Tuesday, 5 February 2019
JobPath Programme: Motion [Private Members]
I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the important role that the JobPath service has played, and continues to play, in the provision of activation services to the long-term unemployed. Deputies have seen and heard the countermotion tabled by the Government and I wholeheartedly endorse its wording.
The Government and its immediate predecessor have worked tirelessly to address the crisis levels of unemployment brought about by the most recent recession. In January 2012, Ireland’s unemployment rate stood at 16%. Guiding the Government’s approach to this rate of unemployment was the Action Plan for Jobs, the Pathways to Work strategy and more recently the Action Plan for Jobless Households. A key element of these strategies was ensuring that those who found themselves unemployed were given access to a supportive activation service that was tailored to meet their specific needs. My Department in the period 2012 to 2015 transformed its approach to supporting jobseekers both in establishing the Intreo offices and in the adoption and roll-out of a new activation model.
The Intreo activation model supplemented the existing activation services operated by the local employment service, LES, and job clubs. However, the scale of the economic crisis meant that the system’s activation capacity was insufficient to deal with the volume of jobseekers. The result was that case officers in Intreo and the LES had caseloads in excess of 2,000 jobseekers to one case officer. This was unfair, unsustainable and unacceptable. Additional capacity had to be sourced. The Department increased the number of Intreo case officers but on its own this was not sufficient.
In 2015, the JobPath service was developed and became operational. This allowed all jobseekers to have access to a case officer, a mediator or an adviser with the aim of developing a personal progression plan tailored to their specific needs. The ratio of case officers to jobseekers is now in line with international best practice and stands at approximately 120:1. This increased investment worked. Ireland’s unemployment rate in December 2018 stood at 5.3%, a reduction of two thirds from its peak six years previously. Furthermore, long-term unemployment has fallen from almost 10% in 2012 to its current level of 2%, a remarkable reduction of almost four fifths in a relatively short period.
However, the reduction in the long-term unemployed rate is even more impressive when considering that long-term unemployment has averaged 4% over the extended period 1992 to 2018. Today’s rate, despite the worst economic recession in our history, is currently less than half the average over a 26-year period.
JobPath combined with this Government’s economic and activation strategies has contributed substantially to this transformation. Key to this success is ensuring that all the unemployed for the first time in Ireland had access to a dedicated individually tailored activation service, which aims to support their transition into employment.
Almost 206,000 people have engaged with the JobPath service, of whom approximately 48,000 are still engaged. Since 2015, 41,000 persons have gained full-time jobs while engaged and a further 5,000 have found part-time employment. These figures should be regarded as minimums, as they will only increase as more individuals who are still engaged in JobPath continue to find employment.
Last year, the Comptroller and Auditor General presented the results of a review conducted by his office of the JobPath service. Having conducted the examination, he had no recommendations to make to us but noted that JobPath was delivering on its targets, which is a significant finding in itself.
Questions have been raised concerning the nature of the "payments by results" system and the overall costs of the JobPath service, but it is important to reiterate that a cost to date of €160 million for 206,000 participants equates to less than €790 per individual. This compares favourably with our other activation services where the cost is closer to €1,000. Uniquely, the JobPath contractors have had to bear all of the costs upfront. The JobPath model has reduced the risk to the State and increased the capacity of Ireland's public employment service to engage with individual jobseekers effectively. The model ensures that JobPath providers are incentivised to assist people into sustainable full-time employment.
I am aware that claims have been made to the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection about high levels of dissatisfaction reported by jobseekers engaging with the JobPath service. The motion references researchers from Waterford Institute of Technology, WIT, who have interviewed 121 people since 2012, of whom only 25 had reported an experience of JobPath. The researchers relayed anecdotes from the participants. They did not seek to substantiate these anecdotes, nor did they claim to. Officials in my Department have been in touch with the researchers and asked for more detail so that we might examine some of the serious allegations related to the committee, but the researchers have declined to provide any more information to date.
My Department measures the satisfaction levels of those who use our JobPath service. More than 6,000 customers have been interviewed by independent researchers in the past three years regarding their experiences with JobPath. The average score across all areas of 4.15 out of 5.0 reflects consistently high levels of satisfaction. Furthermore, of the 206,000 people who have engaged with the service, there have only been 836 complaints. That amounts to less than half of 1% of the 206,000 participants.
Each JobPath contractor has comprehensive complaints systems with varying levels of escalation. If a customer is not satisfied with the response from the contractor, he or she can escalate it to officials in my Department. This has only happened on ten occasions. If the customer is still not satisfied, he or she can escalate it to the Ombudsman. That has never happened. However, if we were to listen to some of the commentators such as Sinn Féin and others, one would imagine that the Ombudsman's office was inundated with complaints of the horrors allegedly inflicted by a service that is helping people to gain full-time employment and to break away from the cycle of long-term unemployment and, in particular, reliance on social welfare. That is what the JobPath service is about. It is about assisting those persons who are long-term unemployed to return to the workforce.
It is a duty of this Government and society to assist people who want to find work to do so. It is an obvious fact that the most decisive factor in individuals improving their economic circumstances and being lifted out of poverty is to secure employment and reduce their dependency on welfare. The impact of a successful return to employment on the individual is enormous and, in many cases, can be life-changing.
Regarding the motion, the Government will not walk away from its contractual commitments. The immediate cancellation of the JobPath service would result in a significant diminution of the services we now provide to the long-term unemployed, the loss of 600 jobs among JobPath staff - the staff I have met in my travels up and down the country are passionate in their roles and dedicated to the people they serve - and the absence of due cause warranting such a cancellation prior to 2021, thereby exposing the State to significant financial liabilities.