Seanad debates

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Employment Support Services

10:30 am

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I know that the Acting Chairperson and the Minister of State, who hails from the same county as me, will have an interest in this matter. In recent times, this issue has been raised in the Seanad but it is important that we continue to fight the case on behalf of the particular group of people involved.

I will read from a letter that I received recently. I will not mention any names or the part of the country involved, but it is a town in rural Ireland. The letter is from somebody who is involved in a jobs club and it states:

As a staff member currently working a certain centre I have had no direct communication from department officials to inform me of what my future holds. They repeatedly insist that extensive engagement has been held, but I can categorically state that contracted, on the ground staff membershave not been engaged with at all. While meetings have been held with independent job clubs, the letters have been sent to service providers for RFT 2, but we have been forgotten about.

At this moment, we don’t know whether we should be job-seeking or holding on ourselves for redundancy; a redundancy that we will probably have to jump through hoops for. The undue stress this is causing my colleagues and I is unacceptable and unbelievably unprofessional. We have worked alongside and collaboratively with staff in our local Department of Social Protection for over 20 years.

When the Indecon reviews were completed, our understanding was that the new service would appear more like the existing LES services, with adaptions to incorporate the Job Club service. Indeed, the Department have stated that the new Regional Employment Service is to “consolidate existing LES and Job Clubs service and to extend it nationwide”, but the opposite seems to be happening. Disappointingly the tender appeared very similar to the JobPath service already in existence. Why was the service model changed? I can say that having read the tender, absolutely no part of the Job Club service has been incorporated in this new service. The Department of Social Protection repeatedly mention that there is no LES service in the regions in Lot 1, and while that is true, it completely discounts the work the Job Club in those regions have completed over the past 2 decades.

Over 20 years, jobs clubs have played a significant role. The letter continues:

It’s like we don’t exist! There is also the matter of the “tweak” and “learnings” that is undergoing in the tender for RFT2. What are these tweaks/learnings and how can it be fair that providers in Lot 1 had to tender for something potentially different?

While we are of course worried, stressed and concerned about our own jobs, we are also greatly concerned about the future for unemployed people locally and wondering where these people are going to avail of such a service going forward. Having heard first hand from a vast amount of clients throughout the past few years, the JobPath model does not work. It is not popular. It is certainly not cost-effective. It has a large turnover of staff. The CVs produced are questionable, often adopting the copy and paste option from job descriptions found online, with no personalization. The jobs sent out from case workers to individuals, at times, have no connection to the persons past employment experience. It is not person centered and it is not open to anyone who needs assistance.

This is the wrap around service that is so vital, that will not be available for job seekers in the future. The walk in and wrap around service we provide is extremely valuable and the new tendered service, as per JobPath does not make allowances for the people who need this.

The case has been very well made by the person who wrote the letter. That person is very worried not just about their job future but about the people who are badly in need of this service. We must realise that there are people out there who need support and help. The people who work in jobs clubs do very good work. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's reply.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague, Senator Murphy, for reading that letter into the record. I will bring the issues of concern to the attention of the Minister.

Earlier this year, the Government published its employment services strategy, Pathways to Work 2021-2025, which contains commitments to expand the capacity of our public employment service. The strategy also provides for an increase in resources that will deliver the regional employment service across the entire State.

In late 2019, the Department of Social Protection commenced a review of the public employment service delivered by it and its service partners. Following on from this review, and in line with the commitments in the Pathways to Work strategy and the Indecon reviews, the Department is making changes to how it contracts external services, including those currently provided by the local employment service, jobs clubs and JobPath. The Department has engaged extensively with the sector about these changes.

The existing arrangements for the LES and jobs club services extend back over 20 years without any formal procurement taking place. This is in contravention of good governance and public procurement practice. The Attorney General has advised that these services must be procured in line with EU and national public procurement rules by means of open and competitive tendering processes. The Department has, therefore, commenced a two-phased procurement process, which will see the delivery of a new national employment service and a regional employment service to replace the employment services delivered by the Department's current service partners.

The new regional employment service will deliver tailored employment services for those furthest from the labour market and for the first time these services will be available across the entire State. The regional employment service will deliver enhanced governance oversight and ensure that those individuals who need access to employment supports and services will receive tailored high-quality services irrespective of where they live in the State. The Indecon Review of Jobs Clubs published in 2018 recommended the integration of jobs clubs and local employment services into one service provision. Therefore, it is not intended to contract for jobs clubs beyond 2021 in areas covered under phase 1 of the procurement process. These areas will be covered by the new regional employment service from the start of 2022.

Existing jobs clubs in phase 2 areas - such areas cover 19 counties - are being given a new contract for six months - from January to June 2022 - for the specific purpose of providing them with additional time to work collaboratively with other organisations on submitting a joint bid under phase 2. The Department intends that the request for tenders for the regional employment services, under phase 2, will be published before the end of this year.

Organisations that submitted tenders under the phase 1 procurement were notified of the outcome of the process earlier this month. A standstill period is currently in operation and the Department cannot comment further until that has concluded.

This process of procuring a regional employment service places a premium on ensuring a quality service that is delivered by capable and experienced practitioners who focus on accession local supports for their clients. In areas where jobs clubs may be unsuccessful in competing for the new services, new service providers would do well to avail of the existing skill sets already available in their areas and look to employ these individuals.

The Department's objective is to expand the provision of employment service capacity. Another objective is to deliver high-quality employment services that are designed to meet individual's employment assistance and support requirements.

Photo of Eugene MurphyEugene Murphy (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his answer, even though I do not agree with a great deal of it. He knows, from the experience in our part of the country, that the jobs club is a free service which helps people with job applications and which provides formal training, walk-in support clinics, job interview preparation and information in respect of employment supports. The clubs also arrange the provision of the latter. The list goes on and includes information on employment rights. These supports and services are all very important to a group of people who find it difficult to do interviews.

I am afraid that with all of this privatised system, because that is what is going to happen in most cases, those people will fall through the cracks. We are going to get rid of a system that is, in many parts of the country, really good, effective and free of charge looks out for people who find it difficult to find employment. I believe that the cessation of this service is not a good step and will continue to argue that case. However, I accept that the Minister of State will convey my comments back to the Department. I know that he gave a response on behalf of the Department and I ask him to convey my concerns to the Minister and the officials.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Sligo-Leitrim, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Murphy for both of his contributions. In the drive to enhance and deliver State-wide employment services for the long-term unemployed, and other cohorts, we cannot forget about the welfare of the people who provide those services, as the Senator rightly said.In the consultation phase of this process, I understand Department officials visited every single job club in the State and saw for themselves the quality service provided by many of them. They have provided a great service on the ground and, as a local politician, it was great to introduce people to these services. I thank the Senator for raising this issue.

The key message delivered then, and that I reiterate now, is that job clubs must now work with partners in their areas to ensure they have the capacity to deliver services under the new models. As with every procurement process, existing providers may not be successful in their tender. Where this occurs, every effort should be made by their current employer and the new service provider to come to an arrangement that ensures clients can engage with quality, experienced staff as they seek to return to employment.

Sitting suspended at 11.22 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.