Tuesday, 5 February 2019
JobPath Programme: Motion [Private Members]
The Labour Party will be supporting the Sinn Féin motion. The devastating crash caused disastrous economic mismanagement that saw unemployment peak in late 2011 at 15.9%, with hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, emigrating or being underemployed.
The crisis of record high unemployment has largely been addressed but much work remains to help more people back into work and education. I believe that the JobPath approach is no longer needed. The pressure from the troika to set up JobPath came in the context of very high unemployment. The greatest concern for policy makers and politicians was the prospect of a generation of workers becoming long-term unemployed and lost to the world of work, as happened in the 1980s. Thankfully that has been avoided.
It is our view that public and community services are much better placed now to deliver the tailored supports to workers, rather than for-profit entities like Seetec and Turas Nua. The Department should go back to fully supporting the local employment service network and resourcing community employment schemes, along with education and training programmes to help those most distant from the workforce to re-skill and equip themselves for work.
The Labour Party is justifiably proud that due to the work we started, unemployment has fallen for 25 straight quarters in a row. That is one of the biggest reductions in unemployment ever in the developed world.
The crisis of unemployment saw many different approaches applied to get people back to work. Under Pathways to Work and An Action Plan for Jobs, hundreds of measures were taken. Much more needs to be done, but some of those measures can now be retired. The success of schemes like JobsPlus, community employment schemes, the back-to-education payment, Momentum and Tús in keeping people’s skills relevant and helping them back into work has worked. The business case for JobPath no longer exists.
At the peak of the crisis, 321,900 people were unemployed with a long-term unemployment rate of 9.5%. Thousands of people were underemployed and emigrated. JobPath was a creation of the time when unemployment was significantly higher, and was expected to remain high for some time to come.
None of the experts in the Department, the troika or anyone else expected the job-rich recovery we have witnessed. Many critics claimed for a long time that these were not real jobs at all and that the employment figures were false or misleading. According to figures published earlier today by the CSO, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stands at 5.3%. While that remains too high, there is no justification for continuing the commercial contracting of activation services under JobPath. According to the CSO figures, 127,300 people are out of work. Unfortunately, no breakdown as to duration is available in those figures, the most recent data available from the more comprehensive labour-force survey sets out that there were 50,200 long-term unemployed. However, that figure will have fallen in the meantime. As such, there is no justification to continue a programme of the scale of JobPath to address long-term unemployment. There is more than adequate capacity within Intreo, the local employment service and activation schemes. In early 2016, there were more than 125,000 long-term unemployed but the numbers will continue to fall. Any analysis of the facts relating to employment and the activation supports provided under Intreo shows there is sufficient capacity to support those who need assistance.
It is disappointing that since the contract for JobPath was awarded in 2015, there has been no comprehensive external evaluation of the service. That is why I emphasise the support of the Labour Party for local employment services and particularly for the one-on-one approach they adopt. The individualised supports they put in place for those seeking employment, especially those who may have disabilities, low educational or training qualifications or criminal records. The recent Indecon report demonstrates the effectiveness of the on-the-ground approach of local services. Unfortunately, no similar study is available on JobPath. After three years, it is bizarre that no independent data is available on the performance of the service.
There is a fear out there which I hope the Minister can allay tonight. This is that the next series of tenders for local employment services will be a national one which excludes local partnerships and, by default, privatise the service to the likes of Seetec. Under the current JobPath contract, the last referrals will be made at the end of 2019 with a two-year work-out period to 2021. The Minister should provide a commitment to the effect that Fine Gael will not extend the period for client referrals by two years as provided for in the terms of the contract. I hope the Minister will give that assurance. The one-size-fits-all approach of JobPath is no longer appropriate. It is time to return to the tailored approach that has a proven track record.
I want to discuss the culture within Seetec. It has been unacceptable. I have received several complaints from constituents. They are people of the highest calibre I know personally and whose feedback I trust. This is not anecdotal nor is it hearsay. These are people I know and trust. One 60 year old woman with little formal education and definitely no computer skills was forced to sit in front of a computer to look for work. She was threatened that if she did not turn up on the next occasion to do the same, her money would be cut. People have been told to give up part-time jobs. A man on a short-time week ahead of redundancy after 30 years of service was told to give up that job. There was wholesale bullying of participants. Whether the Minister accepts it is immaterial; it is a fact as people here know. People left rooms in tears at the bullying approach of some of these people and that is not acceptable.
It is time to bring JobPath to an end. Its culture is unacceptable. It might have been an experiment worth doing at a certain time when particular pressures obtained, but it is time to abandon it. There should be no further referrals and there should be no extension of contracts. I ask the Minister to bring it to an end at the earliest opportunity. I was disappointed at the last page of the Minister’s opening statement where she discussed the future. She said she was looking to the future for activation services and that her Department was already examining future options for contracted activation provision for 2020 onward. It suggests to me at least that she plans to continue JobPath. If so, I am extremely disappointed.