

Ceist:

91. Deputy Willie O'Dea asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if index-linking social welfare payments is being considered; the analysis she has undertaken of this approach; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [8049/19]

I read a report where the Minister talked about index linking welfare payments. I do not know whether she was talking about the cost of living index or average earnings index. I think that when the Taoiseach was Minister for Social Protection, he floated that idea. It has been discussed for a long time. Dr. Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland has advocated strongly for social welfare rates to be linked to average earnings. First, we have to establish that social protection rates would be above the poverty line and that they are linked to average earnings. What is the Minister thinking on this and what kind of work has the Department done on it?

I agree with Deputy Broughan when he says that the Taoiseach started this. He is a hard act to follow. Every time I think I have come up with a new idea, I am told that he said that in 2015.

He did not bring it in.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 53 and 91 together. A Roadmap for Pensions Reform 2018-2023, published last year, commits the Government to examine and develop proposals to set a formal benchmark target of 34% of earnings for the State pension (contributory) and to institute a process whereby future changes in pension rates of payment are explicitly linked to changes in consumer prices and average wages. The Department is currently considering options to implement this commitment, having examined previous studies on benchmarking and indexation, international experiences and examination of a range of potential benchmarks and indices. It is worthy of note that the current rates of payment already closely mirror the benchmark-linked process in previous reports including those proposed by the Social Welfare Benchmarking and Indexation Group in 2001 which is usually relied on by advocacy and other groups.

I acknowledge Dr. Seán Healy, the European Anti Poverty Network, EAPN, the National Childhood Network and the Children's Rights Alliance. They are all genuinely in favour of pursuing the conversation on this and trying to come up with an algorithm of what we can agree that benchmarking should be against.

In terms of the wider application of the indexation of social welfare payments generally, section 19 of the Social Welfare, Pensions and Civil Registration Act 2018 provides that I, as Minister, will arrange to consult with stakeholders on examining ways in which social welfare rates are increased with the aim of ensuring in law the adequacy for all recipients. I am doing that. I met with them last week and we arranged to sit down in the next few weeks to start that consultative process. It is really important because if we decide to do something collectively, as a House, with regard to benchmarking, I cannot do it without the collective will of the people in the organisations that represent the people of most need in this country. We all have to agree on the algorithm and that it is going to be sustainable. We also have to ensure there will not be cuts in the future, such as those inflicted on this Department in recent years.

The Minister said before that there would be no drastic increases or decreases but looking at the record of the consumer price index, CPI, there were effectively deflationary years and years when there seemed to be very little increase in the CPI. Will the Department do any kind of impact assessments? When the Minister responded to my Sinn Féin colleague, Deputy Brady, on this subject she gave global figures but no indication of what it would be if it was not a €5 increase across the board.

This morning the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, published a report entitled Inequality in Ireland and Europe - Cherishing all Equally 2019 which once again highlighted that the lower four quartiles of the population get slightly over 20% of the national income and the key importance of social transfers, especially for lone parent families and many of our senior citizens. This is an area where the general proposal could be welcome but we need to be very careful about how we would implement it, especially given the fact that parts of the social welfare system, for example, the Christmas bonus, do not appear anywhere in the basic accounts. They are last minute decisions and in the past two years the Minister had to go back to the Minister for Finance to get €50 million more, I think, for the disability allowance budget to make sure there was enough money for the year. When will the Department publish something in this area?

I will bring in Deputy O'Dea whose Question No. 91 is grouped with this question.

What question are we on?

Would the Minister agree with me that insofar as many of the social welfare rates are somewhat below the poverty line indexing those to inflation would lock those people permanently into poverty? We have to reach a benchmark to bring people above the poverty line before we decide on what form of indexation we need to pursue.

I will bring in Deputy Brady as well.

The Minister would be aware that in the pre-budget forum discussions last year index linking the payments to adequacy was one of the top priorities and that I, on behalf of Sinn Féin, introduced the Social Welfare Commission Bill 2018 which would have done exactly what the Minister is talking about and would have been very much in line with the work of the Low Pay Commission, essentially taking it out of the hands of Government and putting it into the hands of a commission. I have been corresponding with the officials in the Department, trying to arrange a meeting to discuss that and bring forward the proposals contained in that Bill. Has the Minister read the Bill and does she think there is merit in it? Generally, I think we are talking about the same thing but it should not be linked solely to the CPI. It needs to be linked to adequacy and that is the key point in all this.

Deputy Broughan was right to talk about the Supplementary Estimate we have most years for one scheme or another because they are demand led and if there is a higher demand, there is a higher need. The cost of disability tender will, I hope, go out by the end of this month. That body of work will inform all disability payments in the future arising from the special cost of living, over and above a jobseeker's or a pensioner's allowance. It will probably take 12 months. I have asked for preliminary results if I can get them before this year's budget. It may not be possible but my intentions are clear that I need to reflect people's lived experience of disability which is not the same as another jobseeker's experience.

We will also follow up on the commitment to consult, which I expect to happen before, on and during the pre-budget forum that we hold every July. I will engage with the social partners many times between now and July because I would like to be able to finalise the algorithm.

I have read Deputy Brady's Bill and I very much hope he will continue to process his thoughts and views in the conversation that we will have with the social partners. The index we use is not just as simple as lining it up against one or the other. We need to come up with an amalgamation of an algorithm of what we decide is going to provide adequacy in pensionable or working age for a person with a disability. That needs to be defined and agreed by all of us, otherwise it will not pass in this House and I will be wasting my time.

