Financial penalties for jobseekers over lack of engagement rise

Sanctions for jobseekers ‘not engaging’ increased from 1,519 in 2012 to 16,451 last year

Intreo, social welfare office, near Aungier St, Dublin.  Photograph: Eric Luke

Intreo, social welfare office, near Aungier St, Dublin. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Fianna Fáil has described the rise in the number of people who had their Jobseeker’s Allowance cut for lack of engagement with employment services as “worrying”.

The number of sanctions imposed by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection has continued to rise each year since the measures were introduced in 2011.

In the first year of the new penalty rates just 359 sanctions were issued. In 2012, 1,519 sanctions were issued by the department, which increased to 5,325 in 2014 and again to 6,743 the following year. In 2016 the department placed 10,867 sanctions on payments, which rose again by more than 50 per cent to 16,451 last year.

Sanctions can be applied to individuals receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance if they fail to attend meetings with department employment officers, or for failing to take up offers of work, an internship, or training “without good cause”.

If a person is deemed to be “failing to engage”, sanctions include a cut to their benefit payments of up to €44 a week.

For people over 26 years of age, receiving the maximum €198 a week, the penalty represents a reduction in their income by nearly a quarter. The department also has the power to cancel a person’s payments entirely for up to nine weeks.

Worrying

Fianna Fáil spokesman for social protection Willie O’Dea TD said that the “almost exponential rise” in the use of sanctions in the past seven years was “very worrying”. He said the penalties represented a “new dog-whistle style of politics” and should not be used to “stigmatise or belittle” those in receipt of social welfare.

Minister for Employment Affairs Regina Doherty, in response to a parliamentary question from Mr O’Dea, said penalties were “introduced as a means of encouraging jobseekers to engage with activation measures”. She said jobseekers can appeal the decision to cut their payments.

A department spokesman said the rise in the number of sanctions was in part due to a “steady increase” in the number of jobseekers engaging with “employment activation services”.

He said an individual on jobseeker’s payments will receive a verbal and written warning before financial penalties are applied. He added that “penalty rates are lifted as soon as the jobseeker engages in the activation process”.

A spokesman for Social Justice Ireland, the think tank and advocacy organisation, said the growing scale of the sanctions regime was of “serious concern”. He said the increase in the reliance on financial sanctions for failure to engage with department services showed that the assistance programmes “may not be appropriate” in meeting the needs of jobseekers.

Senator Ged Nash said it was important that people out of work were supported and “not threatened and coerced” to upskill, retrain or take up new job opportunities.

Mr Nash, the Labour spokesman for employment affairs, said he had received complaints from constituents about “unrealistic demands and burdens” placed on jobseekers under the current employment support system.