Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 19 June 2013
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions
Back to Education Allowance: Discussion on Public Petition Received
The committee will consider petition No. P00042/12 from Mr. Kevin Walshe concerning the back to education allowance scheme. The committee will deliberate on the general policy aspects and development of the scheme and take evidence from Mr. Kevin Walshe, the petitioner, Ms Bríd O'Brien and Mr. Robert Lynch, head of policy and media and work section manager, respectively, of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, and Mr. Oliver Egan, assistant secretary general, Mr. T. J. Fleming, principal officer, Mr. Donal Spellman, assistant principal officer, and Mr. Shane Reynolds, higher executive officer, of the Department of Social Protection. I welcome all of the witnesses. This is the first occasion on which an individual citizen has come before the committee to present a petition. As such, we are particularly pleased that Mr. Walshe has made himself available to meet with us today. It is an important step in the development of a robust petitions process which places the citizen at the heart of the parliamentary system.
I remind members to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off for the duration of the meeting as they interfere with the broadcasting equipment even when on silent mode. I also remind members and witnesses of the position on privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her, them or it identifiable. Members are reminded of a long-standing parliamentary practice and long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Mr. Kevin Walshe:
I thank the Chairman and committee members for the opportunity to discuss the current eligibility criteria for the back to education allowance scheme.
Currently, an individual on jobseeker's benefit must have been in receipt of payments for nine months - 234 days - or longer to qualify for the back to education allowance. In 2004, the criteria for receiving the back to education allowance was six months - 156 days - notwithstanding that it was a time of high employment. The former position suggests there is flexibility with regard to the length of time an individual should be unemployed to qualify for the allowance. On Wednesday, 12 May 2010, at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Social and Family Affairs, a representative of the Department of Social Protection stated, "The imposition of a waiting period serves to minimise the deadweight element". The inference was that undertaking a third level course might be easier than being unemployed and in receipt of jobseeker's benefit. Time spent on a community employment scheme or JobBridge internship is reckonable for eligibility for the back to education allowance. An individual who is unemployed can participate on these courses and qualify for the allowance. In effect, he or she can be in receipt of welfare payments for a year longer than an individual who is unemployed for three months and is refused the back to education allowance. Is this the best use of scarce resources? Is it not an anomaly that time spent in prison is reckonable for qualification for the back to education allowance whereas an individual who is unemployed for three months does not qualify?
I suggest that an individual with a third level degree is better equipped to return to the labour market. Instead of claiming welfare payments, he or she would be contributing by paying PRSI and income tax. I thank the committee.
Ms Bríd O'Brien:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to speak. The Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed sees the back to education allowance as an important support for unemployed people to re-educate and retrain, in particular in the current economic climate when so much employment has been lost and so many need to upskill. The allowance is important also for those the education system failed the first time. Their initial education may have been a poor or unfruitful experience.
The issues we raise in our written submission to the committee reflect very much some of the issues which were raised in the review the Department recently conducted of a whole range of employment supports. One of the things that struck us from that review was that certain assumptions appeared to have been drawn on the allowance which might be unfair given that it often plays a role for those for whom second-chance education is of critical importance. In many respects, the allowance has been criticised for poor outcomes in the way the community employment schemes have been criticised when in fact it is addressing issues the mainstream education has not. It would be interesting to see if initiatives like Pathways to Work and the introduction of the Intreo model help with some of the data gaps which clearly exist. The allowance must be reviewed in terms of overall education outcomes. It is a point the Minister for Social Protection picked up on herself at the stakeholders' forum which was held around the review.
The OECD has raised concerns about the lock-in effect. We take issue with that, in particular - building on Mr. Walshe's point - as requiring a job search first, while well and good, is not an option for many given the need for longer-term engagement and the opportunity to get a degree, which is critical in the evolving labour market and in the context of scarce employment opportunities. The back to education allowance plays a very important role in people's re-education and retraining. Short-term courses can be very useful for those who already have significant education or experience. It allows them to redirect their experience and education into areas in which there are opportunities. Unfortunately, this is not an option for many who require longer-term intervention. We have concerns also about the proposal to increase the age limit from 21 to 23 years. In many respects, this change presents particular challenges to the State if the Youth Guarantee is rolled out. The back to education allowance is currently the most significant activation measure. The age limit change reduces its availability.
