Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Employment Support Services

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

1. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection the status of the tendering process for employment services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48968/21]

I ask the Minister for an update on the tendering process for employment services. As I understand the first phase is now complete, I seek an update on where that is at as we move to phase 2.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is at an advanced stage in its first phase of the two-phase procurement for regionally based employment services. The procurement has two key goals. First, it will see a significant expansion across the State of employment services for those furthest from the labour market. The regional employment services will have a strong focus on local and community linkages and will help to address the post Covid-19 employment challenge. Second, the procurement process will help to place the services on a proper contractual footing. The existing services were first contracted for more than 20 years ago and there has been no formal procurement process in the intervening years. This is not in compliance with standards of proper governance. In addition, I have advice from the Attorney General's office that it is not in compliance with Irish or EU procurement rules.

The procurement process follows extensive consultations by my Department with the existing service providers over the past number of years. The Department has taken a careful and measured approach, starting with a first-phase procurement in areas not already covered by a local employment service, LES. This minimises disruption to existing service providers and enables learnings to be taken and the request for tender, RFT, to be refined for the second phase of procurement.

The first-phase procurement is just about complete. The Department will engage further with service providers in the coming weeks to listen to their concerns arising from the first phase and, to the extent possible, take these into account in finalising the request for tender for the second-phase procurement. It is intended the second phase requests for tender will issue before the end of the year. Given the timelines involved in finalising the requests for tender, allowing for tenders to be prepared and evaluated, and contracts to be awarded, it is likely to be mid-2022 before the new contracts will be in place.

The Minister said that part of the reason for the first phase of the tendering process was to expand the service significantly for those who are furthest away from the labour market. Does she agree that the ending of the walk-in service, which I understand will not be provided in the new model, will not do that? I do not understand how she will reach those furthest away from the labour market when people such as carers and, perhaps, people who are facing personal challenges in their lives, will not have that walk-in service and the comfort of being able to walk into an office in their local town, as is the case at the moment with the jobs clubs.

I understand about the legal advice on procurement, which the Minister has mentioned a number of times, but why change the model? If there is an issue with procurement - we take the Minister's word on that and that is fine - what basis is there for moving from the model that exists to this new model that is being proposed?

The Deputy will agree that I recognise the good work being carried out by our LES providers throughout the country. I take this opportunity to assure the Deputy, and to put on record, that the Government recognises the great work being carried out by many of our LES providers. They do great work in helping people with career guidance, CVs, interview preparation, upskilling and training supports. I see that in my county too.

The reality is, however, that the Government has to follow the legal advice it is given. These contracts have been rolled over continuously for more than two decades. The clear advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Attorney General is that the Department of Social Protection is in breach of EU procurement rules and there needs to be a competitive procurement process for these contracts. As much as we might like to leave things as they are, the Government cannot ignore this legal advice.

I am not arguing with that. As I said, I take the Minister at her word on the legal advice but there is no EU law on procurement or anything else that requires the Department to change the model. The Minister said there was extensive consultation. That is fine but I assume staff in local employment services and jobs clubs did not seek these changes. I am trying to understand where the changes are coming from. The Minister mentioned the great work they have done. They been there for 20 or 25 years and they have a wealth of experience. Why change the model? If the work they were doing was so great, why change the model?

Is the advice of the Comptroller and Auditor General published? I know we will not get sight of the Attorney General's advice but, specifically, where is the advice of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Is that something that is available?

Will there be a review and evaluation of phase 1 and how will that come about? I understand a number of jobs clubs are receiving letters to tell them their service ends at the end of this year and that is it. Will those workers get enhanced redundancy? How many of those letters have been issued?

As we know, the current cost-met model is cumbersome and involves a lot of administration for everybody, both for LES providers and the Department. It is an out-of-date model and it means significant time and effort is spent submitting evidence for all itemised expenditure. We want to ensure the time is better spent dealing with people who need our help and working with those people who need our support to help them find a job. That is what we have to focus on. The purpose of all this is to help the people who need a job.

