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Column: The social welfare system is in a state of flux – and it's failing jobseekers

Many unemployed people struggle with accessing the correct information on what they are (or are not) entitled to – and the problem is compounded by misinformation and misdirection within the system, writes Brid O’Brien.

Bríd O'Brien

A STRIKING FEATURE at the recent Annual Delegate Conference of the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU) was a strong sense amongst delegates that local social welfare services are deteriorating. Concerns were raised at an increasing focus within the system on processing numbers rather than providing a good service to unemployed people. Delegates noted that in their area there is a real sense of fear amongst unemployed people of engaging with the system and that unemployed people are not being listened to when they do engage.

One delegated noted that a person has the “Right to have a say in your own life and be heard”; another “That you are an ‘expert’ on ‘you’”; while others urged “the need for encouragement not coercion”.

A state of flux

The system is in a state of flux. Over the past year-and-a-half the Department of Social Protection (DSP) has absorbed FAS Employment and Community Services and the Supplementary Welfare Allowance system previously administered on the Department’s behalf by the Health Service Executive. DSP has started to roll-out a new integrated service called Intreo which brings together employment and entitlement services into a ‘one-stop-shop’. However, this service is not yet nationwide.

In the meantime many unemployed people struggle with accessing the correct information on what they are or aren’t entitled to; what education and training courses are or aren’t available to them; what supports are or aren’t available to them to take-up work. These issues are compounded by misinformation and misdirection within the system.

Unemployed people and groups working with them are not alone in raising these issues. For example, in the recent evaluation of the JobBridge programme by Indecon one the issues raised by employers was people applying to participate in JobBridge when they were not actually eligible to participate in it. Incorrect or misleading information may be inconvenient for employers, however it can be demoralising for people seeking to address their unemployment when their pathway back to work appears to be blocked.

Solutions

A perennial issue is the dissemination of good quality information. New initiatives are announced at the national level but it appears to be a very hit and miss affair – if the staff who need to know about such announcements are indeed aware of them. This issue must be addressed in a systematic way.

Basically, the key contact points between unemployed people and the system must be so designed that they are key information points as well eg the local Social Welfare Office and the local Post Office. The development and maintenance of such points is not without its costs, however misinformation is also costly. Investing now in good information systems will provide better value for money in the longer term.

Information and communications technology clearly have a role to play. However, unemployed people and local groups working on unemployment and other issues have noted that face-to-face contact is also critical to address any issues arising in a timely fashion. A useful alternative tool can be the provision of dedicated phone line supports: this can be particularly important when processes become automated or centralised. However, such tools must be staffed properly and answered promptly.

A ‘lose-lose’ scenario

The increasing focus on activation could be positive if it is undertaken in a constructive manner and has at its core a strong commitment to providing the very best service to unemployed people and others of working age. However, at present the focus appears to be on cutting people for not engaging even if such engagement is meaningless, ie sending people on courses they are already qualified in; sending people on employment programmes that bear no relationship at all to their work or other experience or will improve their prospects of getting a decent job.

It is in no-one’s interest to create a ‘lose-lose’ scenario and Ireland is in danger of so doing: it is imperative that Ireland strives for a ‘win-win’ scenario. To achieve this frontline staff must be trained and supported to provide a first class service. Such training and supports will become even more important as reforms kick-in not only within social protection services but also within training and education provision as SOLAS is established and the new local Education and Training Boards come on stream.

The system’s goal must be to support unemployed people to make informed choices that will improve their prospects of securing employment.

Bríd O’Brien is Head of Policy and Media with the Irish National Organisation of the Unemployed (INOU).

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Bríd O'Brien

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