Cuts to supports have, unfortunately, already taken place in last year's budget. This has thrown up considerable issues for people, in particular in relation to the abolition of the cost-of-education allowance, which was important to many. Eligibility issues represent a range of challenges. It will be interesting to see over time if the case management approach which is being rolled out through Intreo will help to address these. It is important that the model is rolled out not just to jobseekers but beyond. That will require that frontline staff have a strong grasp of the education and training options available to people and can offer people useful advice and guidance on access to courses of relevance to them and which assist them to progress to work.
That is particularly important if we are to get better outcomes from the back to education allowance. A number of anomalies exist in the system, particularly in respect of those progressing on from other payments who may benefit from the back to education allowance. If an individual transferring from jobseeker's benefit to jobseeker's allowance ends up on the supplementary allowance, he or she may need to apply for the back to education allowance to avail of educational opportunities. The nature of the academic year also creates problems on that front.
The issue of choice arose at our recent annual delegate conference. An unemployed delegate made the interesting observation that a person is an expert on his or her own life. That tends to get lost in the debate on activation schemes and the back to education allowance. If this scheme changes in the same way as many others have, in terms of people being directed into schemes, provision should be made for constructive dialogue with the unemployed person so that his or her concerns are taken on board and he or she is supported in making an informed and appropriate choice.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
I thank the committee for inviting me to address it. I will outline the background the schemes and the issues which we are currently addressing before considering Mr. Walshe's case and the general issues arising.
The Department of Social Protection provides a broad range of training and education schemes to assist jobseekers in their efforts to return to employment. While the Department of Education and Skills has the lead role in supporting learners, the Department of Social Protection supports individuals returning to education primarily through the back to education programme, which consists of the back to education allowance, the part-time education option and the education, training and development option. The back to education allowance is a broadly targeted non-statutory second chance education opportunity scheme for eligible individuals on certain social welfare payments who desire to participate in full-time education. In 2012 we conducted a high level review of employment supports, followed by a stakeholders' conference earlier this year to consider a number of recommendations. The report produced at that time included an analysis of the relevant back to education data of those originating from live register payments which indicated that 60% of those who completed or dropped out of a course under the allowance at the end of the 2010-11 academic year had returned to the live register by September 2012. In preparing for this meeting we calculated that the figure for the previous two years was approximately 58%.
Like many other schemes, the back to education allowance is undergoing a process of reform, as is evident in the changes introduced in recent budgets and the recommendations we are now making. Ms Rogers touched on some of the salient recommendations from the review. While the three month eligibility period for second level courses should be retained, we recommended that it should apply to those pursuing second chance education leading to a qualification at leaving certificate level or lower. Post-leaving certificate and further education courses should remain subject to the nine month eligibility period. We suggest that the general minimum age requirement for entry to the back to education allowance should be raised from 21 years to 23 years. For those pursuing second chance education leading to a qualification at leaving certificate level or lower, the age requirement should remain at 21 years. In line with other activation schemes, the back to education jobseeker's participants should establish an underlying entitlement to jobseeker's allowance prior to qualification. Those who complete a course and wish to progress to a higher level course should be required to qualify for the back to education by establishing an entitlement to social welfare payments. The practice of freezing jobseeker's benefit for those on the back to education allowance should be discontinued. The practice of maximising payments for participants on means reduced payments should be discontinued and only the underlying social welfare entitlements should be paid to participants where an entitlement exists. As case management and client profiling are developed, the Department should actively exercise discretion on what clients can access under the back to education allowance. This would involve assessing the likely contribution courses would make to clients' employment chances given their backgrounds and local and national labour market conditions. In this context and with a view to moving to more targeted schemes, attendance on shorter term, accelerated and conversion courses, which are more suitable to certain cohorts, could be delivered.
In respect of Mr. Walshe's case, currently the period for which a person is required to be on a qualifying social welfare payment such as jobseeker's payment before accessing a second level option is three months, or 78 days, or nine months, or 234 days, in the case of third level options. The latter was reduced from 12 months in 2010. Mr. Walshe was refused a back to education allowance on 25 August.