The RFT published as part of phase 1 is not a low-cost model, rather, it focuses on the provision of quality person-centric employment support. The Department is aware that this type of service comes at a cost. The Department believes that the financial costs approach contained in this request for tender will, if applied to the existing LES contracts either match or exceed the current costs of these contracts. Some providers were worried that by putting in a bid for this tender they would not be able to meet all their costs. I wanted to reassure them on that. We want to engage with them and I will meet them when this request for tender is announced.

Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment

Cathal Berry

Ceist:

2. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for Social Protection the extent to which the pandemic unemployment payment was paid to ineligible recipients; the way she plans to recoup this funding; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48673/21]

I compliment the Minister, her predecessor, Senator Regina Doherty, and her very kind staff in the Department of Social Protection who administered the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, programme. It has been a revolutionary programme and a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of people. It is one of the reasons we have almost beaten the pandemic and the virus. Last week, the Comptroller and Auditor General identified a few anomalies in the scheme. I would be grateful if the Minister will make a statement on that.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. Within three weeks of the PUP being launched, more than 500,000 people were in payment. In the initial two months to the end of April, my Department processed some 900,000 claims. The delivery of the scheme on such a scale and in such a short time represented a major achievement by my Department.

The recent report of the Comptroller and Auditor General found that approximately 9.4% of claims awarded at different points in time during 2020 did not comply with the strict conditions of the scheme. However, he also noted that some of these claimants would have been entitled to another payment if they did not receive the PUP, so that the net overpayment rate was probably lower.

He also noted that the Department's observations that excluding periods when there was a high level of churn when restrictions were being imposed or relaxed, the gross overpayment rate was approximately 6%. It was not out of line with working age social welfare schemes generally. We would, of course, have preferred if there were no overpayment, but my Department always has to strike a balance between applying tight controls and checks on claims on the one hand and not frustrating a person's entitlement to a payment on the other. This was particularly the case in the extraordinary and exceptional circumstances of Covid-19. Applying normal controls would have meant very long delays in processing the unprecedented number of claims received, which would have led to severe financial hardship for many people and undermined the sense of social solidarity necessary to sustain the public health restrictions and combat the virus.

Notwithstanding those concerns, a range of controls were implemented and have continued to be enhanced over the past 18 months, including, for example, matching against Revenue records. The matching exercise is proving effective in early detection of cases of people working while claiming the PUP.

I thank the Minister and agree entirely with the principle of her response. That is exactly what the Department of Social Protection should be for. It should be there to provide a safety net and safety blanket when required. I remember processing many claims to the Department and they were dealt with expeditiously and humanely.

I appreciate that the Comptroller and Auditor General took a small sample of the applicants and claims that were made. Is there a plan to do a deeper dive, a wider and more comprehensive audit within the Department, or are we going to draw a line under it and move on? Is there going to be a further audit or will there be no more investigation into this matter?

I thank the Deputy. As part of the claims approval process, claims were checked to ensure the claimant had a valid personal public service, PPS, number and other identity details. Checks were carried out whenever applications were submitted. In 2020, over 52,000 reviews were carried out by the Department's special investigation unit, with over 17,000 claims closed, while a further 19,400 reviews were carried out by other departmental staff, with approximately 5,800 claims closed. Claimants were asked to confirm their eligibility on a number of occasions through online declarations in July 2020 and July 2021. All claimants were asked to confirm their eligibility and in March 2021, 122,000 individuals who were in payment since March 2020 were also asked to confirm their eligibility.

In June this year, 6,000 claimants were requested to attend offices to sign on and this exercise is currently being repeated with almost 20,000 claimants currently being invited to attend offices. Regular checks against Revenue records are being made.

That is great. That is reassuring information. I think the appropriate balance was struck between proper checks and controls, on the one hand, and proper humanity, on the other. That is important.

