Thursday, 7 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions - Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions
Employment Support Services
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is at an advanced stage in its first phase of the two-phase procurement for regionally based employment services. The procurement has two key goals. First, it will see a significant expansion across the State of employment services for those furthest from the labour market. The regional employment services will have a strong focus on local and community linkages and will help to address the post Covid-19 employment challenge. Second, the procurement process will help to place the services on a proper contractual footing. The existing services were first contracted for more than 20 years ago and there has been no formal procurement process in the intervening years. This is not in compliance with standards of proper governance. In addition, I have advice from the Attorney General's office that it is not in compliance with Irish or EU procurement rules.
The procurement process follows extensive consultations by my Department with the existing service providers over the past number of years. The Department has taken a careful and measured approach, starting with a first-phase procurement in areas not already covered by a local employment service, LES. This minimises disruption to existing service providers and enables learnings to be taken and the request for tender, RFT, to be refined for the second phase of procurement.
The first-phase procurement is just about complete. The Department will engage further with service providers in the coming weeks to listen to their concerns arising from the first phase and, to the extent possible, take these into account in finalising the request for tender for the second-phase procurement. It is intended the second phase requests for tender will issue before the end of the year. Given the timelines involved in finalising the requests for tender, allowing for tenders to be prepared and evaluated, and contracts to be awarded, it is likely to be mid-2022 before the new contracts will be in place.
The Minister said that part of the reason for the first phase of the tendering process was to expand the service significantly for those who are furthest away from the labour market. Does she agree that the ending of the walk-in service, which I understand will not be provided in the new model, will not do that? I do not understand how she will reach those furthest away from the labour market when people such as carers and, perhaps, people who are facing personal challenges in their lives, will not have that walk-in service and the comfort of being able to walk into an office in their local town, as is the case at the moment with the jobs clubs.
I understand about the legal advice on procurement, which the Minister has mentioned a number of times, but why change the model? If there is an issue with procurement - we take the Minister's word on that and that is fine - what basis is there for moving from the model that exists to this new model that is being proposed?
The Deputy will agree that I recognise the good work being carried out by our LES providers throughout the country. I take this opportunity to assure the Deputy, and to put on record, that the Government recognises the great work being carried out by many of our LES providers. They do great work in helping people with career guidance, CVs, interview preparation, upskilling and training supports. I see that in my county too.
The reality is, however, that the Government has to follow the legal advice it is given. These contracts have been rolled over continuously for more than two decades. The clear advice from the Chief State Solicitor's office, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Attorney General is that the Department of Social Protection is in breach of EU procurement rules and there needs to be a competitive procurement process for these contracts. As much as we might like to leave things as they are, the Government cannot ignore this legal advice.
I am not arguing with that. As I said, I take the Minister at her word on the legal advice but there is no EU law on procurement or anything else that requires the Department to change the model. The Minister said there was extensive consultation. That is fine but I assume staff in local employment services and jobs clubs did not seek these changes. I am trying to understand where the changes are coming from. The Minister mentioned the great work they have done. They been there for 20 or 25 years and they have a wealth of experience. Why change the model? If the work they were doing was so great, why change the model?
Is the advice of the Comptroller and Auditor General published? I know we will not get sight of the Attorney General's advice but, specifically, where is the advice of the Comptroller and Auditor General? Is that something that is available?
Will there be a review and evaluation of phase 1 and how will that come about? I understand a number of jobs clubs are receiving letters to tell them their service ends at the end of this year and that is it. Will those workers get enhanced redundancy? How many of those letters have been issued?
As we know, the current cost-met model is cumbersome and involves a lot of administration for everybody, both for LES providers and the Department. It is an out-of-date model and it means significant time and effort is spent submitting evidence for all itemised expenditure. We want to ensure the time is better spent dealing with people who need our help and working with those people who need our support to help them find a job. That is what we have to focus on. The purpose of all this is to help the people who need a job.
The RFT published as part of phase 1 is not a low-cost model, rather, it focuses on the provision of quality person-centric employment support. The Department is aware that this type of service comes at a cost. The Department believes that the financial costs approach contained in this request for tender will, if applied to the existing LES contracts either match or exceed the current costs of these contracts. Some providers were worried that by putting in a bid for this tender they would not be able to meet all their costs. I wanted to reassure them on that. We want to engage with them and I will meet them when this request for tender is announced.