Tuesday, 5 February 2019
JobPath Programme: Motion [Private Members]
I thank everybody for contributing to the debate this evening. Some contributions were very interesting and helpful. The Minister, Deputy Regina Doherty, eloquently set out the facts about provision of the JobPath service, including performance, the high customer satisfaction level and the low number of complaints. The Comptroller and Auditor General devoted a chapter in his report to the scheme last year and did not identify a requirement to make any recommendations on how the service, contracts and payments are operated by the Department. Many observers would view this as a clean bill of health delivered by the State's auditor.
The scheme's performance has been above expectations, with 46,000 people gaining jobs, and there is an innovative payment-by-results system where the contractor carries all the upfront costs. There are high levels of satisfaction and low levels of complaints. Nevertheless, we heard anecdote and allegation coming without substance being presented as fact by some Members. Simply put, their arguments are that they do not like JobPath. It is not about examining the outcomes for each one of those individuals who got a job or having a concern that citizens have an expectation to receive assistance when unemployed, including financial support and help in finding another job so as to re-enter the workforce. It is not even that the introduction of the JobPath service brought with it increased capacity in activation services across the board, allowing a significant reduction in ratios of almost 2,000 jobseekers to every one case officer to a figure closer to international best practice of 120:1. The introduction of reduced referrals for the local employment services in 2016 allowed for a more intensive engagement with jobseekers while keeping funding and staffing at previous levels. This was a plus for both staff and jobseekers but it has been presented as a diminution of services.
Matters raised have included the nature of the payment-by-results system and the overall cost of the JobPath service. It is important to reiterate that a cost to date of €160 million for 206,000 participants is less than €790 per individual for at least a 52-week service. This compares favourably with other activation services, where the cost is closer to €1,000. Uniquely, the JobPath contractors must bear all the upfront costs, thereby reducing the risk to the State and ensuring that the companies must deliver results in order to recoup costs.
Turning to employment support schemes such as community employment and Tús as a public employment service, the Department's main focus must be to remain on activation and progress as many participants as possible from these schemes into full-time and sustainable employment. Participation in community employment and Tús is for a fixed period and these placements cannot be considered as full-time sustainable jobs. There are participation limits in place to ensure that as many unemployed people as possible are able to benefit from these schemes. Recently, the Minister announced the establishment of an interdepartmental group to examine the future of community employment social inclusion schemes, with a view to ring-fencing social inclusion places and allowing services within the communities to be maintained.
Following an earlier analysis of the community employment programme, a two-strand approach was adopted in 2017 and all community employment placements were categorised in two strands, including a social inclusion strand, with an acknowledgement that not all community employment places were the same. This provided an opportunity for those who are very distant from the labour market to work and deliver services in their local communities, as some speakers have already said. The job activation strand related more directly to employment opportunities for participants who were long-term unemployed with a view to providing more experience relevant to the labour market. There are currently just over 21,000 participants in the community employment schemes, with 30% to 40% of the placements categorised in the social inclusion strand. However, as the number of community employment places is benchmarked to the numbers on the live register, it is expected the number of places on the scheme will reduce unless the current set-up is reviewed.
Recognising that as unemployment lowers there will be less demand for activation schemes, the Minister wishes to make a strong distinction between activation schemes and the social inclusion category. These social inclusion placements require a separate focus to ensure that those who are very distant from the labour market and who are interested in working and delivering services in their communities have an opportunity to do so. The work they provide within their communities is essential and participants may include vulnerable adults who need additional supports such as older, unemployed workers, persons with disabilities, Travellers and homeless people.
The Minister wishes to ensure that we maintain and support this valuable service. Therefore this interdepartmental group will explore how we can deliver and maintain these social inclusion services as well as identifying the correct organisational and governance arrangements for the future and which Department should host the community employment social inclusion schemes, including drug rehabilitation and childcare schemes. The Minister expects the work of the group to be completed quickly and intends that a report with recommendations would be presented to Cabinet within the next three months.
The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection also supports some 3,350 participants on the rural social scheme and 139 supervisors who are engaged in supporting almost 2,000 community projects. In 2018 the Minister announced an additional 250 places as part of the programme for Government commitment to rural Ireland. Overall there has been an increase of almost over 30% in the places available under the rural social scheme since 2017, from 2,600 to 3,350. Tús has seen a total of more than 53,000 participant places delivered by local development partnership companies since its introduction in 2011. The 12 month duration of the Tús contract was set to ensure that weaknesses identified in other work programmes resulting from longer duration placements were not replicated. It is considered that the existing 12 month placement period is adequate to meet the objectives of the initiative and after three years a person can become eligible for a further 12 month placement on Tús. There are no current plans to extend the duration of placement beyond 12 months.
I can confirm that there is no restriction on the number of places available to support jobseekers through the back to education allowance.
Sanctions are a common tool in use in many countries. A sanction in the form of a penalty rate may be applied by a deciding officer of the Department if a jobseeker fails to engage without good cause with the activation process. Deciding officers carefully consider all the facts and circumstances of each case while considering the application of a penalty rate. This process includes written and verbal warnings and an opportunity for the jobseeker to engage with the service prior to the application of a penalty rate. If dissatisfied, a jobseeker may appeal any decision to the independent social welfare appeals officer. Critically the normal rate of payment is reinstated as soon as the jobseeker complies, as requested, with activation measures. The number of penalty rates applied at any one time is extremely low, only 1% of those referred to activation services. The activation service, be it JobPath, Intreo, or the local employment service has no bearing on the rules that are applied and the contracted provider has no role in the application of sanctions. This is solely a matter for the officials in the Department.
In respect of any specific matters raised this evening which require further examination and investigation, I am sure there will be a follow-up, either by the officials directly or by officials getting in touch with the Deputies for further information so that matters can be investigated. To this end I encourage Deputies where they know of an individual's circumstances which warrant examination to supply the necessary detail to the Department. I thank all those who contributed to this debate. The salient points raised will assist the Minister and the officials in the current scoping exercise for activation services in 2020.