The figures the Minister called out at the start of her response were staggering. Some 500,000 people had their claims processed over a three-week period. Those are incredible numbers. The Minister did not mention one particular statistic today, although she mentioned it in the media yesterday. Probably the most important statistic is that only approximately 100,000 people are still in receipt of the PUP. The trend is going in the right direction, which is also reassuring.

I am satisfied that the appropriate balance was struck, which is good. The PUP has served its purpose. I look forward to it ending completely because that will mean we have seen the back of the pandemic and we hope such a payment will not be required again. The PUP served its purpose. The health service tackled the virus head-on, while the Department of Social Protection tackled it indirectly and that is the reason we are in this good place now.

I thank the Deputy for his kind words about the Department. Everybody in this House agrees that the Department did a Trojan job to get those payments out so quickly and efficiently. Almost €9 billion has been paid out and over 27 million payments have issued. That support is unprecedented. It was an emergency payment at a time of national crisis. If we find people who knowingly abused the PUP, we will apply the full rigours of the law against them. The media have reported on a number of cases in which the Garda has got involved.

I again thank all the staff in the social protection offices the length and breadth of the country. I, of course, believe they were major workers who provided front-line services.

Departmental Schemes

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

3. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if she will consider introducing a new payment scheme for bereaved parents following the death of a child; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48969/21]

It is important, when we look at our social protection system, that we also look at potential gaps in it. I feel there is a gap around the statutory entitlement to paid leave for parents when they lose a child. That is probably the most horrific time in any parent's life. There is discretion to allow leave and it is up to the employer in all cases. Will the Minister consider this issue?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. Of course, the death of a child is a tragedy and the difficulties that parents and families experience as a result cannot be overstated. Within the social welfare system, there are a number of supports for people who suffer a bereavement. In particular, there is an arrangement known as the six weeks' payment after death, which allows for certain payments to continue to be made after a person dies. If a person is in receipt of a primary social welfare payment that includes an increase for a qualified child and, tragically, that child dies, the qualified child payment will continue for six weeks after the child's death. In cases where an individual has been in receipt of a one-parent family payment and an increase for a qualified child, both payments will continue for six weeks after the death of that child.

In the case of carer's allowance, payment continues to be made for 12 weeks after the death of the person who was being cared for, including where that person was a child. Carer's benefit continues for six weeks. Domiciliary care allowance continues to be paid for three months after the death of the child being cared for. The working family payment and the back to work family dividend also remain in payment for up to six weeks after the death of a qualifying child. Eligibility may continue beyond those six weeks if there are other children associated with the claim.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, the Department may make an exceptional needs payment to help meet essential, once-off expenditure which a person could not reasonably be expected to meet from their weekly income. An application can be made under the essential needs payment scheme for assistance with funeral and burial expenses where there is an inability to pay these costs, in part or in full, by the family of the deceased person without causing hardship.

In 2020, approximately 2,800 exceptional needs payments, totalling €5.7 million, were made towards funeral and burial costs. In budget 2020, €60,000 was allocated to the Irish Hospice Foundation to carry out a research project into funeral poverty in Ireland, together with the wider economic impact of bereavement. The project is expected to be completed in the near future.

I thank the Minister for her reply. With respect to the continuation of payments for six weeks where a qualifying child payment is made, that applies when the people concerned, both the person who has, sadly, passed away and the parents, are already on social welfare and in the system. I am asking for a bereavement leave and benefit scheme to allow for the parents to take time off work, in a similar fashion to the parents' leave and benefit scheme, including two weeks' paid leave. England became the first country in the world to provide such a scheme two years ago and I think we should be following suit. I am proposing a payment in line with maternity benefit. It would be payable on stillbirth at 24 weeks up until the age of 18, at least initially, and that is a payment for workers who do not have the additional six weeks' payment after death. I am not talking about funeral costs either, which I understand are available to some degree as part of the exceptional needs payment.

