Over 7,000 on JobPath scheme had welfare pay cut in 2018

Penalties meted out for transgressions including failing to keep an appointment

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty says she is expecting to receive a new report on the effectiveness of the JobPath scheme shortly. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty says she is expecting to receive a new report on the effectiveness of the JobPath scheme shortly. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

More than 7,000 people on the Government’s flagship back-to-work programme, JobPath, had their welfare payments cut as a penalty last year, an increase of more than one-third.

The figure of 7,140 is a 36 per cent increase on the number in 2017, when 5,222 people had a “penalty rate” applied.

Penalty rates, or sanctions, can be applied to jobseekers for a variety of transgressions, including failing to keep an appointment or an “activation meeting” with one of the private companies charged with running the JobPath service.

The companies do not directly decide on a sanction, but the sanction is imposed after the the Department of Social Protection is alerted to matters by the companies.

The department has said the process under JobPath is the same for other State labour market activation programmes. They may receive a sanction for reasons not necessarily related to JobPath.

‘Incredibly contradictory’

However, the use of sanctions has been criticised by employment experts who have conducted research into the JobPath programme. Dr Ray Griffin, a lecturer in Waterford Institute of Technology who has extensively studied JobPath, said that cutting someone’s social welfare was “incredibly contradictory”.

“On the one hand we say these people need support and a financial payment to save them from absolute poverty, and then we withdraw it,” he said. Dr Griffin has previously told the Oireachtas committee on employment affairs that he believes the nature of cutting social welfare payments under JobPath could leave the State exposed to legal action in the future.

“The sanctioners are judge, jury and executioner. There is no sense of proportionality. The natural justice cycle of clear, unambiguous notice, as well as formal warning, representation advocacy and appeal are not intact,” he told the committee last month.

One former JobPath user, who spoke to The Irish Times on condition of anonymity, said the fear of being sanctioned was constant for those on the programme. “One thing is the common denominator in all JobPath participants and that is the fear, the fear [of] doing, saying, questioning anything, because of the threat of losing benefits which means not having enough money to buy food, pay the rent or for utilities.”

“We are all too afraid to go to the ombudsman, to [the department] to complain – we do not have a voice.”

Extremely critical

Research published by Dr Griffin and his colleague Dr Tom Boland has been extremely critical of the programme, arguing that users they have interviewed found that it “actively and capriciously patronised, cajoled, threatened, manipulated and bullied them”.

Speaking yesterday, Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty said she was expecting to receive a new report on the effectiveness of the scheme shortly, which is being carried out in tandem with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The contracts for the programme are due to be renewed this year.

Ms Doherty did not commit to renewing the contracts but said that the Government could not roll out activation measures “on our own”.

“The contracts that we have currently we’re going to honour. They run out for new referrals at the end of 2019 and then continue on for another two years.

Assessing

“What I’m currently doing is assessing and looking at what our activation services should look like for the next generation and thankfully were in a position at the moment now where we have one of the lowest numbers of unemployed and long-term unemployed.”

It emerged this week that emergency talks are under way to secure the future of one of the companies that provides JobPath services after one of its UK parent firms went into administration.