Wednesday, 25 May 2016
Labour Activation Measures
31. To ask the Minister for Social Protection for further information on how the fit for work programme will relate to other labour activation measures such as JobBridge; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [11837/16]
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 disabilities. That is the vision and an example of the changes that will come up about under the Government. 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 Irish module of this study was progressed by a coalition of key stakeholders and was led by Arthritis Ireland. The Irish College of General Practitioners, ICTU and the Health and Safety Authority also contributed to the study. It was a broad representative group.
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 a set of certification guidelines for GPs in 2015, which sets out defined periods of recovery for common medical conditions, including MSDs.
The certification guidelines build on the Renaissance project, which is an initiative of my Department since 2003. This has shown that early intervention reduced the incidence of progression from the acute simple low back pain to chronic disability in 64% of claimants. While specific proposals for a fit for work programme require further development and scoping out, I assure the Deputy that such proposals will be in line with the wealth of evidence, which shows that, generally, employment is good for one’s mental and physical health and well-being and, conversely, that unemployment is damaging.
I thought I had 30 seconds to ask a question first.
The reason we tabled the question is a mysterious line appeared in the programme for Government committing to the introduction of a fit for work programme co-ordinated by the Departments of Health and Social Protection. It immediately rang alarm bells among the Anti-Austerity Alliance because a similar scheme is operating in Britain at the moment and other elements of the programme for Government were copied and pasted from the Tory Party handbook. I would like the Minister to clarify the nature of the scheme. Despite the nice words he just used, the same comments were made about JobBridge when it was introduced. It was intended to support and help people and it turned out to be an exploitation scheme. This scheme has huge potential to be even worse because it relates to the most vulnerable people with physical and mental disabilities.
When people raise this issue, one must be concerned and I will be vigilant on this issue. It is not copied from the Tory handbook or any Conservative policy in England. This plan is completely different from the one used in the UK. There are many positive elements to this plan, including the involvement of groups like Arthritis Ireland which came on board on this issue. The key difference between this plan and the one in England is that our plan does not assess people. It is about early intervention and treatment. This is very important because the objective is to ensure that disabled people get an opportunity to enter the workforce. There are many talented people out there with a disability and we want to ensure they are given the opportunity but there is no compulsion involved compared to other projects in England.
Will the Minister of State get a grip on reality? This is a labour activation scheme. It is not an early intervention scheme with people who are unable to work. It is an adult scheme. My question, which comes from the Disability Federation of Ireland which held a press conference this morning, relates to who will carry out the assessments regarding whether or not someone is fit to work. Will it be the HSE or will it be a private company, as has been done in Great Britain? The Government used a private company in its other labour activation schemes like Pathways to Work. What will the assessment entail? Will it be a medical assessment or a functionality assessment? For many people with disabilities, it is not a question of whether they are necessarily fit to work on a particular day but whether they can sustain a job and have the supports they need to carry on in a job.
The big danger relates to mental health. It is very clear that people who do not have a physical disability can easily be forced into jobs they are not fit for. It is very unfortunate that there has not been time to put the questions.
I totally reject the Deputy's comments. If one looks at the details of the UK project, one can see that it was all about savings. Our scheme is not about that. Our scheme is about trying to help people with a disability or an illness related to a disability to enter employment. I said it was about early intervention and supports. Next week, the chief medical officer will again meet with Arthritis Ireland to hammer out these issues.
The answer to the question is very simple. There is no way that I, as Minister of State for disability issues, would stand over any exploitation of people with disabilities. I will do my damnedest to defend and protect people with disabilities. If there are people who want the opportunity to enter employment, I will do my best. I have a vision over the next three or four years relating to employing people with disabilities. At the moment, most organisations aim for 3%. I aim to get every Department, and I said it at yesterday's Cabinet meeting, to go from 3% to 5% so the answer is that there will be no exploitation.
We get one minute to ask questions. Can they at least be answered? The Minister did not answer on who will carry out the assessments. He will not even answer the question. The Ceann Comhairle is meant to make him answer the question.