I wanted to outline a number of existing reports in my initial reply, but I take on board the points the Deputy is making. She is talking about a different and new type of payment. I will look at the issue because there is merit in what the Deputy is saying.

Losing a child is the worst thing that can happen to a person. The heartbreak is unimaginable. People in those circumstances need time to grieve. Three days is in no way sufficient. I would like to think that the vast majority of employers would show compassion and flexibility in such cases but I appreciate that cannot be guaranteed. I am not sure what is already in place with regard to compassionate leave. It is probably important to say that if additional leave from work is required, it is likely that legislation to amend employment law would need to be passed. I will raise and explore that issue with the Tánaiste.

I welcome the Minister's comments. I am sure she has read the proposals I have made in respect of social protection in our alternative budget. One such proposal is that parental bereavement leave and benefit be introduced. This would be a two-week payment and would come at a very small cost. I looked at the number of stillbirths recorded by the HSE, which estimates that there are approximately 300 every year. I also looked at the number of deaths among those under 18 recorded by the Central Statistics Office, CSO. The cost would be small and this leave and benefit would provide great support to parents at a terrible and heartbreaking time. Parents should be allowed that bit of time, two weeks initially. I am not precious about age, time or anything like that but our social protection system is there to support. When is the need to support parents greater than at times such as these? I appreciate that legislation would be needed but it would be very similar to existing legislation such as that regarding parental leave and benefit. I look forward to raising this issue with the Minister again.

I thank the Deputy. There is certainly merit in what she is saying. Anyone who is unfortunate enough to lose a child deserves support at that time. Three days is a very short time in which to deal with such awful grief. Off the top of my head, I believe there may be a payment for bereaved parents in the UK. Under that system, the employer covers the cost of the leave. I believe the Deputy is suggesting that the State should cover the cost of this leave. Legislation in respect of employment law falls under the remit of the Tánaiste's Department but I am happy to raise the matter with him. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

Social Welfare Eligibility

Danny Healy-Rae

Ceist:

4. Deputy Danny Healy-Rae asked the Minister for Social Protection if the fuel allowance eligibility criteria will be reviewed to allow those in receipt of benefit payments such as jobseeker’s, illness benefit, carers benefit and so on to qualify; and if she will review the requirement of 15 months or more on jobseeker’s allowance in order to qualify for the fuel allowance, which is discouraging persons from taking up seasonal work as they would then lose the fuel allowance in the winter (details supplied). [48966/21]

I ask the Minister to review the eligibility criteria for the fuel allowance and to allow those in receipt of benefit payments including jobseeker's payments, illness benefit and carer's benefit to qualify. I also ask her to review the requirement for applicants to have been on jobseeker's allowance for 15 months or longer in order to qualify for the fuel allowance. This discourages people from taking up seasonal work, as they would then lose their fuel allowance in the winter.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week for 28 weeks, from October to April, representing a total payment of €784 each year. It is paid to 370,000 low-income households at an estimated cost of €300 million in 2021. The purpose of this payment is to assist these households with their energy costs. The allowance represents a contribution towards the energy costs of a household and is not intended to meet those costs in full. Only one allowance is paid per household.

Qualifying payments for fuel allowance are those payments that are considered long-term payments and an applicant must also satisfy a means test. People on long-term payments are unlikely to have additional resources of their own and are more vulnerable to poverty, including energy poverty. It is for this reason that the Department allocates additional payments, supports and resources to help this cohort of claimants.

Any decision to extend the eligibility criteria for fuel allowance to include people in receipt of short-term benefit schemes or people in receipt of short-term jobseeker’s allowance would have to be considered in the context of overall budgetary negotiations. This year, funds raised through the carbon tax will again support targeted social welfare and other initiatives to alleviate fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. In this regard, in the forthcoming budget, the Government will consider how it can support people on low incomes and those on social welfare payments. The outcome of these considerations will be announced on budget day.

Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, exceptional needs payments may be made to help meet an essential once-off cost that customers are unable to meet out of their own resources. This may include exceptional heating costs. Decisions on such payments are made on a case-by-case basis. I hope this clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I hear what the Minister is saying but I am not satisfied because I believe people on benefit payments are being treated unfairly. A person in receipt of illness benefit does not qualify, irrespective of how long he or she has been claiming it for. It can be two years or sometimes more. People do not qualify for fuel allowance if they are getting one of the following contributory payments, namely, jobseeker's benefit, illness benefit, enhanced illness benefit, occupational injuries benefit, maternity benefit or disablement benefit. It is important to note that a person who shares a home with, or lives with, a person claiming illness benefit does not qualify for fuel benefit either, no matter how low his or her own income is. People do not qualify for fuel allowance if they live with someone who is getting one of the payments that qualify for fuel allowance. For example, a pensioner living with a cancer patient who is on illness benefit does not qualify for fuel allowance even though the State pension and illness benefit combined are considerably lower than the threshold of the fuel allowance means test.

It is important to say that we are already doing a lot to help people with their fuel costs. The fuel allowance payment is €28 per week and this will cost €300 million in 2021. Some 370,000 low-income households were able to benefit from that. The household benefits package, which consists of a set of allowances to help with the costs of running a household, includes allowances towards covering the costs of electricity or gas. Approximately 470,000 recipients are paid €35 per month at a total cost of €195 million in 2021. The living alone allowance, which is targeted at recipients of certain social welfare payments who live alone and often have significantly higher costs, is paid at a rate of €19 per week. This is paid in addition to primary social welfare payments such as the State pension. More than 221,000 recipients will benefit from this allowance in 2021, at a cost of more than €219 million.

What the Minister has just said does not address the issue I have raised with regard to people on benefit payments. One example I did not get to is that of a person who has been in receipt of jobseeker's allowance for less than 15 months. Such a person will not qualify. That stops such people taking up part-time jobs in the summer. That is very unfair. I cannot understand how the Government can stand over all of these people on benefits being disqualified from the fuel allowance. Something I did not put into the question, but should have, is that these people on benefits do not qualify for the bonus week at Christmas. This is totally and absolutely wrong. As the Government negotiates the upcoming budget, I beg it to address the discriminatory rules that bar people on benefit payments from getting the fuel allowance.

The principle behind this is that people on long-term payments are unlikely to have additional resources of their own and are more vulnerable to poverty, including energy poverty. That is why we target people on longer-term payments. The payments the Deputy has mentioned are short-term payments. We take the view that we should help those who are more vulnerable to poverty. The best approach in the long term is to make sure homes are warmer and to invest in energy efficiency. The Government is committed to supporting households with their energy costs through energy efficiency measures with a total budget for retrofitting in excess of €280 million. Programmes like the warmer homes scheme are important to help those on low incomes improve their energy efficiency. The updated national development plan provides for an expanded investment in retrofitting well in excess of €1 billion between now and 2025.

They are waiting nearly two years for that.

I am moving on to the final Priority Question.

Fuel Poverty

Claire Kerrane

Ceist:

5. Deputy Claire Kerrane asked the Minister for Social Protection if consideration will be given to establishing a discretionary fund to assist households with utility costs and debt given rising energy costs; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [48970/21]

My question is similar to that of Deputy Healy Rae. Will the Minister consider establishing a discretionary fund to support and assist households with mounting utility costs and bills? Some will face utility debt in the coming weeks and months, if they are not facing it already. Will the Minister consider this, given that many are locked out of the fuel allowance in the first instance?

The Government is committed to helping vulnerable households manage their energy costs through a combination of special energy related payments made by my Department and investment programmes within the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Ryan, to improve the energy efficiency of the housing stock. My Department currently provides a range of schemes to assist low income households with energy costs. These payments include regular payments such as fuel allowance and additional discretionary payments made under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme.

