Thursday, 1 December 2016
Topical Issue Debate
I wish this evening to raise a very serious issue regarding the JobPath scheme. The scheme is not fit for purpose. I say so because the nature and level of complaints I am receiving in my office is of serious concern. I appeal to the Minister to take these complaints on board. Many Deputies have previously raised this very issue in the House. Constituents tell me that they feel they are being harassed and forced to take up positions under the JobPath scheme to which they are simply unsuited and which will not allow them to upskill. These are very constrained positions which do not allow them to develop their skills. I have been contacted by constituents of mine who have spent all their lives in a trade, for example, on a building site. They are forced to go to a Seetec office, sit in front of a computer and type up a CV. This is done without helpful assistance and in a manner which demeans and humiliates them. It is completely wrong that this is happening in 2016. Another constituent, who would have had much to offer in the local community under a CE scheme due to his vast local and historical knowledge, was told that he could not avail of the opportunity of a CE scheme. This is crazy. This man has much to offer, yet he is being denied that opportunity. People are being forced to turn down genuine opportunities that would provide them with skills and an appropriate career path so that the private operators behind the JobPath scheme can get their returns. That is what it is about. It is an agenda. It is about achieving results, but it does not matter how they go about achieving those results. They clearly go about it in a very heavy-handed manner.
There is a genuine concern among jobseekers that this scheme is seen as a way to reduce their social welfare payments without meaningful engagement suited to their needs. Figures released by the Minister's Department show that a penalty has been applied to 499 people in respect of the scheme. We recognise that there needs to be a system whereby jobseekers are given appropriate training and support in order to upskill and enter the jobs market.
There must be compassion and understanding. As I have stated, many of these people worked for 30 years and found themselves without employment because of austerity and everything else imposed on the country. The country was wrecked and it is not the fault of many of these people that they have been forced into this system. People have complained about harassment, which is extremely worrying, and having to attend a Seetec office two mornings a week. It is my understanding that at least 140 complaints were lodged in respect of the two companies providing this service.
As I said, many people have lost their jobs through no fault of their own. It was the failed policies of propping up the banks that led many to their current position. These people are not criminals but they have fallen on hard times and need our support. This scheme strips them of their dignity, which is unacceptable. JobPath is causing untold damage to community employment, CE, schemes. I attended a meeting only last week in Tullamore hosted by CE-sponsoring bodies in Offaly. They included Offaly Centre of Independent Living and Offaly Local Development Company. Of these two bodies, one supplies workers to support people with disabilities but they are being denied that opportunity. That means people with disabilities are now being affected and communities are being denied the help of community employment schemes put in place by the Offaly Local Development Company. Such schemes bridge the gaps left by cuts in local authority funding. What is happening is absolutely crazy.
These bodies argue that many local organisations that provide vital services to vulnerable people in the community cannot fill CE vacancies because of JobPath. In Offaly, there is annual expenditure of €10 million across 22 projects for CE schemes, supporting 349 bodies across 160 local groups. They provide vital services like meals on wheels, child care, after school services, men's sheds, senior citizen activities and many more. In many cases these schemes shore up the shortfall in public services due to the cuts that have ravaged the sector. CE schemes are vital in rural Ireland and many community projects do fantastic and invaluable work. They Minister may not be aware of them.
JobPath is a relatively new approach to employment activation whereby my Department has procured additional resources, under contract, to enable us to provide a high quality case-managed service to people who are long-term unemployed. JobPath supplements the internal case management capacity of my Department's Intreo service and the local employment service, LES. Over the past year, this additional capacity has enabled my Department to provide an intensive one-to-one employment support and advisory service to over 60,000 long-term jobseekers who would otherwise not have received such a service.
All jobseekers are required to engage with my Department's activation service irrespective of whether the service is provided directly by my Department through Intreo or branch office, the LES or by JobPath. The period of engagement with JobPath for individuals is typically 52 weeks. During that time they receive intensive individual support to help them overcome barriers to employment and they are also provided with a range of training and development supports, including online modules, career advice, CV preparation and interview skills. During the year, if a person gets or is placed into a job, he or she will continue to receive assistance for at least three months and up to an additional 12 months while in employment to ensure the job can be continued. If someone has completed the 12-month engagement with the JobPath service and is still unemployed, participation on community employment, CE, and other schemes remains an option that can be considered at that stage.