I apologise for interrupting Mr. Egan but he may have misunderstood the reason for this meeting. We invited the Minister for Social Protection but Mr. Egan is here instead. The reason the committee accepted this petition is because of the general policy issues it raises rather than the specific case. I ask him to deal with the policy issues, not the case.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
I will speak about why we decide that eligibility periods are appropriate. In essence, they allow for greater targeting of activation places and opportunities. This is consistent with the policy set out in pathways to work and is part of the reason we are considering these issues.
The live register is constantly changing, with large numbers joining and exiting it in any given period. The average exit rates in 2013 at the three, six, nine and 12 month durations are 25%, 46%, 59% and 69%, respectively. This means that an average of 25% of those who join the live register in any given month will leave within three months, 46% within six months, 59% within nine months and 69% within 12 months. Given that the scheme confers an entitlement to extend certain social welfare payments for a considerable period of time, it is necessary to enforce an appropriate eligibility period.
Persons on the live register for one year or longer, who are known as the long-term unemployed, now account for 45% of all persons on the live register. This rate has increased slowly in recent months. Pathways to work targets these long-term unemployed persons to assist them in gaining access to the labour market and further education.
The numbers availing of the back to education allowance and the associated cost of the scheme have increased dramatically in recent years. As of the end of September 2012, 25,961 individuals were availing of the current 2012-13 academic year, which represents an increase of 192% on the figure for 2007-08. Expenditure on the scheme also increased dramatically, from €64 million in 2007 to more than €200 million in 2012. In addition to these increases, bespoke versions of back to education schemes support new initiatives from the Department of Education and Skills, such as Momentum and ICT. These two initiatives offer a combined 7,000 places, many of which are on full courses which may be supported under the back to education allowance. This creates further pressure on expenditure. At the end of April 2013, 27,830 people were engaged in back to education schemes, 91% of whom originated from unemployment payments.
In regard to future policy development, the report outlines where we think resources should be targeted and how clear entitlement periods could be established to benefit the greater majority of people.
I apologise for the confusion. This meeting marks a milestone in that it is the first time a petitioner has appeared before us. We discussed a number of petitions with relevant Ministers and Departments but it is the first time a petitioner came to the committee to present evidence. Where specific cases are brought to the attention of the committee, we try to refer petitioners to the appropriate appeal mechanisms or the Ombudsman but if the case has wider policy implications we seek to consider it with officials or Ministers. We do not wish to discuss individual cases but we want to consider wider policy implications. I thank Mr. Egan for his presentation.
This is an issue I have raised previously with the Minister for Social Protection and departmental officials. There is something illogical in the way it operates at present.
With a back to education scheme as rigid as the current one if, for example, one signs on in February, it will be 20 months before one is eligible to begin a university course, not nine months. One might be eligible to apply for the back to education allowance. That is one of the key issues. Anybody signing on early in the year for a university course, most of which begin at the end of September or October, will be excluded because he or she will not have the nine required months.
Earlier this year the length of time one was allocated jobseeker's benefit was reduced from 12 months to nine months. There was no change in the eligibility requirements for the likes of back to education down to six months to reflect that change of three months.
Mr. Egan mentioned that the Department will increase the minimum age for the back to education scheme from 21 to 23. I am trying to figure out the justification for that. With this change, young people who have completed their leaving certificate and want to go to university could be six years out of formal education, because some people complete their leaving certificates at the age of 17. In a time of crisis the Department is reducing their options. Besides the fact that social welfare payments have been cut for young people under the age of 25, the Department is now saying the educational options are also going to be restricted, and in many ways that is why we are seeing so many young people emigrating. The Department is sending out another message that if there is no work there, there is no education at the level some of these people would require. People may have completed their leaving certificate and may have got good results, and decided not to go to university, but they might want to go later. There are other options such as the Springboard programme and the like but many people need a back to education allowance and it is not an option to hang around waiting to qualify by age or by the number of months they have been on the live register. That is why we are seeing people emigrating.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
I am conscious of what the Deputy said but we look at back to education as one of a range of programmes. We are conscious that in 2007 we had 8,000 on it and now we have 25,000 and escalating. The spend is approximately €200 million. Within the portfolio of the moneys we spend we are trying to see how to target this to get the best outcomes, bearing in mind that we have Momentum, internships and a range of other programmes that come into the same sphere. We are trying to fit in that overall context and working within the progression in terms of ensuring within the range of FETAC-type qualifications that progression route is there. The purpose of that review was to set out what our thinking in the Department of Social Protection was and then to engage with other partners to hear their views. That is what we were doing in February at our stakeholders' conference.