I think I differ from Deputy O'Dea in that all our payments are above the 30% index rate but he was right that if we decide it is 30% and people are below that, they have to be brought up to whatever it is we agree before we introduce indexing and allow it to move on thereafter. It is not like the Low Pay Commission. If we had a minimum wage people would have to be brought up to that before we could allow the Low Pay Commission do its work on an annual basis, and we all expect and respect the report that comes from it. This has to be the same. We all have to agree that the starting bar is X, and then we have to agree on the algorithm or the indexing calculation to get us to a Y recommendation every year from the equivalent of the Low Pay Commission or whatever body we decide we can trust with it but there has to be a baseline, an algorithm and a calculation that we all agree.

Does the Minister expect that she will be able to publish something following her consultation that we could all read and see how it relates to the poverty levels and so on? The survey on income and living conditions, SILC, published by the Central Statistics Office, CSO, in 2017 showed that one in five households with children was living below the poverty line. The Government committed to trying to take 100,000 children out of poverty. That is intimately related to the transfer payments and if we went down the index-linked route having a benchmark of adequacy is the key requirement. The Parliamentary Budget Office, PBO, has been very critical of the ad hoc way we have done the Christmas bonus and increases over the years, rather than planning the expenditure and saying we will do this indefinitely. The Minister might have seen a report at the weekend by Professor Jan Rigby of Maynooth University, stating that the increase in life expectancy rates had fallen during the austerity years which is a damning reflection on our social protection system.

I am trying to get in another question but we are running out of time.

Is it my question?

It is the Deputy's question as well. Does he want to speak?

My question is on auto-enrolment.

It can be taken with this one, if the Deputy wants.

I have to respond.

The Minister is going to respond.

Auto-enrolment is a separate issue.

Auto-enrolment is a separate question.

It is a separate question.

It is not. It is the same question.

I would like an answer if the Minister is willing to give me one.

The consultations that I have with the partners will not be a secret and none of them is shy about telling anybody what we talk about. This will only work if we all want the same thing, which is to provide adequacy in our income levels for our pensioners, people who have disabilities, or varying levels of ability and our jobseekers. That is the aim we will have. I would like to have it concluded and agreed on by July - I know that would be a bit of a miracle - so that it can feed into next year's budgetary process. That is the aim.

What about Question No. 54?

We cannot go back to that one. I will do this job if that is all right with the Deputy.

I am looking for fairness.

Does Deputy Mattie McGrath want to have 30 seconds and use the remaining time? His Question No. 54 is next.

All I want is fair play.

The Deputy is getting fair play.

The Acting Chairman was talking about Question No. 91.

I am sorry; the Deputy is wrong.

I beg to differ.

I am not out of order. I am neither wrong nor out of order. I will not take any lectures from-----

Hold on. If you want to continue that argument, you can-----

Wind down the clock.

-----but you are running out of time.

The Acting Chairman is a blunderbuss now. He is blundering. Will he please let me ask the question? He is blundering now because he is afraid I might say something to upset the-----

You are abusive and objectionable.

I am not abusive.

Can I please ask the question?

You may, if you ask it politely.

Of course I will ask it politely. I am always polite. The Minister should know that. I have worked with her on the Business Committee and we never had any difficulties.

The Deputy should concentrate on the question.

Job Initiatives

Mattie McGrath

Ceist:

54. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection if she will provide an update on the outcome of her visit to the careers fair held in Tipperary town; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7975/19]

My question is about a jobs fair in Tipperary town. The Minister's roadshow was wheeled into town with the aid of Fine Gael election candidates and Deputy Lowry. Will the Minister give me a few results from it? The Minister knows me. I am not a bully. I have never bullied anyone. I am concerned about the 860 people who were bullied and coerced into coming to the fair. They were written to and told that if they did not come it might result in diminution of their social welfare payments. Will the Minister inform me as to the results of the fair?

I call on an tAire. There are two minutes left. She can use them any way she and Deputy Mattie McGrath would like.

I will do my best to fill them. On an annual basis, the live register has been falling rapidly, for which we are to be thankful. In 2018 it fell by 15.5% nationally. In Tipperary town it fell by 18.2%, which is equal to almost 200 people coming off the live register during the course of 2018.

My Government is determined to provide the best possible environment for economic growth along with job retention and job creation, as well as introducing a renewed focus on the best possible approaches to enable those remaining numbers of long-term unemployed to find suitable work. The careers fair in Tipperary town on 1 February was part of that effort and was organised jointly by my Department and Tipperary Education and Training Board, ETB. It aimed to increase awareness of the supports available to jobseekers and employers, along with providing information on current employment opportunities in the area. In addition to staff from my Department and Tipperary ETB, the event was also attended by a range of employers and community-based organisations, including ten community employment schemes.

The event was attended by almost 800 people over the course of the day. I attended the event and there was a huge sense of enthusiasm and goodwill from everybody present, even the protestors outside.  Evaluation sheets completed by 450 of those attending confirmed this, with 90% positive feedback and particular mention of the level of information and support available to jobseekers at the event. Feedback received to date from exhibitors also has been very positive. 

A number of people have been invited for interview or to make applications for positions and others hope to follow up on contacts made at the event. Tipperary ETB received 400 expressions of interest in training opportunities and there was a strong interest in apprenticeships. All of these expressions of interest will be followed up by my Department and Tipperary ETB.  There were also a large number of expressions of interest in our community employment, CE, scheme placements. Arising from that day, 13 individuals so far have been approved for CE scheme places.  

I am also happy to inform the Deputy that, because of the success of the careers day in Tipperary, a similar event will be held in Clonmel on 27 March. The Deputy is very welcome to come, given that he did not attend the last one.

I was in the House. This is cynical in the extreme. It is totally cynical. It is propaganda.

Deputy Mattie McGrath does not want to help.

It is totally cynical propaganda.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.