Fall in unemployment gives Burton some wriggle room

Interview: tackling the high proportion of households with no adult working a priority for Minister

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton: argues that the fall in the number of unemployed people in the State has been partly attributable to a step-change in the way her department is configured.

Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton: argues that the fall in the number of unemployed people in the State has been partly attributable to a step-change in the way her department is configured.

Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 01:00

The recent downward trends in the jobless figures has given Joan Burton what she describes as a “dividend”, a little leeway after three Budgets in which Social Protection - by far and away the biggest spending department - took the brunt of the cuts.

It has allowed her to say with certainty, ten months before the next Budget, that child benefit will not be subject to cuts. It has also given her some space to focus on what she considers a major issue, the high proportion of households in Ireland where no adult is working.

The proportion of homes where nobody was working has been high in Ireland, even during the economic boom, and has risen since then. It was 15 per cent at the height of the boom and rose to 22 per cent by 2012, twice the European average.

The solution, she suggested in an interview with The Irish Times, lies in changing the social welfare system from being a passive institution paying welfare each week to being an organisation focused on job activation, getting people to train, get further eduction, learn new skills, and to get work.

“All the international and national research shows that in jobless households the outcomes can be very poor for future employability,” she said. “ It went up to 22 per cent during the crisis. If you think of those households and the number of children in them where no adult has significant employment on a policy level it is not good.”

Ms Burton noted that notwithstanding cutbacks in other areas, she has increased the budget for family income supplement in recent years and would continue to do so in 2014. The supplement is the weekly tax-free top-up payment for workers on low pay with children. She has argued that the supplement allows families to stay in work and build a better financial future for themselves.

Some €224m was allotted in 2012 and this will increase to €280m in 2014. At present some 40,000 families, with 90,000 children, get paid the supplement.

“In the long run, there is a question around providing a living wage. Our minimum wage is relatively high by EU standards but if you are only getting 10 hours work a week that’s only €100. We really have to address this and move to a concept of a living age, where every family has enough earnings to be able to provide necessities. That’s very important,” she said.

Ms Burton argues that the fall in the number of unemployed people in the State has been partly attributable to a step-change in the way her department is configured. The old social welfare offices which paid out dole and other assistance payments are being increasingly replaced by Intreo offices (the word being a play on “treo”, Irish for “direction”).

Some 43 have been opened by the end of 2013. They provide a range of other services, from group interviews, to one-on-one assessment, to advice on new skills, training and education, to providing a full profile of the person’s education and experience and likelihood of finding work, to alerting clients to job opportunities.

“In the department, we are turning around from being passive to being an active puplic employment service,” said Ms Burton. “I have looked at the system in Sweden and have found their model particualry interesting. It’s based on fairly intensive intervention with the person who is unemployed form the time they sign on.”

According to Ms Burton, the change in Ireland has meant that the first day a person signs on is the first day they begin to go back to work. “In our system you are called to a group interview. It is largely informational letting people know what services are available and how they will be treated.

“There are a range of option around education and training and work experience. There is a service helping with job applications, CVs, interviewing technique and also the availability of community and employment schemes.”

Under the new system, the group interviews are held within two weeks, and shortly afterwards the person gets and individualised appointment with a case officer who discusses the best pathway back to work. Intensive profiling is done to increase the chances of helping the person exit from the live register.

“What we have done is installed modern technology and updated technology which allows us to process applications for jobseekers in a faster and a coherent way.”

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