Thursday, 30 June 2016

Ceisteanna (10)

Catherine Connolly


10. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Social Protection to indicate the Department or agency or private sector operator that will have responsibility for the implementation of the fit to work programme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18800/16]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Social)

Will the Minister to make a statement on the implementation of the fit to work programme? It has been raised by myself and other Members who are seriously concerned about the Government's intentions in this regard. In particular, page 57 of the programme for Government states, "We will assist local communities and schools in purchasing defibrillators". This is followed by a decision to pursue a fit for work programme and then a reference to overcrowding in accident and emergency departments. I would appreciate clarity on the proposed programme, including where it is at, when it will be implemented and who will implement it.

I would not be too concerned about the order everything appears in the programme for Government. A great deal of drafting and redrafting was done.

The recently agreed programme for a partnership Government provides for a range of actions that are designed to improve the quality of life for people with illness or disabilities. One of these actions is a proposal for the Departments of Health and Social Protection to work together to pursue a fit for work programme to support more people with an illness or disability to get back to work through early intervention. The fit for work proposal is based on the findings of a pan-European study, which examined the impact of musculoskeletal disorders, MSDs, on an individual’s ability to work. The key module of this study was progressed by the fit for work coalition. There are stakeholders led by Arthritis Ireland, the Irish College of General Practitioners, ICTU, IBEC and the Health and Safety Authority. They all contributed to the study.

Early interventions and developing return to work practices in the case of people with musculoskeletal incapacities is consistent with my Department’s approach to illness-disability income support, which aims to reduce the number of people progressing to chronic disability and long-term social welfare dependency. To this end, my Department issued, in 2015, a set of certification guidelines for GPs, which sets out defined periods of recovery for common medical conditions, including MSDs.

The certification guidelines build on the Renaissance project, which was an initiative of my Department back in 2003. This demonstrated that early intervention reduced the incidence of progression from acute simple low back pain to chronic disability in 64% of claimants.

Decisions have not been made as to how a fit for work programme might be delivered and specific proposals for such a programme will require further development and scoping out. There are no plans to assign responsibility for the implementation of the programme to another agency or private sector operator.

I assure the Deputy that any proposals will be in line with the wealth of evidence, which shows that generally employment is good for one’s mental health and physical well-being.

I thank the Minister for the clarification that there are no plans to privatise it or to give the contract for it to a private company. He has given an answer he has already given to a another Deputy who asked this question. He referred to a pan-European study. Is he aware of the evidence in England where such a programme, Fit for Work, has been passed over to a private company? That private company is currently being used in Ireland with respect to another labour activation scheme. On the follow-up from that company, the results were seriously upsetting. I will quote from one of them with respect to figures from the UK Department of Work and Pensions. It states that in England, 2,380 people who were declared fit for work were dead within six weeks of that declaration being made by a private company. That is 90 people per month after having their payments stopped. I do not have enough time to go into the evidence, but it is available. The United Nations is investigating that company in England regarding its decisions with respect to disability.

First, this programme is not yet in place and, therefore, there are no plans to have private contractors involved. It is being led by a coalition of groups, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Arthritis Ireland, the Irish College of General Practitioners, ICGP. I believe some people, either through misinformation or wanton deliberate misinformation, are trying to equate it to a programme with the same name in England, which was involved in assessing people who were in receipt of disability allowance and the extent to which they would be fit to return to work. This is not about that. This is about a proposal that was brought to us by the Fit for Work coalition, comprising Arthritis Ireland, the unions, IBEC and others, as to how we can ensure people do not progress to disability, that they get the early intervention they need when they initially present with back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders so that they can get back to work, get the treatment they need and not progress to becoming disabled. That is what this programme will be about.

I do not believe I am using rumours or resorting to unfair techniques. There is damning evidence in England regarding a similar programme. I am reassured the Minister has not made any decision yet about rolling out the plan as to who will do this. I ask him to commit to the Dáil today that he will not use a private for-profit company to deliver this programme. It seems to be based on the premise that there is a disbelief that people have a disability and that they have to prove that they are disabled. Rather than relying on a doctor's assessment, a person will have to have a second assessment. From the little of this I have seen here, the Minister seems to be zoning in on those who have back pain. There is a whole range of disability. I ask the Minister to make a statement today that he will not resort to a private for-profit company for the roll-out of this scheme.

I do not know how many times I have to say this before the Deputy might believe me but this programme does not exist yet. First, it has not even been designed yet. Second, it is not the programme that is in place in England. It is not about people who are in receipt of disability allowance or disability benefit. It is about people who have back pain who are ill and it is to make sure they get the supports, medical and otherwise, that they need to avoid progression and potentially becoming disabled.

I have listened to many contributions the Deputy has made in the Dáil and in the media and think she will be a very impressive Deputy because what she says is very articulate and I am sure very genuine, but whoever is feeding her information on this, whether it is an academic, an NGO or some campaign group, they are deliberately misinforming her. They are hoping this scheme is the one that was introduced in England in order that they can start a campaign against it, but it is not.