500% surge in penalties for job seekers

There has been a more than 500% increase in only five years in the number of people who have been hit with penalties for not engaging with the Government’s job activation services.

The increase in penalising those on social welfare by reducing their rate of jobseekers’ payments has prompted Fianna Fáil to describe the treatment as akin to Oliver Twist-like conditions in English workhouses.

Department of Social Protection figures show 10,867 people were sanctioned for failing to engage with the job activation schemes last year. That compares to 1,519 last year. The figure has increased every year since and so far 34,030 have been penalised. This year, 5,822 jobseekers have been affected.

Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar says penalty rates were introduced “as a means of encouraging jobseekers to engage with activation measures and co-operate with efforts of the department to assist them in securing employment”.

In an answer to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil’s Willie O’Dea, he said his department is committed to incentivising the take-up of activation opportunities, including sanctions for failure to engage.

“The legislation underpinning the application of penalty rates is provided for in social welfare legislation,” he said. “The application of the penalty provisions can only be applied in specific circumstances and the decision to impose a penalty can only be made by a deciding officer of the department. ”

One of the largest areas where people have faced penalties on payments is under the JobPath scheme. According to Mr Varadkar, of the 95,000 clients who started their engagement period with the service since its inception in July 2015, about 19,000 “non-engagement cases have arisen”.

“However a reduction in jobseekers’ related payments has only occurred in circa 4,000 cases,” he said.

If someone is put on a penalty rate and continues not to meet the conditions, they can be disqualified from the jobseeker’s payment for up to nine weeks. They cannot be disqualified immediately — a penalty rate must apply first for at least 21 days. A person who receives a jobseekers’ benefit of €193 per week, for example, could lose up to €44 from each payment.

Mr O’Dea said the level of sanctions on jobseekers payments has been increasing exponentially. He said those looking for work were facing sanctions for not engaging with activation schemes, however inappropriate the position might be.

“It might cost them as the position is maybe 30km-40km away,” he said. “Or they might be offered an education course in a subject in which they have no interest in pursuing a career.”

He said sanctions and activation should not be linked and that a flexible activation scheme is required as opposed to one one which reminds him of 1830s England and “Oliver Twist in the workhouse”.


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