Over the next number of months we will engage in a more detailed way with a view to developing firmer policy precepts around that, and that process is ongoing. We will be engaging with the Department of Education and Skills and listening to its views and, again, trying to examine the totality of programmes available to people in a way that knits together in a sensible fashion and allows people clear routes of progression. One of the concerns we have primarily in back to education is the disappointing figures for return to the live register and we are trying to ask what that means for the scheme, whether we can do something to improve that and how we can work in that area. That is what we are trying to develop our thinking on.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe agus cuirim céad fáilte rompu. Is lá stairiúíl inniu é i ndáiríre agus tá an athas orm go bhfuil siad ar fad anseo. This is a very historic day and we have been deliberating for quite a while before we received our first petition. This is the culmination of a process of going through a number of petitions and it is very welcome to have all the stakeholders here because we see this committee as a potential forum for resolving policy issues and anomalies. Mr. Walshe will go down in history as the first petitioner to appear, so I congratulate him. Some people might find it daunting, but fair play to him, the officials, Ms O'Brien and Mr. Lynch.
We are trying to home in on the specific policy issues. Perhaps I am reading it in too simplistic a fashion but I am trying to bring this down to the fact that certain people in the system are entitled to claim €188 per week on jobseeker's benefit but they are not entitled to attend college while in receipt of that payment and are not eligible for the back to education allowance, which is the same monetary value per week and would enable them to do a course. The policy framework is much more complicated but it does not seem to make sense that we are keeping people out of education and leaving them on the dole when they have access to courses. Is it purely a policy issue? Could it be changed in a policy scenario and could we re-examine this so those people are not just left sitting on the dole? If they want to better themselves, as Mr. Walshe highlighted, could that be open to them? Are we biting off our noses to spite our faces? Are we getting caught up in red tape? That is why we were interested in this scenario.
We need to do everything we can to help people in this scenario, whether long-term or short-term unemployed, trying to get back to work, better themselves and retrain themselves. Can the guidelines be tweaked, without any extra expense to the Exchequer, so that we can facilitate people who find themselves in this situation? Perhaps the Department could respond or Ms O'Brien or Mr. Lynch might give us an insight into the INOU's reading of that situation.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
We are conscious that all schemes must have eligibility criteria of some sort to govern their fair administration, and we all accept that. The issue of the back to education scheme is the lock-in effect, and that is why I mentioned the figures in terms of the normal turnover in the labour market. One wants to design a programme that is most effective. We are conscious that if we put the intervention in too early the lock-in effect could go on for a number of years, increase the cost and distort the market. That is a complicated way of saying we want to ensure the people who use the programme can really benefit from it. Other people may have moved off the labour market already and have secured jobs. We do not want to put the appropriate package in too early.
As our service and the role of case officers is developing, we must evaluate this because we want the case officers to work with the clients in a way which gives them the intervention at the best possible time. In doing that, there will be an element of what is our role in the Department of Social Protection vis-à-vis the Department of Education and Skills. Our role is within the labour market, how that is performing, and to help people back into jobs. That is our primary concern. There will always be eligibility criteria. We need to work those out in terms of the lock-in effects and the labour market generally and how it integrates with the broader range of packages there. That will inevitably evolve, as the case officer role evolves, within the Intreo system.
Ms Bríd O'Brien:
As I said earlier, we do not quite agree with the OECD on the lock-in effect. One of the difficulties that arises with the back to education allowance is that people are accessing the formal education system, which is quite rigid in how it operates. Somebody who becomes unemployed in January or February and for whom going to third level would be an ideal option, may or may not be eligible depending on when the course begins.
