Wednesday, 9 October 2019
Social Welfare Bill 2019: Report Stage
Social Welfare Bill 2019, Report and Final Stages, to conclude after three hours by means of the putting of one question from the Chair which shall, in relation to amendments, include only those set down or accepted by the Government.
I welcome the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection, Deputy Regina Doherty, back to the House. Before we commence, I remind Senators they may speak only once on Report Stage amendments, except the proposer of an amendment, who may reply to the discussion on that amendment. On Report Stage each non-Government amendment must be seconded.
Amendment No. 1 is in the names of Senators Higgins and Ruane. It arises out of Committee proceedings. Amendments Nos. 1 and 8 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
Has Senator Higgins got a seconder?
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 9, line 42, to delete “or submit to”.
Amendments Nos. 1 and 8 relate to my concern about the "submit to" language. Again, this is around the tenor and form of engagement. It is one thing to allow an assessment of somebody's needs but submitting to an assessment implies a level of compulsion around what kind of assessment might be involved. For example, concerns have been raised about what form of assessment might be imposed by a provider employed by the Minister, in terms of an individual, to assess the appropriate developmental next steps for him or her. If somebody is uncomfortable with a particular form of assessment, let us say somebody finds it intrusive, upsetting or in any way inappropriate, my concern is that the phrase "submit to" requires, effectively, that he or she must accept any or all forms of action in terms of an assessment of him or her.
These amendments relate to the new section 68I, which concerns refusal or failure to attend activation meetings, and the new section 68J, which concerns refusal or failure to participate in prescribed schemes, programmes or courses. When we discussed these matters on Committee Stage last week, I explained to the Senator that these new sections mirror the equivalent provisions which apply to jobseeker's benefit. We had a conversation and a discourse at the time. I said I would come back to the Senator with regard to her queries about possible disparities in the language. I subsequently wrote to the Senator to confirm that there is no disparity in the language. It is not the case that there is a disparity.
I do not propose to accept these amendments for two reasons. First, the acceptance of the amendments would result in unnecessary inconsistencies between the new jobseeker's benefit self-employment scheme and the existing jobseeker's benefit scheme. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I do not think the changes are necessary in any event. I genuinely appreciate that the Senator's concern in this instance relates to the language involved. I appreciate that the formal language used in legislation can seem to be out of line with the positive purpose and intent of activation processes. There is a balance to be struck between the Department's responsibility to support, encourage and enable jobseekers to enhance their employability and avail of opportunities to work, and the jobseeker's responsibility to engage in the activation process.
The measures set out in the new section apply to both jobseeker's allowance and jobseeker's benefit schemes and are an integral part of the activation process. They require claimants to attend meetings for the purposes of providing information that is intended to improve their knowledge of work, education or training opportunities that can be availed of. They also provide for an assessment to be carried out to help determine the person's education, training or development needs. Such meetings provide an opportunity to support the person by identifying his or her education, training or development needs.
The proposed legislation already includes a safeguard that any opportunity identified must be considered appropriate having regard to the education, training and development needs of the person and his or her personal circumstances. The section also provides that a penalty rate will be applied to a person's payment only in cases in which he or she does not attend or fails to attend meetings to avail of the opportunity without having a good cause or a good reason to do so. We can all have reasons for being unable to attend one or two meetings, but non-attendance cannot be consistent. I think these measures are straightforward, balanced and reasonable. They are designed to support and encourage jobseekers to enhance their employability and to avail of opportunities. To that end, I am afraid I cannot accept these amendments.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 9, after line 43, to insert the following:"(4) The signing of a personal progression plan shall not be considered a requirement in terms of subsection (3)(a) or (b).".
This amendment relates to personal progression plans. Having reviewed the conversation with the Minister on Committee Stage, during which she spoke about the guidelines that currently exist in respect of personal progression plans, I have decided to withdraw this amendment. I hope to be able to engage with the Minister on the guidelines. That might be a more appropriate way of strengthening good practice in this area.
As amendments Nos. 3, 5, 6, 10 and 11 are related, amendment No. 6 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 5 and amendment No. 11 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 10, amendments Nos. 3, 5, 6, 10 and 11 may be discussed together.
I have a seconder. The case for this amendment was discussed in the context of amendment No. 1. I am concerned about the tone of the language being used. As I said earlier, a new kind of language is being introduced and I hope this does not lead to a new kind of practice or a change in practice. That is a concern. While I am not going to press all of these amendments, I have a concern that relates to a number of them. The Minister has repeatedly said that any suggested course of development or action will be agreed with the person. On that basis, I am using the Minister's language in amendments Nos. 6 and 11 to suggest that the word "agreed" be used rather than the word "prescribed". The Minister has already provided for other caveats in this section by using words like "appropriate" and "subject to". Obviously, it is not the case that anything can be agreed. There is a requirement for people to accept reasonable offers. In that context, I hope the Minister might agree to substitute the word "agreed" for the word "prescribed". The Minister has spoken about this issue. I am not going to press my amendments in this group other than those in which I am adopting the language suggested by the Minister.
I used the word "agreed" as a means of explaining that a person will not be expected to sign a personal progression plan if he or she does not agree with the contents of the plan. I think the Senator was suggesting that some people might be encouraged, coerced or forced to sign personal progression plans, or that some penalty might be imposed thereafter in the event of someone failing to sign such a plan. I suggested that nobody would sign any document that they did not agree with. The terms and conditions of jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance mean that people must actively engage. Therefore, the language that is currently used in the jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance schemes for the employed is exactly the same as that prescribed in this Bill. I do not propose to change it as to do so would be to create an anomaly. This amendment seeks something slightly different from what the Senator asked me for last week. Last week, she was asking about whether somebody should sign a personal progression plan. I repeat on the record of the House that I cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, understand why somebody who does not agree with what is in his or her personal progression plan would sign the plan. Therefore, such a person definitely does not have to do so.
The thing that is being "prescribed" is the particular route of progress - the next development steps and actions - contained within the personal progression plan. It is a little bit of a dicing of the thread to say that the person will be able to agree to the personal progression plan while having his or her next steps prescribed for him or her, given that those steps are set out in the personal progression plan. It is a little semantic in that regard. The thing to be prescribed will emerge from the process which leads to the personal progression plan. Having said that, I regret that the Minister is not able to accept these amendments at this point. I hope the agreement of personal progression plans will be extended to ensure we do not have people being told they must take up particular activities or steps that have been designated for them without their agreement. We will review how this pans out. I note for the record that the language being used here is slightly different from the existing language. I presented the language the last time and I do not want to read it at length into the record again. The use of the word "prescribed" is new.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 10, line 33, to delete "an" and substitute "any reasonable".
These amendments relate to the same issue of divergence in language. People were previously required to show that they would accept any reasonable offer or proposal. The framing of the language implied that there would be a range of offers. The language has changed and people are now being required to accept an offer or "an opportunity". Again, the requirement of reasonability is removed in this context. There is still the language of what is "appropriate", but it is not clear who decides that. I would have liked it if we would have stuck to the original language, which referred to any reasonable offer or proposal. I would have liked if we could have been consistent with the language in other parts of the Social Welfare Bill. As I have not had an indication from the Minister that she is willing to look at reconciling the language for now, I do not see the merit in pressing the amendment at this point.