So far over 60,000 jobseekers have engaged with JobPath since the service commenced in July 2015 and 145 complaints have been recorded. This is 0.2% of the total. The majority of the complaints were about people's initial reluctance to engage with the service or about an adverse customer experience. All complaints are taken seriously and have been resolved or are in the process of being resolved.
Legislation provides that sanctions in the form of reduced payments may be imposed by a departmental deciding officer where a person fails without good cause to co-operate with activation measures. These measures include attendance at group or individual meetings with case officers, willingness to avail of suitable education, training or development opportunities and also specified employment programmes that may be appropriate to a person's circumstances. JobPath providers do not have the authority to impose sanctions or penalty rates on anybody. My Department does not facilitate or encourage people to switch from one activation programme to another midstream. That applies both ways. The reason for this is to effectively manage the allocation of jobseekers to all services. It also ensures that there is continuity in the activation service provided, which enables the person concerned to follow a progression plan to employment and move from a dependence on a jobseeker's payment.
There have been some cases where people have sought to leave JobPath to take up a CE placement. There is a protocol in place whereby an individual has the option of taking up a CE placement if it is offered before the referral date to JobPath, with a confirmed start date within four weeks. CE schemes provide temporary work in communities as a stepping stone back to employment for people in receipt of a range of social welfare payments, including those on a long-term jobseeker's payment. However, CE placements are not full-time, sustainable jobs and do not pay as well as a minimum wage job. People should never be diverted from a regular job in favour of CE, Tús, Gateway, JobBridge or any other such scheme.
Under JobPath, client engagement is more frequent and more intensive. Some people may have difficulty in adjusting to this, especially those who have not had any meaningful activation support for a considerable period. JobPath tries to give people a sense of structure, which they will need if they are to re-engage with the workforce. The companies are subject to regular checks and inspections. In addition, my Department has commissioned a client satisfaction survey to ensure that services are being delivered satisfactorily. The results of this survey are expected before the end of the year. Overall, the response to JobPath has been quite positive and initial indications in terms of employment outcomes, such as getting people off welfare and into work, are also very encouraging.
I thank the Minister for his response but I am disappointed because there is a lack of clarity about what action will be taken by the Government on this issue. The Minister mentioned that there were 145 complaints but are people made aware of the mechanism for making complaints? Many people who came to me were not sure of that mechanism at all. I assure the Minister he would have thousands of complaints if he lets people know about that mechanism, as he should. He has the responsibility to let people know they are entitled to make the complaint.
At a local meeting in my constituency, local CE operators put forward a number of suggestions that could be considered and I appeal to the Minister to do so. They suggested reducing the criteria for CE schemes to nine months so those in receipt of jobseeker's benefit may take up positions. They have also suggested that jobseekers could have a choice, as they should do, if they received offers under both schemes. The Minister mentioned that there was some flexibility in this respect but I know of one case where a man was turned down but should have been on a CE scheme. These operators request that a referral to a CE scheme from JobPath should be an option and call for a new referral scheme, as the previous one has collapsed.
It seems these are reasonable and common sense proposals so will the Minister commit to supporting community employment schemes? Will he commit to a full review of the JobPath programme, with a full public consultation process and detailed consultation with all the relevant stakeholders, including local employment services and CE operators taking place as soon as possible. I appeal to the Minister to ensure people are aware of the complaints mechanism as in my experience they are not.
People are made aware of the complaints procedure, or at least they should be. I will instruct my officials to ensure that is the case. I get some complaints to my office and they vary in nature. They go from people who just did not like the case officer or had a communications or personality clash to people who are just shocked that somebody is engaging with them one-to-one for the first time and trying to procure a job for them. Some people just do not like that. There are people who have become institutionalised, going from welfare to training scheme to CE scheme and repeating that process on a carousel of dependency. For some of these people it is quite a shock when somebody tells them they will find a job.
I should point out that jobseeker's allowance is conditional on a person seeking full-time work and a job should be taken if it is on offer. If a person does not want to work, it is always possible for him or her to sign off. There are many people who get up in the morning every day, going to a job they may not like because that is how they get the money to pay bills and look after their family. These people pay taxes and fund the CE and welfare system. It is not okay for some people to say they do not want to work or they will keep claiming welfare until they get a job they believe they want or suits them.
JobPath is not the overriding reason for the real and genuine difficulty in filling places on community employment schemes. Community employment supervisors have got it all wrong if they think JobPath is the main reason. We are finding it difficult to fill community employment places because unemployment has halved in the past four years. In the same period, the number of community employment, Tús and Gateway placements has almost doubled. The number of people who are available has halved and the number of placements has doubled.