It will be interesting as it evolves to see how the PECS score system kicks in and whether that will facilitate people for whom that is an option. It may be particularly beneficial to them and they would not have to observe the current waiting period. It is very much around trying to develop a system that has the capacity to engage with the person and meet the person's needs in a timely fashion. It would be an ideal world if we could have eligibility for everybody from day 1 but, being realistic, that is not feasible. However, there are ways to address this to ensure people for whom it would be particularly beneficial and help in the longer term get into work or a good job. It is about the system having the capacity to engage with people and to offer them options that would be useful for them.
Ms Bríd O'Brien:
Yes, if the case management system is rolled out in a constructive way, it could help to address some of these dilemmas that arise, particularly for people for whom an earlier intervention would be useful. It would be hard to design a system where somebody is not caught by a dividing line, regrettably, but it could help to address some of the anomalies. Currently, people have to be long-term unemployed to access an opportunity by which time they may not be able to avail of it to the best advantage that they could have done if they had been able to access it earlier.
I particularly welcome Mr. Walshe and I congratulate him on being the first person to present a petition. It may sound corny but it is historic. His basic point is that setting a number of days for something that people may wish to do is arbitrary and if somebody was suitable for going back to education, he or she should be able to do so, while Ms O'Brien said there should be greater flexibility. Mr. Egan said that as case management and client profiling develop, the Department's idea is to create discretion. This would involve assessing the likely contribution courses would make. Is everyone singing from the same hymn sheet regarding the ideal solution? Mr. Walshe says there is no point having an arbitrary cut off point, Ms O'Brien says if it is the best case for a person, he or she should be able to access education or whatever and Mr. Egan is saying client interaction and discretion should be provided earlier if it is more suitable.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
There are obviously areas of overlap on which we probably have broad agreement. The issue is how we construct a system that is fair and equitable. As we have seen, there will always be eligibility criteria and people will fall on the right or wrong side. What I can see happening as we go forward and as systems become more refined and the case manager role develops is there will be a more personalised intervention, but one needs to be careful in doing that so that it is fairly applied and there are clear criteria as to why somebody would benefit or not. The one thing about the system currently is it is clear. It may result in issues where people such as Mr. Walshe are unhappy and one can understand that but, equally, as systems develop as well as our capacity to look at what an individual coming into a DSP or Intreo office requires, I can see a more nuanced approach being taken. We are a little away from that yet. We are also conscious of the spend on that and that there is a natural churn within the labour market. If 70% will leave within nine months, when should the intervention be put in place? We could put interventions in too early and keep unemployment unofficially high. However, there is a degree of overlap. We had the stakeholders conference to try to work these issues out to formulate policy on which we can broadly agree. We are at the start of that process but that is the type of road we are trying to develop.
Mr. Kevin Walshe:
The current system allows for an unemployed person to participate in the JobBridge scheme for six or nine months and this is added to his or her unemployment time. He or she can then apply the following year for the back of education allowance but the issue is he or she has wasted a year. I am speaking from personal experience.
I congratulate Mr. Walshe on introducing the petition and appearing before the committee. I thank the other witnesses. The departmental officials have been fine administrators and good at getting the funds through to the clients that need them but when it comes to getting people from the live register into suitable employment or education or internship, we are only at the beginning of the road when we should be much further along. This is fundamental. I acknowledge the Department is trying to create a system where everything will be built up on a case by case basis. The issue is how officials would assess a case such as Mr. Walshe's. He referred to going into education in the second year.
Mr. Kevin Walshe:
When I applied in 2011, I was turned down. With the help of family support, I completed first year in UCD. The following September, I applied for the back to education allowance and was denied it again because I did not have enough days. I had to take a leave of absence because I could not afford to go to college.
If officials examine everything on a case by case basis and there are exceptional circumstances such as those in Mr. Walshe's case, it should be facilitated by a case study. If nothing else results from this petition, it will give a human face to the problems encountered by the Department every day in tailoring solutions to myriad different clients. People are being put in education who should be at work and people are being put into internships who should be in education. This is a worthwhile exercise. How much longer must we wait for a case by case system in which we can have confidence?