The fuel allowance is a payment of €28 per week, a total of €784 each year per household from October to April. This has an estimated cost of €300 million and is paid to some 370,000 low income households. The electricity or gas allowance is available under the household benefits scheme at an estimated cost in 2021 of €195 million. Under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, my Department makes discretionary payments to help people with the cost of heating their homes. A heating supplement may be paid to assist people who have exceptional heating costs due to ill-health, infirmity or a medical condition and are unable to meet those costs out of household income. In 2020, 1,100 people received the heating supplement and almost 1,000 people are currently receiving it. More generally, my Department also provides discretionary exceptional needs payments, where appropriate, to people who face difficulties in meeting fuel bills. These payments are not ring-fenced or budget limited as they would be if they were drawn from an earmarked fund, but rather are demand led.

In 2019, more than 5,000 exceptional needs payments, totalling €930 million, were made to assist with household bills and heating costs. In 2020 almost 4,300 exceptional needs payments were made at a total cost of €670,000. To the end of September this year more than 1,500 payments have been made at a total cost of almost €500,000.

It is fairly clear that there will be moves in regard to the fuel allowance in the budget next week. The fuel allowance is a great payment and is most welcome at the rate at which it is paid because it is extremely important for households. However, it is only extremely important for the households who actually receive it in the first place. There are issues, some of which were outlined by Deputy Healy Rae, such as the 15-month waiting time for jobseekers and the fact that those who are in receipt of illness benefit because they are out sick from work do not qualify for these payments.

In a major study this year the St. Vincent de Paul outlined that nearly 20% of working people are cutting back on fuel and electricity due to costs. These are people who are at work. Those in receipt of the working family payment cannot qualify for the fuel allowance. It is very clear that we need to go beyond the fuel allowance in the budget. A specific discretionary fund for utility costs should be considered.

As I said, anybody who struggles with heating costs is entitled to make an application for a payment under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. I encourage people to contact their local Intreo centre. Once they meet the eligibility criteria, they will be provided with additional financial support. A helpline is available at 0818 800024, and people can get support from that. It is important that we consider energy efficiency in homes. One of the best ways to tackle fuel poverty in the long term is to address the energy efficiency of dwellings through proper building and household insulation. The warmer home scheme administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, is designed to do that.

I agree that we cannot have a situation whereby the fuel allowance continues to be increased and extended for ever and ever. We need to make sure people's homes are warmer, which can be done through the retrofit programme highlighted by the Minister. It makes sure that people are warm in their homes in the first instance, which is really important.

My issue with leaving this to the supplementary welfare allowance and the exceptional or urgent needs schemes is the fact that we do not know the number of people who go to community welfare offices or Intreo centres to seek payments and are refused. All we know is the number of payments that are drawn down. How many people seek the payment but do not get it are not data we have in terms of the supplementary welfare allowance. That data could be greatly improved by examining all of that.

There is discretion with community welfare officers; some will make a payment and others will not. The St. Vincent de Paul have argued for a discretionary fund. I raised this matter with the Tánaiste a few weeks ago and he said it will be considered as part of the budget. Given the serious situation in terms of utility costs, we should examine this issue outside of the supplementary welfare allowance.

The important thing to say about the supplementary welfare allowance is that it is demand-led. There are no limits on it. If people qualify under the criteria set out, they will get their payments. The exceptional needs payments scheme is also, as the Deputy knows, demand-led. As a result, the level of expenditure of the schemes changes over time.

I am saying very clearly that people who have a problem paying their bills and are in difficulty should go to an Intreo office and submit an application under the supplementary welfare allowance scheme. That is what it is there for; that is its purpose. We will continue to fund it, as I said. We do not want anybody not being able to heat their houses. As we face into winter, many people are concerned about bills. I understand that. That particular fund is there to support people.

I thank Deputies for their co-operation. We are doing well on time. I hope we continue to do well on time.