Mr. Oliver Egan:
We will engage with the Department of Education and Skills following the stakeholders' review conference and report we have published. Allied to that, we have the ongoing development of Intreo and the roll-out of case officer positions. A great deal of work is taking place and momentum is building and by the end of the year we will be considerably further down the road to the roll-out of Intreo offices. It will be completed next year. The case officer positions will be reassigned and people will be retrained. There is a desire to improve the services set out within Pathways to Work, the Intreo process and so on. We are anxious in looking at these programmes that they are effective and fair. We are conscious in developing policy that in so far as possible case officers must be clear on why they are making recommendations in particular cases and not in other cases. Perhaps one of the issues that might arise is that we will support certain programmes or third level degrees and not others because it might be considered that they are more appropriate to the labour market. That is also debatable. Is that the appropriate thing to do? Is there a benefit in all education? We have to be careful how we do this.
I take on board the point about the need to make services better for the individual. That is what we are trying to do in our reviews. We are concerned about the issues of exceptions because, as one of my colleagues says, exceptions sometimes become the norm and we want to have clear reasons for making them.
We are in the midst of change and further change is planned. We must carefully work on the parameters of this.
I thank Mr. Kevin Walshe for his petition and for coming before the committee today because it is important. For decades many members of the public have faced a disconnect when they have had a difficulty in seeking or gaining a benefit or entitlement. It is great Mr. Walshe is here today, and that Ms Bríd O'Brien and Mr. Lynch from the INOU and the officials from the Department are also before the committee. This is democracy at its best whereby a person who has an issue can appear before a committee and engage. Politicians and Departments have a role to fulfil and a job to do and, as the departmental officials know, I very much respect their role. We must work together to come to a solution which is agreeable to everybody.
I was struck by a line in Mr. Walshe's presentation which summarises the entire issue. He suggested an individual with a third level degree is better equipped to return to the labour market, and instead of claiming welfare payments would be contributing by paying PRSI and income tax. This summarises the issue. All most people are trying to do is better themselves so they are able to contribute to society rather than having to seek payments. Of course some people find themselves in impossible situations, and because of personal problems find it difficult to better themselves, but as a rule people want to better themselves at all times. Our job, and the job of the departmental officials, is to assist people in getting to this place, wherever this place is and whatever it takes it should be done.
I believe 100% in the bona fides of the departmental officials here today and I believe they want to engage. At the same time, and this must be publicly acknowledged, people working at the Department of Social Protection are under tremendous pressure because of budgetary constraints, and I acknowledge this. It is not as though they go around with a big bag of money which they can unlock and let out. They cannot do so because they are not in this position. I ask them to read the common sense paragraph at the end of Mr Walshe's submission which answers it all. Getting people to a better place takes them from simply looking for something from the State to contributing to the State. Education and further betterment of a person is what it is all about. This is what will save the country, and get us from where we are to being a better place for everybody to live. There is nothing corny about stating Mr. Walshe is making history today. He may not think so, but he is. I hope he will be the first of many people who will be welcomed to Leinster House. This is not our house, it is Mr. Walshe's house and he is very welcome to it.
I join with previous speakers in welcoming Mr. Kevin Walshe and I commend him for his work and initiative in submitting his petition and getting it to this stage. It is great to see the Oireachtas being open to average citizens to come here and have an audience with legislators and those who set policy and with departmental officials who are responsible for overseeing it, and suggesting reforms and taking on board the issues of what is working well and what is not. I also welcome Ms O'Brien and Mr. Lynch and the departmental officials, Mr. Spellman, Mr. Fleming and Mr. Egan.
Most Oireachtas Members have come across cases such as the one Mr. Walshe has brought before us. A genuine person has lost his job and is trying to engage as best he can to better himself, get back into the workforce and retrain, but he is told he must be on unemployment benefit for at least nine months before he can avail of the back to education allowance. It is an exceptionally difficult situation to be in and unbelievably frustrating. Many people who have found themselves in the position have spoken to me. At the same time, I see the rationale for it. Availing of an education course is expensive and can be very difficult. It is very difficult for someone to keep up with work while completing an education course. If the benefit were immediately available how would we deal with cases whereby people may give up their jobs? This is the flipside. If it were immediately available people would look at the option. This is the difficult scenario. I have no doubt this is the reason behind the nine month condition.
In recent years many people have ended up on the dole queues and find themselves in a very difficult scenario. At the very beginning, with no immediate job options available and no immediate prospects, it is very clear they need to retrain to find opportunities. At the first engagement with the system they are told they must be unemployed for nine months before they can receive many of the benefits, which it is understood and known they need and that they are genuine. We must address this.
Several speakers spoke about ensuring we tailor the offers made to each person who becomes unemployed, and the State is weak in this regard. People undoubtedly feel very alone when they end up on the dole queue and look to see where to go next. The services we provide to them are quite limited. I know the departmental officials are very stretched, but we have never properly engaged with people on an individual basis to assess their needs and as a State give them the best opportunity suitable to them and help and manage them along the way.
The establishment of Intreo is an opportunity, but I have not yet seen any evidence it is what is required. The concept is a recognition of the general need for such a service, but whether it operates in this way is another issue. Unemployment benefit can be given as a payment to a family comprising a man, woman and three children as a substantial weekly payment over a significant length of time, but our engagement with them is to ensure they are seeking work, and as long as a letter arrives every now and again stating they are seeking work they can be left there and this can drag on. They may end up being sent on a course which does not address their needs but which is thought will suit them, but only gives them something to do without necessarily leading them down the path which best suits them. It is a real pity we do not have a tailored system because it is what we need. We need everybody to be considered on their own merits and helped by the State with people qualified and trained to assist them. What Mr. Walshe has brought before us today is the crunch point, and an example of the first frustration many people face. It is a very sharp manifestation of our failure in how we work with people who are unemployed and how we help them back to the workforce.
Mr. Robert Lynch:
There is an issue with regard to the submission we made on the back to education allowance and people on jobseeker's payments. We have identified an anomaly between where a person finishes on jobseeker's benefit and seeks to claim jobseeker's allowance. The time spent on supplementary welfare allowance is virtually a no man's land where a person cannot apply or qualify for the back to education allowance. At present there is an intervention by the Department with regard to the jobseeker's benefit. A number of weeks in advance of a person exhausting or running out of a jobseeker's benefit claim the Department makes contact to advise him or her the claim is likely to run out and that he or she may be able to qualify for jobseeker's allowance. This would provide the Department with an ideal opportunity to highlight and flag the possibility of the back to education allowance as an option, and for the person to indicate whether it is something in which he or she would be interested.
At that point, the person could indicate whether he or she was interested in it. The Department could engage with the person in overcoming the barrier or no man's land of completing his or her jobseeker's benefit claim and applying for jobseeker's allowance without access to the back to education allowance. If the person was able to flag in advance an interest in pursuing the back to education allowance, the Department would be able to examine his or her claim in a different light and engage with him or her or examine the means testing or qualification criteria sooner. In this way, the person's transition to jobseeker's allowance could be smoother, shorter and easier and would avoid the no man's land of being unable to apply.
The Department has been practical and helpful in terms of developing services, automation and finding easy solutions to problems. This solution has been presented through the contacts with the Department. If followed up on, it could be particularly useful to individuals seeking the back to education allowance.
We would also consider the issue of genuinely seeking work, in that a person's indication of an interest in the back to education allowance would not be seen as a negative in respect of his or her genuinely seeking work. The allowance would be seen as part of the amount and people would not be excluded from a payment simply because they wanted to pursue education in addition to looking for work. Nor would there be a perception that they had chosen education over work.
Mr. Oliver Egan:
I listened carefully to comments and do not find myself disagreeing with them. As we move to a more client-focused approach, we could certainly marry in that suggestion. I might discuss the matter with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed, INOU, separately as to how best to do that. Broadly speaking, I can see the sense in what has been proposed. We should be able to work on it together.
This has been a useful exercise. I thank Mr. Walshe for making himself available to discuss the issues arising from his petition. I also wish to thank Ms O'Brien and Mr. Lynch of the INOU and Mr. Egan and the team of officials from the Department. We are grateful for their attendance and for their co-operation in dealing with members' questions.
I propose that we adjourn until 4 p.m. next Wednesday when we will consider public petitions. Is that agreed? Agreed.